The much-anticipated visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan finally took place on April 20 after having been postponed in September last year due to the internal political turmoil in Islamabad triggered at the time by Imran Khan. The two- day visit has aroused high expectations and has been preceded by a lyrical article in the Pakistan media authored by the Chinese president wherein he notes: “This will be my first trip to Pakistan, but I feel as if I am going to visit the home of my own brother.”
China’s relationship with Pakistan has a distinctive ‘all-weather’ quality to it and the strategic underpinning to this bilateral was laid in the late 1950s when the Sino-Indian relationship was deteriorating. Pakistan, given its geographical location and innate hostility to India, was perceived by Beijing to be a valuable long-term investment. It is instructive to note that the latent rivalry between Chairman Mao Zedong and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was discernible in the Bandung Conference held in Indonesia on April 18, 1955 – and President Xi will be traveling to Indonesia for the 60th anniversary of Bandung to be held on April 22.
This uneasy and wary Sino-Indian dynamic that flared up in the October 1962 war is now located in the larger southern Asian geo-economic context of the early 21st century and China’s aspirations. The current Xi visit to Pakistan is indicative of the manner in which this bilateral relationship has deepened and the manner in which China seeks to leverage the geography of Pakistan to its benefit. The Xi article dwells on the manner in which his host country is remembered in China and specifically alludes to Pakistan having opened an air corridor for China to reach out to the world in the early years after the 1949 revolution; and more specifically – having “supported China in restoring its lawful seat in the United Nations”.
This UN reference will definitely arouse intense comment in India, given the popular view that it was Nehru who advocated the case of Beijing over Taipei as the legitimate representative of China in the UN Security Council.
Be that as it may, the Xi visit has been heralded by some very ambitious signals about the scale and scope of the assistance that Beijing is planning to unveil on Monday. Development and infrastructure assistance upto a tune of US$46 billion is being hinted at, and this will comprise power generation and transport connectivity in the main. The core is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that envisages a link from the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea all the way to Xinjiang in northwest China. This multi-billion dollar project is expected to be completed in 2030 and, when completed, it will have the potential to radically alter the trade, economic and energy map of southern Asia. It must be added that upto 80 percent of the $46 bn fiscal investment will flow back to Chinese entities engaged in the power and infrastructure projects.
From the Indian perspective, the fact that this proposed route will transit PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) will be a matter of grave concern, given the political overtones such a Chinese investment will generate. This issue will in all likelihood figure prominently in the Narendra Modi visit to Beijing later in May.
The central issue at hand is whether China’s ambitious economic and connectivity imitative can trump or finesse the political and security issues that have progressively contributed to a very complex and tangled triangular relationship that involves China-Pakistan and India.
An unresolved territorial dispute still shadows the China-India relationship and the India-Pakistan contestation over Kashmir is alive in a very visible manner. The fact that Pakistan has unilaterally ceded parts of the composite state of Jammu and Kashmir to China in 1963 has added to the intractability of the issue. Now with a major economic and connectivity project being unveiled by China (the Belt and Road initiative) and the centrality of Pakistan in this regard – India will have to calibrate its responses in a very careful manner.
One fact is irrefutable. If this century is indeed to be an Asian century with China as the pre-eminent economic entity – then the texture of the Beijing-Delhi axis is critical to the realization of this exigency. An India that is suspicious of Chinese intent in South Asia and feels either cornered or boxed-in by Beijing’s covert support to Rawalpindi (the HQ of the Pakistani Army) will degrade, deflect and delay China’s rise.
In short, the China-Pakistan bilateral cannot be pursued as a zero-sum game that will be inimical to India. There is a deeply held consensus in Delhi that Beijing has provided opaque Weapons of Mass Destruction (nuclear weapons and missiles) support to Pakistan and consistently chosen to either ignore or tacitly endorse Rawalpindi’s investment in terror against India as a tool of state policy. This is unsustainable and Beijing’s silence over the release of 26/11 mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi is illustrative of China and terrorism.
For the huge fiscal investment that China is planning to make in Pakistan to be economically viable – the country must be stable and secure, and this is a far cry from the existing reality. If Pakistan is to effectively deal with the growing domestic radicalization and spiral of sectarian violence that has engulfed it – the ‘deep state’ that is complicit in supporting the Islamic right wing and terror groups has to be weaned away from this destructive addiction.
Gwadar in Balochistan is symptomatic of both the strategic opportunity that geography confers and the malignancy of short-sighted political manipulation that the Pakistani ruling elite have engaged in for decades. Xi Jinping’s ambitious plan to invest in a grand land and sea route that would revive the rhythms of the old Silk Route is indeed visionary – but it has to first redress the prevailing ground realities in Pakistan.
The Xi article makes a normative reference to the need for a harmonious neighborhood and observes: “China and Pakistan need to coordinate diplomatic strategies more closely to build a harmonious neighbourhood. Our two countries have common or similar positions on major international and regional issues. It is important that we maintain close communication and coordination to protect our common interests and foster a peaceful and stable neighbouring environment.”
Surely China cannot have a ‘similar’ position with Pakistan/Rawalpindi in relation to terrorism and this contradiction cannot be glossed over. This is the sub-text that will be carried over to the Xi-Modi meeting later in May when the Indian prime minister visits Beijing.
*Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd), is Director of the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org