Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to visit Pakistan. Reportedly the event is to take place in September this year. «Lull» is a natural thing for summer time that gives an opportunity to reflect on the reasons defining Russia’s policy in the southern part of Central Eurasia. There are most different views on the matter.
For instance, some of my friends among Indian journalists view the anticipated event as kind of «punishment» of India for its «pro-US» foreign policy. I find this explanation too simple, it doesn’t take into consideration the complexity of situation that is going to be even more complicated after foreign troops pull out of Afghanistan.
Then a new geopolitical «equation» will come into being with Pakistan inevitably becoming its central element due to historic reasons and objective geographic conditions. That’s what cannot be ignored while considering in categories the «force quartet» of India, China, Pakistan and Russia that is gradually taking shape. Obviously the «all weather», long ago formed geopolitical association of the Islamic Republic and China will be one of the basic structures this entity is built on.
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Pakistan was one of the first to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950; it remained to be the most steadfast ally of Beijing in the period of the 1960s and early 1970s – the times of China’s relative international isolation. China has been highly appreciating the support providing military, technical and economic assistance to the Islamic Republic including the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology and equipment.
Today some experts predict growing relations between the United States and rival India will ultimately prompt Pakistan to push for even closer ties with its longtime strategic partner, especially taking into consideration that the elite in Pakistan views the partnership with China as a security guarantee for their country.
The military-technical cooperation between Islamabad and Beijing is an axis of bilateral relations that has three dimensions:
– missiles: the armed forces of Pakistan have short – and medium-range missiles that experts say are ‘modifications of Chinese imports;
– combat aviation: The Pakistani Air Force has JF-17 Thunder and K-8 Karakorum China-made aircraft as well as jointly produced interceptor planes in its inventory. The operational Airborne Early Warning and Control radar system is also made in China (1);
– nuclear program: it is supposed that China could have shared with Pakistan the technology critically important for nuclear weapons production.
Besides military-technical cooperation Pakistan and China intensively develop trade and economic ties strongly boosted by the «comprehensive free trade agreement» signed in 2008. According to some estimates the trade between the two countries hovers around $15 billion a year. The cooperation has strategic significance, especially for Pakistan.
The two countries have cooperated on a variety of large-scale infrastructure projects in Pakistan, including highways, development of mineral resources (including gold and copper), major conventional electricity facilities, as well as some nuclear (non-conventional) power projects. One of the most significant joint development programs is the major deep water port complex at Gwadar, located in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan (it has become operational in December 2008).
The port is just 180 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of all globally traded oil is shipped. The facility is of strategic importance for Beijing: first, it enables the Celestial Empire to diversify and secure its mineral resources import routes, second, it provides the landlocked autonomous Xinjiang Uygur Province with access to the Arabian Sea, something quite important for China’s economic security in general.
Formally the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has two major strategic allies – The China People’s Republic and the USA. But in light of the 2011 events the Pakistan’s ruling circles lost trust in the USA placing greater value on China that is routinely called an «all weather friend».
The loss of servility on the part of Pakistani military elite in relation to the USA is a new element of relations, something that makes the «strategic alliance» of the two countries even more shaky. The India-US «nuclear agreement» compounds Pakistan’s distrust of the United States. Pakistan thinks the deal actually excluded India from the non-proliferation regime. To the contrary the China’s decision to build two more nuclear reactors in Pakistan has become a demonstration of mutual trust between the «all weather friends».
Meanwhile, some serous problems darken the bilateral relations. For instance, the Chinese elite is concerned over the increasing level of extremism inside Pakistan, especially the activities of Uighur separatists in the western province of Xinjiang who find a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Chinese (as well as Western) experts think a large number of Uighur militants were enrolled in Pakistani madrassas during the 1980s. They were later called to join the militants acting in Afghanistan – first they fought the Soviet forces and later the U.S. – led coalition that is still fighting the Taliban. Military experts say some of these Uygur mojahedins have returned to China.
Another reason for China’s worries is the more frequent attacks committed by Pakistani radicals against Chinese contract workers (numbering around 10 thousand), especially in the Baluchistan Province in the western part of the country. Concerned about its citizens security and its image in the Muslim world as well as being wary of getting heavily involved in counterterrorism efforts, the official Beijing is encouraging the United States to take the lead here.
In its turn Washington takes into account the growing China’s concern over political Islam intensifying its activities in Pakistan. It views standing up to Muslim radicalism as a long-term alignment of US-China’s strategic interests.
In relation to Pakistan China tries to stick to a strategic course that unites two contradictory goals: 1) the containment of US and India’s geopolitical influence in South Asia; 2) the protection of the Celestial Empire from political extremism coming from Pakistan with the help of strengthening balanced relationship with Islamabad and Delhi and developing good neighborly ties with two «historic competitors».
Partially it explains the 10-12 years old relatively «impartial» policy of China towards the two leading nations of South Asia including the «Kashmir problem.» The China’s compromise position appears to be based on the apprehension of possible «big» (historic) Kashmir’s «demonstration effect» spreading to Xinjiang and Tibet and exacerbating ethno-religious contradictions there. Finally, the strengthening of Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan doesn’t bode well for Beijing.
It’s a long time the Indian political experts have been adamant in their view that China-Pakistan relations have the prime goal of «deterring» India in South Asia. It’s hard to counter the logic but the tendencies that have been seriously influencing the internal politics of China from outside are clearly underestimated here.
The constant destabilizing effect of events in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on the general situation in China is a fact of common knowledge. Moreover, Beijing doesn’t exclude that the «independent Uygur state» supporters acting from Pakistani North-West Frontier Province conduct their activities with the backing from the US and some Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia and other «oil» monarchies of the Persian Gulf.
That’s why Beijing strives to use to its advantage various options to neutralize the political Islam in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, including at state level. (At present the population of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is over 8 million, a radical part of it seeks the establishment of Uygur independent state – «East Turkestan»). New important factors defining the Chinese policy towards Pakistan have appeared.
Andrei VOLODIN, Strategic Culture Foundation
(to be continued)
(1) American military experts are confident that a delay in returning a stealth helicopter hit in the operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden on May 2 2011 is explained by a need of Chinese military for time to get acquainted with the technology of the US rotary-wing aircraft.