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How far will China go?




By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, Oct 03, 2014


Pakistan constitutes one of China’s core interests in regional engagement. Beijing therefore remains committed as well as willing to share ideas on governance in line with “constructive engagement with communities of common destinies”, a new principle that has practically replaced China’s traditional policy of ‘non-interference’ largely out of geo-strategic and commercial reasons. Beijing has embraced this principle to secure its long-term interests in the region as well as to exercise and retain influence in regional and global matters.

Increasingly, this policy implies that Beijing considers normal economic-political relations with neighbours as central to its agenda of economic development, regional trade and security.

The Chinese desire for longer term relations with Pakistan, too, is anchored both in strategic as well as geo-commercial considerations. Pakistan is a crucial link to the so-called economic and energy corridor that China hopes to raise for its future needs. Beijing at the same time worries about the spiraling militancy in Afghanistan, its alarming impact on Pakistan and the continued US presence in Afghanistan under the protective umbrella of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).

Chinese interest in Pakistan therefore stretches beyond the presence of the radical, trans-nationalist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions. The ETIM rejects Beijing’s hold over the western Xinjiang region and espouses an independent Islamic Xinjiang. Most of the terrorist violence in recent months is also blamed on the ETIM, which Beijing believes uses Pak-Afghan territory for its subversive activities.

In this context, Pakistan continues to occupy an extremely crucial spot in the Chinese geo-political calculus.

But, if discussions with the politically well-connected Chinese academics and intelligentia were any indicator, it is only this far China can go.

Despite the history of good, friendly relations with Pakistan, China is development and economy centric – something that could eventually limit Pakistan’s options and deprive it of the so-called strategic advantage in the region.

“The big boss (President Xi Jinpeng) is very keen on expanding bilateral relations but initiative has to come from Pakistan. This interest, however, must not be seen as a constant for very long. Chinese patience may wear thin if Pakistan remains poor in planning, stray in governance and polarized politically,” cautioned a south Asian expert during a Pakistan-China seminar in Beijing.

Islamabad has to come up with credible, well thought out plans and demonstrate its sincerity in implementation, he said, pointing to the absence of any movement on the much-publicized National Internal Security Policy (NISP).

Where is that policy, he asked, and questioned the civilian government’s intent for a comprehensive counter-terror and counter-extremism policy. Some Pakistan watchers in Beijing and Shanghai are also skeptical of Pakistan army’s claims of success in North Waziristan. Just like many foreign diplomats in Islamabad, these commentators liken these claims to “an oversell of Zarb-e-Azb”, the operation launched on 15th June this year.

Most however appreciate that the operation does appear to have degraded TTP, disrupted their nexus with IMU and ETIM, and helped Pakistan army in reestablishing its writ in Waziristan. But what beyond this, where is the long-term strategy, they ask.

Chinese officials – as of now – are still very reassuring as far as India is concerned.

One Chinese described the Indo-China-Pakistan relationship the following way: “Cooperation with India is a necessity while the one with Pakistan it is both sincerity and necessity.”

“Don’t be upset over the postponement of President Xi’s visit,” he said. “Our relationship is above such visits and this should be seen as a blessing in disguise.”

Once Pakistanis stop fighting among themselves, an official said, “the President will come for an exclusive Pakistan-focused visit. But your leaders and officials shall have to put their act together. In the long run, Chinese support is not automatic.”

Such warnings also betray a growing fatigue in Beijing’s ruling circles with lofty Pakistani claims and plans. They would Pakistani leaders to quickly start correcting the course if they want Pakistan to remain relevant to China and its future planning.

“Tell your leaders to be truthful, straight and matter-of-fact. Unless our leaders have a fair assessment of the real situation they will not proactively help Pakistan,” requested an ex Chinese diplomat. “Shun duplicity and hypocrisy that not only obfuscates reality but also upsets Chinese leaders who want to assist Pakistan in coping with its multiple crisis,” said the former diplomat in his message to Pakistani leaders.

Generally, Chinese officials and intelligentsia currently sound very supportive of Pakistan through an unusual intellectual, political and diplomatic offensive. Never before have various organs of the Chinese state, including think tanks, engaged with Pakistan.

At the same time they sound vary of the way Pakistani leaders conduct themselves; pointing to ex President Zardari’s nine visits to China and the exuberant conduct of Sharifs, Chinese say they would love to see this translate into collective benefit for Pakistan. The undertone of this desire is quite suggestive. Pakistani leaders come and plead for projects that may be beneficial either for themselves, their friends or their own regions. Zardari located projects in Sindh, while Sharifs are pressing for initiatives located mostly in Punjab, said the officials.

This sense of helplessness is rooted in the Chinese culture – they never tell others what to do. But do the Chinese hope the self-centred Pakistani leaders would change in favour of collective good and institutional development in Pakistan? They are hoping against hopes, it seems! The Chinese prefer to pursue their goals quietly.

“Ahsan Iqbal was making such noises and accusing Imran Khan of sabotaging potential Chinese investments worth billions of dollars,” remarked a Chinese scholar. “We don’t publicise, we just focus on practically implementing,” he said in an indirect word of advice for Pakistanis.

“Also, tell your leaders to be straight with the Chinese instead of being megalomaniac. If you consider us your friend then be truthful and admit your shortcomings.”

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk