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Beyond the CPEC

By: Usama Sherazi

Deep-rooted political, economic, and strategic engagements mark Sino-Pak relations which are higher than the Himalayas. These relations date back to the inception of both countries. Pakistan recognized the Chinese revolutionary government and paved the way for Beijing to join the comity of nations when it had unabated opposition globally. Two major critical junctures came in Sino-Pak relations that made the relations deeper. The first was during the Indo-China war of 1962 when Pakistan found the opportunity to further augment the relations by settling its border dispute with China and ceded Aksai Chin, a strategically important area in the Northern Ladakh. Secondly, in 1971, Pakistan acted as a facilitator between Washington and Beijing and arranged US president Richard Nixon’s visit to China. This visit ended China’s international isolation and opened new avenues for its economic and social integration.

Since Pakistan and China signed a multidimensional project the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the relations between the two countries seem to be confined to it. When it comes to managing relations with China, CPEC is taken as a cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. However, the relations between both countries are spread over many other important areas which are often ignored by policymakers, academia, and the intelligentsia.

There are no two opinions that the CPEC is paramount for Pakistan’s economy as well as the strategic benefits attached to it, but aggrandizing it at the expense of other key areas is not a wise strategy. Pakistan should redefine its key national interests owing to the change in global and regional power centres and the advancement of military technologies. Besides CPEC, many areas need to be explored and require the attention of the ruling elite, academia, intelligentsia, and the general populace.

The changing global and regional power dynamics have brought both countries into a strategic partnership. The mounting competition between the USA and China is compelling small states of turbulent regions, especially South Asia, the Middle East, and East Asia to range themselves on one side. Pakistan being locked with India in a conventional enmity needs a balancer in the region and China could best serve its interest. On the other hand, India wants the same support from Washington against Beijing and has joined Washington’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy of Chinese containment. Both China and the USA are using the two South Asian nuclear powers and arch-rivals as pawns to secure their global agendas. Pakistan due to its strategic compulsions joined the Chinese bloc, but it needs to balance its ties with Washington as the growing Indo-US strategic partnership is making the diplomatic and strategic space for it shrink. The US support to India in the nuclear area, BMD development, Navy moderation, and striving to make it a member of NSG (Nuclear Supplier Group) is further widening the conventional asymmetry Islamabad has vis-à-vis India. Pakistan must not turn blind eyes to the Chinese limitations, given its economic engagements with India. To get maximum advantages from both blocs, Pakistan needs to learn from the Indian foreign policy adopted during the Cold War.

The second area where both countries have a convergence of interests is regional peace and stability. China is an economic giant and rising incessantly. Pakistan being its neighbor and strategic partner is also expecting to follow a similar trajectory. Given the shared vision of prosperity and development, both countries need a safe, peaceful, and tranquil region. That is why, since day one, both have maintained a similar stance on the Afghan issue. Peace in Afghanistan is as important for China and Pakistan as it is for the people of Afghanistan whose two generations have grown up in blood and fire. Beijing wants to keep insurgent tendencies away from its tumultuous Xinjiang region while Pakistan also wants to mainstream its border areas which were previously destroyed by cross-border terrorism. Secondly, without a peaceful region, the vision behind the BRI and its flagship CPEC could not be achieved. The successful and efficient implementation of regional connectivity with the Central Asian landmass depends upon peaceful South Asia in general, and Afghanistan in particular.

Thirdly, in the defence domain, both countries have strong and long-term relations. Pakistan has reduced its reliance on the USA and currently, the Chinese share in Pakistan’s arms import is 75 percent. According to a report of SIPRI (Stockholm Peace and Research Institute), China exports 35 percent of its arms to Pakistan. Both countries are cooperating in the production of advanced military technologies, maritime security, military moderation, and their civil nuclear programmes. China is helping Pakistan in building a nuclear triad by providing missile boats and Yuan-class diesel submarines. According to some sources, Pakistan is considering to acquire Chinese J-10 aircraft to counter Indian’s Rafales.

Fourthly, on multilateral forums, both countries share the same vision. China has always supported Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, NSG expansion, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror. Pakistan also reciprocated it by supporting the Chinese “One-China Policy” towards Taiwan and its stance on the South China Sea. Beijing, being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, used its first veto in 1972 to support Pakistan’s stance on Bangladesh and opposed its inclusion in the comity of nations. Later on, it had recognized Bangladesh as Pakistan had done. China consistently blocked the Indian move in UNSC to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Masood Azhar a global terrorist. However, last year, following the Pulwama incident, it had to abdicate from its stance owing to its global commitments and compulsions.

Besides, on major global issues, whether these are climate change, armaments, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation, both countries have always been on the same page. China supported Pakistan on various issues like the membership of the Nuclear Supplier Group. China opposed the unilateral approach of the USA and India for the expansion of the group for Non-NPT states. It declared the Rafael Mariano Grossi formula discriminatory and forced the group members to devise a viable and juristic plan for Non-NPT states. Chinese support to Pakistan is paramount to secure and achieve later key strategic interests.

There are no two opinions that the CPEC is paramount for Pakistan’s economy as well as the strategic benefits attached to it, but aggrandizing it at the expense of other key areas is not a wise strategy. Pakistan should redefine its key national interests owing to the change in global and regional power centres and the advancement of military technologies. Besides CPEC, many areas need to be explored and require the attention of the ruling elite, academia, intelligentsia, and the general populace.

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