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‘All-weather’ friendship has its own rainmaker

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

There is something not quite right about an interstate 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 does the one between China and Pakistan.

Much like his predecessors in recent times, Nawaz Sharif in early July made his maiden trip as Pakistan’s prime minister to China where, at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, he said his welcome reminded him of the words “our friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey.”

In response, Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to Sharif as an old friend and a good brother, and said that strengthening strategic cooperation with Islamabad was a priority for China’s diplomacy.

A number of agreements were signed between the two sides during Sharif’s visit, including a “long-term plan” related to the upgrade of the Karakoram Highway as part of a proposed economic corridor between the two countries, as well as agreements on technology, polio prevention and solar housing. The two countries also agreed on a $44 million project to erect a fiber-optic cable from the China-Pakistan border to Rawalpindi, aimed at giving Pakistan more connectivity to international networks.

Sharif lobbied with Chinese companies to invest in Pakistan’s power sector.

More interesting was an agreement for cooperation between Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and the Communist Party of China. It showed how nimbly China can tilt 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 a new boost to trade and economic relations with neighbors and in laying a foundation of new strategic economic cooperation between both countries, leading to the integration of all economic engines in the region. Whether India will be part of this grand thinking 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 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 Taliban forces in the border province of Xinjiang.

Expected to cost around $18 billion, the “Pak-China Economic corridor” will link Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea with Kashghar in Xinjiang, northwest China. India, meanwhile, is left protesting as China continues to expand its presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Amid plans to develop a special economic zone in Gwadar, there is the danger that India’s marginalization will only 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 American forces assassinated Osama bin Laden.

During the visit of the Pakistani prime minister, 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 realize economic and social development.”

Wen went on to say that China would like to be an “all-weather strategic partner” and to strive to help the Pakistani government and people 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. Pakistan wanted more from China — underscored by its express desire to have China take over the operation of Gwadar Port and upgrade it to a naval base for Chinese use.

China, however, immediately rejected this offer so as not to antagonize the U.S. and India with the formal establishment of a base in Pakistan. 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. With this purchase, 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, amid Pakistan’s gargantuan domestic problems, China will probably be very cautious about involving itself further. And the closer China gets to Pakistan, the faster India will move into the American orbit.

Amid worries about the potential destabilizing influence of Pakistani militants on its Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China has taken a harder line against Pakistan.

The flow of arms and terrorists from across the border in Pakistan remains a major headache for Chinese authorities. Pakistan’s ability to control the flow of extremists to China at a time of growing domestic turmoil remains a major variable.

As Western forces move out of Afghanistan by 2014, Beijing is worried about regional stability and is recognizing 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.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London.