Written by admin on Friday, March 9th, 2018

Selected by Olivier Immig & Jan van Heugten

China and Pakistan: Friends or Not?
SOURCE: The American Interest
Friday, March 9, 2018 (Posted)

These days, China and Pakistan are eager to proclaim a friendship that is “sweeter than honey.” Yet as history shows, the partnership has always been a superficial one.

Centaurus, Islamabad’s hustling and ear-splitting commercial mall, traditionally teems with crowds of hungry Pakistani shoppers, along with the occasional European soul. But over the past year, there has been a strikingly rapid change in its cosmopolitan façade, with a remarkable uptick in the number and frequency of Chinese shoppers. In fact, Centaurus is only a microcosm of a much wider trend: wherever you look in Pakistan these days, you are bound to encounter the Chinese.

There are dedicated Chinese settlements around the country, littered with restaurants selling strictly Chinese food, suitable for a strictly Chinese palate. There are a host of new Chinese cash and carry stores, frequented only by Chinese families and viewed with perplexity by Pakistani locals. Then there are the Chinese beauty salons and of course, Chinese undercover massage parlors, which objectively function as brothels. This is one area where the Chinese have become locally competitive: Pakistani men frequently patronize such establishments, especially the bearded, oversexed mullahs who pass as puritans in public but in private succumb all too easily to the temptations of a scantily clad foreign woman.

On the face of it, this sudden Chinese influx bears the promise of lasting commercial ties between the two countries. The Pakistanis however, seem faintly unsettled at the prospects of more Chinese swamping through their landscape, seeing them as more foreign and culturally remote than the British or even the Americans. Though separated only by the lofty and snow-draped Karakoram skyline, Pakistanis feel that they have nothing in common with the Chinese: Their respective tastes in music, in literature, in sports, and in art of all kinds are remarkably at odds.

By comparison, there is much common ground to celebrate with the British and the Americans. The urbane, English-speaking, passably well-to-do Pakistani households have, for years, had a fondness for American Hollywood. The British, for their part, on the strength of a 200-year colonial honeymoon in Hindustan can claim credit for Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake, Keats, and of course cricket—a sport treated across India and Pakistan with religious passion. English remains an indispensable official language of the subcontinent, and it is imperative for a prospective civil servant to master the language, before even hoping to make the grade in a government organization.

Such cultural closeness has never been apparent with China. Many Pakistanis genuinely believe that the Chinese are a nation devoid of the ability to blend in with new communities, hampered by poor interpersonal skills or a more basic lack of social trust.Many Pakistanis genuinely believe that the Chinese are a nation devoid of the ability to blend in with new communities, hampered by poor interpersonal skills or a more basic lack of social trust. There is virtually no historical precedent for any meaningful cultural exchange between these two great countries.

So what is all this talk of a friendship that is “sweeter than honey” and “deeper than the deepest ocean” really about? If nothing else, it is the concoction of an India-obsessed Pakistani Foreign Ministry and the product of vacuous boardroom meetings, dominated by flashy PowerPoint presentations and statistically insignificant reports.

The recent economic collaboration between the two countries, labeled the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has grabbed headlines around the globe. The announcements are irresistibly grand, adding up to an overinflated, $62 billion package of infrastructure projects, many of them along the mighty Indus River, over a span of more than 20 years.

CPEC is widely predicted to be a game changer for Pakistan that will open up fresh trade routes with China and help to rapidly modernize and turn around Pakistan’s fledgling economy. Furthermore, plans to build a vast network of railway lines, energy pipelines, and special economic zones are said to be underway in Islamabad, with the assistance of Chinese engineers and policymakers.

At the heart of the CPEC ambition lies Gwadar, a promised money-spinning port modeled on Dubai. Once a small-time fishing village, Gwadar is located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and close to the point where the Makran Coastal Highway runs up to Iran. Gwadar was handed over to the Chinese Overseas Port Holding Company in November 2015 on a 40-year lease, with the enduring goal to convert this seemingly parched and uncultivable swathe of rural territory into a tax-free special economic zone, booming with manufacturing sites, extravagant residential palaces, and moneyed businessmen. The more they talk about developing Gwadar, the more uncomfortable Dubai is supposed to get.

Yet however pleasing these headline-making, big-ticket infrastructure projects may sound, the insiders—those tediously absorbed in these projects, and well versed in their finer details—reveal a completely different picture. And history, too, gives plenty of reason to believe that the China-Pakistan commercial and political association is more a publicity stunt than a serious partnership. Policy experts in Pakistan believe that these ambitious commercial pledges from China—stocked with promises of pipelines, ports, energy corridors, railway lines, and transport networks—will never fully materialize in the way they are presented in the media. The bilateral relationship is marred by a number of complexities and is driven mainly by strategic objectives and the persistent desire to contain India. Indeed, it is really the failure to handle India’s growing geo-strategic designs that brought Pakistan and China together in the first place, paving the way for a superficial collaboration that has never run deep.

China and Pakistan’s opportunistic partnership goes back to March 1959, when the Tibetan uprising grew to staggering proportions, forcing Mao Zedong to deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to subdue the unrest in the region. Through credible intelligence, Mao soon discovered India’s hand in stirring the Tibetan guerillas, who had been armed with the help of the CIA. Tensions reached a boil in the early 1960s, when China built a 750-mile long military road linking Xinjiang province with Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet province. The road meandered through a flat plateau in the south of Tibet, 112 miles of which were claimed by Delhi. Mao initially fulminated but then proposed a settlement, which Nehru quite readily and without any reserve rejected. Worse, Nehru in November 1961 pursued a “forward policy” deploying Indian troops across the disputed landscape, which Mao and his senior generals found intolerable. An aggravated Mao then ordered the Chief of the PLA to launch a decisive blow, storming through Indian positions and devastating her army’s morale. A ceasefire was ordered in November 1962. Indian forces were terribly jolted, as they began their long retreat. Nehru was mentally spent.

Three years later, India’s war with Pakistan clearly defined the course that the region’s strategic politics were going to take. The deteriorating India–Pakistan relationship that followed the 1965 war created an atmosphere of great distrust in the region, at a time when Sino-Indian tensions still simmered after their border war. Thus began Pakistan’s long and convoluted alliance with China, based on a mutual recognition of India as their common adversary.

The Pakistanis, led by former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for many years after the Indian conflict, used the Sino-Indian territorial bickering to their advantage. The development of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb was a direct result of this long strategic linkage. Dr. A. Q. Khan, the instigator of Pakistan’s nuclear research, teamed up with leading Chinese nuclear scientists, setting up a state-of-the-art nuclear plant and research center in Kahuta, a lovely green hamlet roughly 30 miles south of Islamabad. Chinese engineers lodged at Kahuta’s palatial guesthouse where together they studied American and Russian bomb designs. There were also regular Islamabad-bound flights from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, bringing in useful material for the bomb. The United States intelligence community knew about Pakistan’s camouflaged nuclear build-up and considered it an irritant, yet they tolerantly looked the other way, given the role of the Pakistan Army in the Cold War alliance forged to contain the Soviets.

Despite this Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation, though, China never declared or boasted of its military alliance with Pakistan, preferring to keep the association as incubated and indifferent as possible. That is why the Chinese have never subscribed to any joint defense pacts or treaties with Pakistan, and never committed its soldiers to Pakistani border brawls with India. When Bhutto proposed a defense agreement to the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1974, it was tactfully and gently brushed off. So although the Chinese have kept the supply of guns, tanks, small arms, rockets, and other ammunition flowing profusely to Pakistan, they’ve drawn a line by publicly declaring that they won’t extend any nuclear umbrella to any state, including Pakistan. This polite indifference towards Pakistan complicates the friendship narrative that the Islamic Republic intermittently brags about.

On the economic front, the relations between the two countries have historically been promising in theory but weak in reality. The great irony of this commercial relationship has been that despite a spate of free trade agreements over the past several decades, bilateral trade has never genuinely taken off. Moreover, Pakistan has never had any comparative advantage over China, as over 75 percent of their trade is composed of Pakistani imports, tipping the trade balance in China’s favour by a huge margin, and putting extra pressure on the Pakistani rupee.

Andrew Small, a leading expert on the Pakistan-China relationship, has argued that their economic ties are underwhelming. There is ample statistical evidence to make the case. Pakistani exports to China in the past fiscal year declined to $1.62 billion. By contrast, imports from China ballooned to a mammoth $10.53 billion, a 123 percent surge over the previous four years. This means that Pakistani bazaars are literally swamped with Chinese goods and a large majority of small and medium enterprises are rapidly going out of work. Worse, the actual financial assistance that China recurrently pledges to Pakistan has never been all that generous. A fact-finding RAND study found that of the $66 billion in aid pledged by China between 2001 and 2011, only 6 percent of it ever came through.

In the light of this history, then, the highly touted announcements about the transformative potential of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor should be treated with due skepticism. It is safe to say that the benefits of these projects to Chinese companies and China’s GNP are far greater than the benefits to Pakistan. Moreover, the actual picture on the ground is inauspicious, as the ability of the Pakistani state to provide a safe passage to Chinese money remains open to question. Scores of Chinese engineers attached to various infrastructure projects have been killed over the past few years by embittered Baloch tribes or by diehard religious zealots, both of whom view China’s expanding influence as another form of foreign occupation that guarantees little prosperity for the local public.

A growing Chinese presence can therefore be either a blessing or a curse for Pakistan. It may prove a blessing, provided Pakistan’s fickle, faithless and corruption-loving leaders can avoid being consumed by their crusade against inborn terrorists and seize the opportunities stemming from a growing Chinese commitment to the region. But it may yet prove a curse, if China continues to view Pakistan through a purely instrumental lens and average Pakistanis continue to resent and reject Beijing’s influence. For now, the future of this much advertised corridor remains deeply mired in uncertainty.


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