China has been Pakistan’s firmest ally for 60 years – and it is to Beijing that Islamabad looks to counterbalance the influence of western largesse
Pakistan’s special relationship with the United States may have taken centre stage since the attacks of 11 September 2001, but in China it has another enduring great power ally. With Pakistan’s President Zardari returning from a visit of several days to China last week, it is worth considering the country’s other asymmetrical alliance.
China has been Pakistan’s most reliable ally for six decades. Pakistan was quick to recognise China’s communist regime a mere two years after it first came to power in 1949. Ever since, it has looked to the east Asian power to counterbalance its historical reliance on western geopolitical largesse.
After the 1962 war between China and India, the US supplied India for the first time with substantial arms, creating profound disenchantment among the Pakistani military leadership. That disenchantment led Pakistan to seek Chinese military aid.
In the last two decades the economic component of the alliance has taken centre stage. Pakistan has the potential to give China a land link to Middle Eastern energy reserves. A central reason for US involvement in the region is to maintain its global influence at a time when rivals are steadily if slowly emerging. None is larger than China. For China, an added element is developing a regional coalition against an increasingly pro-US India.
Today, the relationship is not so culturally infused. As with so many other countries, China has been happy to develop defence and economic ties with Pakistan while avoiding criticism of its political situation. Perhaps the biggest friction of recent times has been over alleged Pakistan-based Islamist infiltration into China’s restive Xinjiang province, home to the indigenous Uighur Muslim population. That friction prompted a visit by Pakistan’s most powerful Islamist politicians to assure Beijing that they would not stoke Islamist insurgency in China.
Those concerns, however, have proved shortlived. Pakistan has been busy integrating its economy into China, although it has generally been slow going. The much-vaunted deep sea port built in restive Balochistan with the apparent aim of giving a Chinese presence at the mouth of the Persian Gulf has barely scratched its full potential. Expansion of the Karakoram Highway that links northern Pakistan to China seems to have been in development for decades.
Less incremental was the recent announcement that China will sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan. A $2.4bn deal hopes to quench Pakistan’s thirst for energy, and recognition as a responsible nuclear citizen on the world stage.
There are thinly veiled concerns that the agreement could be in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Despite this, the US, on whose words and action so much of western policy in our region is determined, has offered only limited criticisms. This may have something to do with theUS and India deal that would see the former reprocess spent nuclear fuel for the latter, although India got an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group for that purpose.
In Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and most resource-rich province, China has been busy trying to exploit coal, copper, and zinc deposits and gas and oil reserves. The indigenous Baloch population says these ventures systematically disenfranchise them. Pakistan authorities counter claim that, emboldened by countrywide instability and foreign support, Baloch feudal leaders have petulantly demanded ever more royalties. An increasingly brutal insurgency and counterinsurgency has developed around this resource politics. After some sobering experiences involving the kidnapping and murder of its nationals, China has learned to accept the bribery culture that keeps both Pakistani and Baloch tribal leaders happy.
China’s relationship to our region stretches back at least 2,000 to the period when scholars and traders introduced Buddhism from what is now Pakistan to the Middle Kingdom, an episode of history celebrated in Chinese literature and the Monkey TV series. Yet in the intervening centuries, the relationship has not had any major cultural or ideological impact on Pakistan, as noted in a satirical poem by the great dissident poet Habib Jalib.
Like Pakistan’s current robust relations with the US, this is because China-Pakistan relations have largely been dictated by elite notions of the national interest and prestige. China may still be happy to play second fiddle to the US here. But with polls revealing Pakistan’soverwhelmingly favourable view of its northern neighbour and continued western missteps in Afghanistan, the dispiriting reality is that our country is a client of more than one state.
[Published in The Guardian's Comment Is Free website here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/18/pakistan-client-state-china-western-influence]