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Pakistan’s risky China card

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

U.S. President Barack Obama’s bold move in ordering the raid on Osama bin Laden’s secret mansion close to the Pakistan military establishment is in danger of backfiring. Islamic terrorist groups have stepped up their murderous atrocities principally against Pakistanis.

Influential vocal critics are raging against the United States for infringing on Pakistan’s sovereignty in killing bin Laden. There’s even murmuring about a “colonels’ coup” by army dissidents unhappy at their generals failing to stop American interference.

Scared Pakistani political leaders are drawing the wrong conclusions. The enemies of Pakistan are not the Americans — nor India — but terrorists operating in the name of Islamic fundamentalism, plus the politicians themselves in failing to solve urgent domestic economic and social problems. But Pakistan is playing the China card, with potentially perilous consequences for the whole of Asia.

Allied to this is China’s own assertive diplomatic and military behavior as it stretches beyond the traditional confines of the Middle Kingdom. Many commentators have remarked about China’s increased military activity. Vietnam and Japan have already tasted the new saltiness in China’s approach with clashes of naval and fishing vessels, and the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia are all concerned about naval intimidation from China.

China’s military spending has increased rapidly and will be $91.5 billion this year according to its own figures. The respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that China last year spent $119 billion or 2.1 percent of its gross domestic product, putting China second in the global military league, far ahead of the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Japan, all in the $55-60 billion range, but way behind the U.S., whose military spending was $698 billion last year or 4.8 percent of GDP.

Counting military spending accurately is a mercurial task because some countries, especially China, keep sensitive spending off the books. American military experts say that allowing for the secret items and making adjustments for pay levels, the true figure for China’s military spending would be $300 billion a year.

Beijing has persistently pledged that all its intentions are peaceful. Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei even promised recently, “We will not resort to the use of force or the threat of force.”

Part of the problem is perception. Beijing may think it is only showing off its new muscles, but smaller countries see it as bullying. Part of it is that when China thinks it is right, it does not consider rival claims as having merit. When push comes to shove, the military calls the shots, and the comments of any foreign ministry may call to mind that it is a diplomat’s job to lie for his country.

Beijing’s penchant for secrecy does not help its case. It would be natural for a booming power that has to import many essential raw materials, especially oil and energy supplies, to protect them and to have a navy that can assure their safe passage through troubled waters if necessary.

China has been reluctant to admit military ambitions that have long been open secrets: for example its plans to launch an aircraft carrier were only admitted this month. Comments from senior Chinese military, such as, “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians. … We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account,” have also caused concern.

China’s purported attempts to build a “string of pearls” of naval bases around India, never convincingly denied, add to the unease about Beijing’s intentions. Talk by Chinese military officers of building the world’s strongest military and displacing the U.S. as global hegemon, by war if necessary, also raises troubling questions about the balance of power in China between the politicians and the military.

Even so, the way that Beijing expressed support for Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden is troubling. Friendship between the two countries goes back a long way. Pakistan opened the door to resumption of ties between China and the U.S. by permitting Henry Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing in 1971.

More dangerously, China also effectively masterminded Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by giving it 50 kilograms of weapons-grade enriched uranium, tons of uranium hexafluoride for centrifuges and detailed plans of nuclear weapons. The security of those weapons must now be in question after Taliban terrorists last month successfully attacked a Pakistan naval air base in Karachi, claiming revenge for the killing of bin Laden.

Pakistan played its China card after bin Laden’s death, sending prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to Beijing. Premier Wen Jiabao promised that China would be an “all-weather strategic partner” for Pakistan and gifted 50 new JF-17 Thunder multirole aircraft as Pakistan negotiates for new stealth technology aircraft. Defense minister Ahmed Mukhtar disclosed that Pakistan had “asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar” close to the border with Iran.

What has this military hardware to do with Pakistan’s very real problems of a troubled economy, a wretched education system and the active presence of Islamic terrorists who kill hundreds of Pakistanis every week?

Given attested reports of thousands of Chinese troops already in the sensitive regions of Gilgit and Baltistan along the Karakorum highway, supposedly helping Pakistan with new infrastructure projects, it is hard to escape the conclusion that an opportunistic Beijing is using hapless Pakistan to put further pressure on India, and undercut India’s economic miracle by pushing Delhi to spend more on defense.

Meanwhile, the terrorists, still with important supporters in the Pakistan military, have a free ride, security becomes worse, Pakistan’s economy stagnates, and the danger of a tragic mistake increases.

One huge disappointment is that China, building up its military strength to become a political as well as an economic superpower, is merely following the tired old imperial way from the time of the Romans. In the 21st century, can the world afford one nation’s view or domination?

American president and five-star general Dwight Eisenhower, who knew something about frontline soldiering as the victorious supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War, had sobering advice that Beijing would do well to consider. (Washington seems to have forgotten his advice.) Ike said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

China itself has enough problems without wasting billions on the military.

Kevin Rafferty first traveled overland to a hospitable Pakistan and India 42 years ago as the British young journalist of the year.