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China Heads West By: Robert T. McLean
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, March 02, 2006

The War on Terror has given birth to a renewed American focus on Pakistan as the South Asian nation’s role has become instrumental to the United States in its operations in Afghanistan and in its overarching aspiration to destroy al Qaeda and Taliban remnants.  However, China has maintained a close partnership with Pakistan since shortly after its independence in 1947.  The extent of the relationship between Beijing and Islamabad was highlighted last week with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to China.  As military and economic cooperation grows, the United States may soon find that they cannot match the “all weather friendship” offered by Beijing.

On February 20 in Beijing, President Musharraf expressed his desire that the “Chinese side can fully use Pakistan’s geographic advantages and use Pakistan as a trade and energy corridor in the region.”  This should not be mistaken for the normal diplomatic exchange of invitations and complements, nor should it be dismissed as futile. The fact of the matter is China is expanding its military and economic cooperation with Pakistan in an endeavor to establish a strategic foothold in the gateway to the Middle East.

China and Pakistan have recently cooperated in developing and manufacturing the JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft which the Pakistani daily Dawn described as “on par with the world’s most advanced light fighter jets.”  As Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangehuan told Musharraf on February 22, he hopes his country is will expand defense production and development with Pakistan.  The Defense Minister also expressed his desire to increase cooperation in military training and conduct joint military exercises. 


The relationship is reaching such a stature that, according to the Lahore based Daily Times; Pakistani Information Minister Rashid Ahmad proclaimed in his recent trip to Beijing that “Pakistan will stand by China if the US ever tries to ‘besiege’ it.”  With this virtually unreported commitment, Pakistan seems ready to join China in its increasingly dangerous Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  The SCO is a six member alliance headed by Beijing and Moscow, and together with its Central Asian members, the organization is becoming an expanding adversary to the United States and its allies. 


On his recent trip to China, Musharraf placed attaining full member status in the SCO – Pakistan is currently an observer to the organization – right at the top of his agenda.  The Pakistani president told his Chinese counterpart that the two nations should work together to combat the “three forces” of separatism, terrorism, and extremism. These are the stated goals of the Shanghai alliance and Chinese president Hu Jintao expressed his willingness to champion Pakistan’s inclusion in the organization. 


Beyond the developing military partnership, a rising economic relationship between the allies is occurring.  Trade between Pakistan and China increased by forty percent last year to reach 4.26 billion dollars.  Pakistani State Minister for Foreign Affairs Khusro Bakhtiar noted that by the end of 2010, trade will double between his country and China. 


Additionally, China is assisting Pakistan with its civilian nuclear program.  This has been one area where the United States has been reluctant to engage as Musharraf has been seeking civilian nuclear technology from Washington following the Bush administration’s agreement to provide India with assistance in the field.  Meanwhile, Beijing is aiding in the construction of a nuclear power station at Chashma in Pakistan’s Punjab province.  As Pakistan continues to move toward nuclear energy, China will be expected to provide support.


However, the expanding partnership is clearly advantageous to Beijing as well.  Pakistan is geopolitically important to the Chinese leadership as it continues to seek global influence and broad support in the international community.  China’s official news service Xinhua quoted Chinese president Hu Jintao during Musharraf’s visit to Beijing on February 20 stating: “We appreciate the support Pakistan has given China on Taiwan and other issues.  We will, as always, back the efforts Pakistan has made to safeguard state independence and sovereignty.”  With regards to Taiwan, the Musharraf government has been a staunch ally of Beijing.


Pakistan has long supported the mainland’s one China policy and has maintained recognition of the Peoples Republic of China since 1950.  Thus, the alliance between Beijing and Islamabad is nothing new, but China’s ability to use Pakistan as a geopolitical tool has become increasingly evident with the end of the Cold War and the current War on Terror.  In China’s major foreign policy objectives of creating a “multipolar world” and isolating Taiwan internationally to facilitate an easy reunification, Pakistan has the potential to play a key role. 


On February 28 - the very day U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte was telling members of the Senate that China is poised to become a superpower – tensions escalated between Beijing and Taipei after Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian abolished his government’s National Reunification Council.  This prompted the Chinese government to respond that Chen’s actions “will only lead Taiwan[‘s] society a step closer to disaster.”  It is important to note that when considering the prospects for a reunification in which the PRC maintains control, it appears that Pakistan will become essential in winning over the international community.  This is already taking place as Pakistan strongly sided with Beijing in May 2005 in denying Taiwan observer status in World Health Organization. 


More noteworthy was the September 15 meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in which Taipei sought “a proactive role by the UN in maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait.”  While Taiwan also proposed and failed to achieve a seat on the UN General Assembly, they hoped to keep the two issues separate as to give a better chance for passage of the Taiwan Strait issue.  However, Pakistani representatives were able to convince the body to merge the two proposals, and after a debate period in which the proposals were discussed – Pakistan joined China in the two-on-two debate – Taiwan’s proposals were excluded from the agenda.


A development of enormous geostrategic significance – and transparently an attempt by China to establish a “multipolar world” – has been the joint construction of the port of Gwadar in Pakistan.  The port is located at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman near the strategically important Strait of Hormuz.  Forty percent of the world’s oil passes through this potential chokepoint, and the port gives China direct access to the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean.  In a recent interview to China Daily, Musharraf stated: “We are interested in setting up a trade and energy corridor for China.”  The port will also give the landlocked Central Asian states of the SCO access to the Arabian Sea for commercial shipping purposes.  But it is not just trade issues that make the port construction vital to both Beijing and Islamabad.


Security issues play just as an important role here as economic issues.  Musharraf recently noted that Pakistan would benefit from China’s involvement in the port because “as and when needed, the Chinese Navy would be in Gwadar to give befitting reply to anyone.”  The New Delhi Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, an independent think tank with ties to the Indian ministries of Defense and External Affairs, expressed deep apprehension about the implications of the Gwadar Port Project.  A piece by Rajeev Ranjan Chaturedy for the think tank entitled “Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy at Gwadar” warned: “The involvement in the Gwadar project manifests China’s attempt to influence developments far beyond its borders to sustain its security interests and enhance its force-projection capabilities.”  In other words, Beijing will now have the ability to substantially influence events in both the Middle East and the ever-important Indian Ocean. 


Chaturedy explained that the Indian Ocean is an area where China will become increasingly involved as it looks to expand its regional and global authority.  He writes: “Through this port, Beijing can aspire to exercise considerable influence in the region, and also monitor US naval activity in the Persian Gulf, Indian activity in the Arabian Sea, and future US-India maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean.”  The Gwadar Port Project is not only strategically important for the region, but it also is representative of the growing military and economic ties between Pakistan and China.  As President Musharaff said, “We will make this port a symbol of friendship between Pakistan and China.”

Beijing and Islamabad have maintained close relations for fifty-five years and that does not appear likely to change anytime soon.  With increasing military, economic, and political cooperation between the two states, a traditional alliance is brewing that is likely to leave the United States wondering what went wrong.  The port of Gwadar is only going to bring China and Pakistan closer and strengthen their standing both in the region and globally.  Current and future administrations must labor to keep Pakistan as an essential ally in the War on Terror.  However, they must also be prepared for the entirely possible eventuality that one day Pakistan may not be an ally at all.

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Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

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