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Pakistan's Triangle of Ties

Pakistan's Triangle of Ties: Islamabad's relations with both China and the US are increasing misgivings on all sides

China is clearly using Pakistan as a pawn to further its own dreams of dominance. The US is far from pleased at this. How can India manage a situation that is both delicate, and volatile?


 |  7-minute read |   15-06-2019



The vision of a ‘naya’ (new) Pakistan, enunciated by Prime Minister Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, faces seemingly insurmountable challenges. The PTI government inherited poor relations with India, continuing conflict along the Af-Pak border, intractable internal security challenges, a failing economy with a huge external debt and a steady souring of relations with the US.

It also faces the possibility of a dent in its relations with China.

By accommodating and promoting the geostrategic interests of China and the United States in Southern Asia over several decades, Pakistan made itself virtually indispensable to both. However, the Trump administration is unwilling to countenance the Pakistan army’s doublespeak and has drastically curtailed military aid. And, in a bear hug which the Pakistanis did not see coming, China has entangled the country in a web of debt through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China intends to make CPEC the flagship project of its ambitious ‘belt and road’ initiative (BRI) for the geopolitical and economic domination of Asia.

Pakistan-China relations and the CPEC

The China-Pakistan relationship — called an ‘all-weather friendship’ — has been variously described as ‘higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey.’ China has provided nuclear warhead technology and ballistic missiles to Pakistan. The two countries also have a close relationship in jointly manufacturing military hardware, including fighter aircraft and main battle tanks. Pakistan’s support has been a major factor in China’s quest for the strategic encirclement of India — the relations between the two have deepened further with the CPEC beginning to take shape, even though apprehensions are emerging regarding the feasibility and likely benefits of the project.

All-weather friendship: Pakistan and China's relations have deepened since the CPEC. But for how long will this last? (Photo: Reuters)

Passing through disputed territory in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), the $62 billion CPEC project will link Xingjian Province of China with Gwadar port on the Makran Coast, west of Karachi. However, doubts have been expressed regarding the economic viability of using Gwadar as a warm water port by mainland China. Funds for this ambitious project will be provided by China both through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and by way of direct government-to-government soft loans.

To help China to recover its capital investment in the Gwadar port complex, for example, it will get 91% share of the revenue from the operations of the port and the terminal, and 85% of the revenue generated by the free zone.

Under this arrangement, though the port is expected to handle one million tonnes of cargo annually, the impression in Pakistan is that benefits will accrue mainly to the Chinese — also, there are misgivings within Pakistan regarding the debt trap that the huge investment in CPEC will result in. The Pakistani elite are no doubt watching the disaster that the developments in Hambantota Port and international airport have been for Sri Lanka. (China has taken over de facto possession of the port and the airport at Hambantota as Sri Lanka is unable to repay its debt).

Resentment against CPEC in Balochistan

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province — but has the lowest population (13 million) and is the least developed. The Baloch people never quite accepted the forcible merger of their province with Pakistan soon after independence from the British in 1947. Since then, there have been several uprisings in Balochistan. The current struggle of the Baloch people against Pakistani subjugation dates back to 2005. The ethnic Baloch people say they have been marginalised by the government and deprived of their rights. For over six decades, Pakistan has extensively exploited the rich mineral resources of Balochistan. The government of Pakistan does not pay them any royalty or give them what they consider their due share of the revenues generated from the mines.

Due to the lack of transmission lines, electricity supply to Balochistan is the lowest of all the provinces.

The Baloch Insurgency: The Baloch are in no mood to give up their resources for the enrichment of China. (Photo: Reuters)

China is also extremely concerned about the safety and security of its workers engaged in construction work in the CPEC projects. Accepting responsibility for an attack on construction workersnear Gwadar in which 10 labourers died in May 2017, Jeander Baloch, the BLA spokesperson, said in a statement, "This conspiratorial plan (CPEC) is not acceptable to the Baloch people under any circumstances." Baloch independence movements have made it clear several times that they will not abandon their people's future in the name of development projects or even democracy. Chinese workers have also been targeted. Three Chinese workers were injured in an attack in Baluchistan on August 11, 2018.

Though Pakistan is raising a Special Security Division comprising approximately 15,000 personnel to provide security for the CPEC against terrorist attacks, the construction of a dam by the Chinese in Gilgit-Baltistan has shown that eventually PLA soldiers are inducted for this purpose — the presence of PLA personnel in Pakistan in large numbers will further vitiate the security environment in South Asia.

Pressure on Pakistan to act against the Taliban

US and Pakistani interests coincided during the war against communism and Pakistan was invited to join both the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and The Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). Pakistan was instrumental in facilitating the initial approach in America’s policy to open up to China. The US has been a major supplier of modern weapons and military equipment to Pakistan including F-16 fighter aircraft. These were provided ostensibly for counter-insurgency operations and to support the Pakistan army to maintain stability against a Jihadi takeover of the country. In the last decades, military aid was also given to encourage Pakistan to act against the Afghan Taliban.

However, Pakistan failed to act decisively.

Talk to the Hand: Under Donald Trump, US aid to Pakistan has gone from $33 billion in 2002 to $150 million in 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

As had been widely anticipated, President Trump put Pakistan on notice for encouraging terrorist organisations to destabilise neighbouring countries. He blamed Pakistan for harbouring “safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” Trump told Pakistan that it has “much to gain” from partnering with the US but also warned the country that “it has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists.”

The US has provided security assistance worth approximately $33 billion to Pakistan since 2002 — in the budget for 2018, this has been reduced to $150 million. Most recently, the US has drastically cut the participation of Pakistani officers in training programmes. Also, the US has warned the IMF not to approve a new bailout package Pakistan as new loans will be used to repay Chinese debt.

Estrangement with the US is likely to further propel Pakistan into Chinese arms. Russia too is waiting in the wings to exploit the emerging situation to its advantage. It has begun to provide military equipment to Pakistan and has even offered to train Pakistani officers to fill the gap created by the restrictions imposed by the Pentagon. Iran, which too is facing tougher US sanctions, has invited Pakistan to join hands for the development of Chabahar Port to provide a new route to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics — a project in which it has a major stake.

Collective security

In China’s plans for CPEC and hegemony in Asia, Gwadar is an important foothold that is part of its ‘string of pearls’ strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

If Gwadar Port is converted into a naval base sometime in the future, it will enable the PLA Navy to maintain a permanent presence in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman — both China and Pakistan view the development of Gwadar Port as a win-win situation.

China's dream: Gwadar Port will enable the PLA Navy to maintain a permanent presence in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. (Photo: Reuters)

However, the new challenge posed by China in the Indo-Pacific is unlikely to go uncontested — the US has renamed the Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. In November 2017, senior officials of Australia, India, Japan and the US, meeting on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines, agreed that a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific regionserves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large.” This development led to speculation that the idea of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also called the Quad) is being revived after a hiatus of ten years.

Though India does not at present favour a formal security arrangement, the Quad’s discussions for cooperative security are likely to eventually lead to strategic realignment for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

With its growing investment in infrastructure projects in Pakistan and increase in the number of its citizens on Pakistani soil, China will have a greater stake in regional peace and stability and could, if it so desired, play a positive role to help resolve a future crisis — however, in view of its recent track record in the South China Sea, its handling of the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and its failure to intervene effectively to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it is doubtful whether China will actually do so.


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