Known for being tight-fisted about giving financial grants, while making long-term promises of investments, China has just (July 16) pledged to provide $10 million to Pakistan for the rehabilitation of people displaced due to military operations in the restive tribal region.
While signing an agreement for the special grant, Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong said his country “firmly supports the efforts of Pakistan to safeguard its national security and the Chinese side will continue to provide assistance within its capacity for the reconstruction and livelihood improvements of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)."
FATA is where Uighour tribals from China’s Xinjiang province fighting the government are being sheltered, funded and trained. Beijing is not oblivious of this, but wants to retain leverage with Islamabad.
This is but a miniscule part of the Chinese plan to keep Pakistan under its wing to be able to gain access to the Indian Ocean via Karachi and the Gwadar port, something which worries the West, but has clear security implications for India.
China is also doing all this to be able to play a decisive role in Afghanistan from where the war-weary West has withdrawn its forces. China is interested in Afghanistan’s mostly untapped natural resources and is using Pakistan as its front-man. The Sino-Pak collusion in Afghanistan is complete, and this part of the larger team work to impact the whole of South Asia.
While China is the larger, long-term gainer, the immediate gains are for Pakistan vis a vis both neighbours it considers ‘hostile’ – Afghanistan and India. The two also look forward to work together in the whole of Eurasia. This was clear from the recently concluded summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organistion (SCO), which is essentially a security grouping. India had been seeking SCO’s membership for long, but it got it only along with Pakistan. This was ensured by China.
Both China and Pakistan view India with great suspicion, now that it is being led by a tough-talking, tough-acting Narendra Modi. Behind the benign smiles exchanged with him, be it at Ahmedabad last year, or in Beijing this year or at Ufa in Russia during the SCO Summit, Xi Jinping ensured an India-Pakistan parity and has qualified everything done for or with India with the Pakistan factor.
It is well-known that China played behind the scene to scuttle the candidature of Shashi Tharoor for the UN Secretary General’s office some years ago. And while it wants India to play larger role at the UN, China has indirectly got Pakistan to oppose India’s candidature for the UNSC – or just anything India does or aspires for.
The latest report is that China has done a U-turn of a kind on India’s seeking membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). Xi Jinping had promised to support India earlier, but has not bracketed Pakistan with India. Xi knows well that Pakistan, with a record of being a rogue nuclear nation, of having engged in nuclear proliferation, will never get accepted on the NSG. But this can block India’s membership of the 48-member group.
A joint statement issued during Modi’s visit to China in May had, for the first time, mentioned that Beijing had taken note of India’s NSG aspirations. “The Chinese side took note of India’s aspirations to become a member of the NSG, in a bid to strengthen international non-proliferation efforts,” the joint statement had said. For India, this was a welcome change from the known Chinese position on the issue.
However, according to various official accounts, Xi responded in a “non-committed fashion” when Modi broached the issue during their nearly 90-minute-long meeting at Ufa. Xi is said to have told Modi that “Pakistan is also in talks with us”.
It is clear that China is using Pakistan to counter India’s proximity to the USA because it is also competing with the USA for influence in South Asia.
It is significant that Xi’s trip to Pakistan in April this year saw China committing $ 46 billion investments, as part of this power play. The money is meant for Pakistan’s energy and infrastructure spending, much of it devoted to a network of roads, rail and pipelines linking the Pakistani port of Gwadar to China’s far western Xinjiang province.
China also looks set to build the Pakistani half of a long-delayed natural-gas pipeline to Iran. The infrastructure projects are central to Xi’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” plan to connect China by land and sea to the Middle East and Europe.
Xi's plan is for a China-centered Asia. Past Chinese pledges of aid to Pakistan haven’t always materialized. But now China has strong incentive to ensure its projects go smoothly, which will demand Pakistan finally establish long-term security in some of the country’s most unsettled areas, including the restive province where Gwadar is located. Pakistani officials have already talked of establishing a 12,000-strong security force to protect Chinese construction crews.
However, whether Pakistan will be able to keep its part of the deal is in serious doubt, going by past performance. China is helping Pakistan very much aware of Pakistan’s unsavory behavior. But now the situation is different.
Having made the commitment and the move, China has entered the Afghan scene – for the first time – with peace talks that are making some headway, as evident from the talks in Muree, Pakistan recently.
China has offered to mediate peace talks with the Taliban and pressured their Pakistani sponsors not to play the spoiler in Afghanistan. To the extent it succeeds, china would be marginalizing, if not replacing, the US and the West.
There is no denying that China wants to leveage Pakistan to prevent it from helping Uighours who have engaged in a flurry of attacks in Beijing and other Chinese cities.
The India factor is strong. China’s arms sales and aid for Pakistan’s civilian and military nuclear programs are clearly intended to keep pressure on India, which has also been seeking a larger role in Asia. Helping Pakistan to develop a sea-based nuclear capability or to deploy tactical nuclear weapons could destabilize the subcontinent. That instability could make smaller South Asian nations to turn to China for military aid.
At the same time, Chinese support for Pakistan’s military modernization efforts is long-standing. There’s little reason for any other stake holder in peace in the region to expect to change the pattern.
In theory, when China favors closer economic ties between Pakistan and India, it wants that their strategic competition is balanced by a healthier economic relationship -- much like China’s own relationship with the U.S. However uncomfortable that dynamic can be, again, it is a pattern that is unlikely to change.
All said and done, it will not be long before China realizes that it has been all along siding with and funding a country which has nothing but terrorism to offer.