The Sino-Pakistan relationship remains fundamentally asymmetrical: Pakistan wants more out of its ties with China than China is willing to offer. Today, when Pakistan’s domestic problems are gargantuan, China would be very cautious in involving itself even more, says Harsh V Pant.
There is something not quite right about an inter-state bilateral relationship when words such as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight and sweeter than honey” are used repeatedly to describe it. No other relationship depends so much on flowery language to underscore its significance as the China-Pakistan does.
Much like his predecessors in recent times, Nawaz Sharif also made his maiden trip as Pakistan’s prime minister to China where at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sharif said his welcome “reminds me of the saying, our friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey.” Chinese President Xi Jinping, in response, referred to Sharif as an old friend and a good brother, said strengthening strategic cooperation with Islamabad was a priority for China's diplomacy.
A number of agreements were signed between the two sides during this visit including a long term plan related to the upgradation of the Karakoram highway as part of a proposed economic corridor between the two countries, and agreements on technology, polio prevention and solar housing. A $44 million project was also agreed to by the two countries to erect a fibre optic cable from the China-Pakistan border to Rawalpindi aimed at giving Pakistan more connectivity to international networks.
Sharif, in particular, lobbied with the Chinese companies to invest in the Pakistani power sector. More interesting was an agreement for cooperation between Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Communist Party of China underlining how nimble China can be in tilting its foreign policy to the political dispensation of the day.
The Pakistani government has suggested that Sharif’s visit will be helpful in transforming traditional foreign policy into economic diplomacy to give new boost to trade and economic relations with neighbours as well as laying a foundation of new strategic economic cooperation between both the countries benefitting not only the two countries, but leading to the integration of all economic engines of the region. Whether India is part of this grand thinking, however, remains to be seen.
To show China how seriously it is taken in Islamabad, Sharif has introduced a ‘China cell’ in his office to speed up development projects in the country. This cell will supervise all development projects to be executed with the cooperation of Chinese companies in Pakistan. This is an attempt to address Chinese concerns about the shoddy state of their investment in Pakistan because of the lackadaisical attitude of the Pakistani government. Meanwhile, Beijing too needs political and military support of the Pakistani government to counter the cross-border movement of the Taliban forces in the border Xinjiang province.
Expected to cost around $18 billion, the Pakistan-China Economic corridor will link Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea and Kashghar in Xinjiang in northwest China. India has been left protesting even as China has continues to expand its presence in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and now with plans to develop a special economic zone in Gwadar, there is a danger that India’s marginalisation is only likely to grow.
At a time when Pakistan is under intense scrutiny for its role in fighting extremism and terrorism, the world has been watching with interest to see how China decides to deal with Pakistan. China was the only major power that openly voiced support for Pakistan after Osama bin Laden's assassination. Then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao affirmed that “Pakistan has made huge sacrifices and an important contribution to the international fight against terrorism, that its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity must be respected, and that the international community should understand and support Pakistan's efforts to maintain domestic stability and to realise economic and social development.” Wen went on to state that China would like to be an "all-weather strategic partner" and will do its best to help the Pakistani government and people get through their difficulties.
To underscore its commitment, China agreed to immediately provide Pakistan with 50 new JF-17 Thunder multi-role jets under a co-production agreement, even as negotiations continued for more fighter aircraft including those with stealth technology. Despite this, Pakistan wanted more from China -- underscored by its expressed desire to have China take over the operation of Gwadar port.
Pakistan had suggested that the port could be upgraded to a naval base for Chinese use. China, however, immediately rejected this offer, not wanting to antagonise the US and India with the formal establishment of a base in Pakistan though earlier this year, Chinese government-owned China Overseas Port Holdings Ltd decided to purchase control of Gwadar port from Singapore’s PSA International, which had won the contract in 2007 to operate the port for 40 years. And with this, operational control of the strategic deep-water Gwadar port has gone to China.
The Sino-Pakistan relationship remains fundamentally asymmetrical: Pakistan wants more out of its ties with China than China is willing to offer. Today, when Pakistan’s domestic problems are gargantuan, China would be very cautious in involving itself even more. Moreover, the closer China gets to Pakistan, the faster India would move in to the American orbit. Amid worries about the potential destabilising influence of Pakistani militants on its Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China has taken a harder line against Pakistan. The flow of arms and terrorist from across the border in Pakistan remains a major headache for Chinese authorities and Pakistan’s ability to control the flow of extremists to China at a time of growing domestic turmoil in Pakistan would remain a major variable.
As the western forces move out of Afghanistan by 2014, Beijing is worried about regional stability and is recognising that close ties with Pakistan will not make it safer as recent troubles in Xinjiang have once again underscored. But officially, the two states will continue to view each other as important partners, especially as India’s rise continues to aggravate Islamabad and cause anxiety in Beijing.