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Home > India > News > Columnists > B Raman

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Taliban shadow over Zardari's China visit

October 15, 2008

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President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan is on an official visit to China. Thereafter, he will be attending the Asia Europe Summit, which is being hosted by China this year, before returning home. He is to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] on the margins of the summit for bilateral discussions during which he is expected to take up, inter alia, Pakistani allegations of a decrease in the supply of  water from the Chenab river by India.

There have been complaints in Pakistan that its farmers have been affected because of the  alleged diversion of the waters by India to fill up the reservoir of the Baglihar hydel power station in Jammu and Kashmir [Images], which was inaugurated by Manmohan Singh last week.

The fact that Zardari's first bilateral visit as the President has been to China has been highlighted by spokesmen of both the countries as indicative of the continuing importance attached by Pakistan to its relations with China. Zardari has said he intended visiting China every three months to learn from the Chinese development experience.

Pakistan's efforts to have the two Chinese engineers kidnapped by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan on August 29, 2008, released before Zardari's visit have not succeeded. These engineers are believed to be in the custody of the TTP in the Swat valley of the North-West Frontier Province  They were working in a project of a Chinese mobile telephone company in Dir district of NWFP. The TTP has been demanding, inter alia, the release of its members in the custody of Pakistan. The Pakistani authorities have not agreed to this. Nor have they been able to mount an operation to rescue them.

This incident, coming in the wake three other instances last year of  targeted attacks on Chinese nationals working in Pakistan, have added to the concerns of the Chinese authorities regarding the security of their personnel working in Pakistan. This is one of the subjects the Chinese are expected to take up with Zardari.

Of major interest to Pakistan is the possibility of Chinese assistance in helping Pakistan acquire a waiver of the restrictions on nuclear trade with it by the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, similar to the waiver granted to India by the NSG at the instance of the US on September 5. Before the visit of President Hu Jintao to India and Pakistan in November 2006, the then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf [Images] had taken up with China the question of Chinese assistance for the construction of more nuclear power stations in Pakistan.

China has already supplied one 300 MW nuclear power station to Pakistan named Chashma I. This is already functioning. A second power station named Chashma II, also of 300 MW, is presently under construction. The NSG restrictions did not apply to them. It has reportedly agreed in principle to supply two more to be named Chashma III and IV, provided the NSG grants a waiver to Pakistan from the restrictions. Zardari is expected to discuss with the Chinese the adoption of the same procedure as was followed by the US and India, with China taking the initiative for getting a waiver from the NSG.

The problem will be whether the US would be willing to support a waiver in view of Pakistan's continuing unwillingness to allow the interrogation of Dr A Q Khan, its nuclear scientist involved in nuclear proliferation to North Korea, Iran and Libya, by a team of investigators of the International Atomic Energy Agency at Vienna [Images].

The other major issue that would come up for discussion relates to the Gwadar commercial port on the Makran coast in Balochistan constructed by China and already handed over to Pakistan. Musharraf was keen that the Chinese should construct a petrochemical complex at Gwadar and a gas pipeline and a railway line connecting Gwadar with the Xinjiang province of China. The idea was this would enable China to use the port for its external trade from western China and also get some of its gas tankers to Gwadar and from there have the gas taken by the proposed pipeline to Xinjiang.

It is more than a year since the Gwadar port was commissioned by Musharraf. Its performance has been disappointing. It has been reported that only one ocean-going ship used it during its first year. The poor security situation in the area due to the activities of the freedom-fighters of the Baloch Liberation Army and the failure of the Pakistani engineers to construct in time the road and other infrastructure connecting Gwadar with the rest of Pakistan have come in the way of the port taking off. The expectations that some of the ocean-going trade could be diverted from Karachi to Gwadar have been belied so far. Shippers and businessmen continue to prefer Karachi in spite of the delays in cargo handling because of the better security situation there and the better infrastructure connecting Karachi with the rest of the country.

Till now, the Chinese have not shown much enthusiasm for the proposals for the construction of a petrochemical complex, a pipeline and a railway line. One reason for their lack of enthusiasm is the poor security situation in Balochistan. Another reason is the poor security situation in Xinjiang due to the activities of the Uighur militants. Till the security situation improves in Xinjiang, the Chinese are reported to be not too keen to encourage too much trans-border movement with Pakistan.

Moreover, it has been reported that the Chinese have not been convinced of the economic viability of these proposals. In the meanwhile, Pakistan has been trying to make the Chinese take an interest in the extension of the proposed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline to Xinjiang, if India continues to drag its feet on the project.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi [Images], and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com)


B Raman



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