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China’s sole ally in Asia might get more than it wished for

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When China joined hands with the United States earlier this year at the United Nations Security Council to approve the toughest new international sanctions in two decades against North Korea, it implicitly highlighted that Beijing now is left with just one real ally in Asia — Pakistan. Indeed, China has forged with Pakistan one of the closest and most-enduring relationships in international diplomacy.

Mao Zedong famously said China and North Korea were as close as lips are to teeth. Similarly, Beijing now compares its strategic nexus with Pakistan to the closeness between lips and teeth, calling that country its “irreplaceable all-weather friend” and boasting of an “iron brotherhood” with it.

In reality, this is largely a one-sided relationship that is turning Pakistan into China’s client and guinea pig.

For example, Beijing has sold Pakistan outdated or untested nuclear power reactors and prototype weapon systems not deployed by the Chinese military. The two AC-1000 reactors currently under construction near the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi represent a model China has adapted from French designs but not built at home.

According to a recent Pentagon report, Pakistan is not just “China’s primary customer for conventional weapons,” but also is likely to host a Chinese naval hub geared toward power projection in the Indian Ocean region. It is well documented that China helped build Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, with covert Chinese nuclear and missile assistance still persisting.

Pakistan is the linchpin of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dual Silk Road projects, officially known as “One Belt, One Road.”

By launching work on a $46 billion “economic corridor” stretching from Xinjiang to Pakistan’s Chinese-built and-run Gwadar port, Xi has made that country the central link between the twin Silk Road initiatives, which aim to employ geoeconomic tools to create a “Sinosphere” of trade, communications, transportation and security links. The corridor will link up Beijing’s maritime and overland Silk Roads, thereby shortening China’s route to the Middle East by 12,000 km and giving it access to the Indian Ocean, where it would be able to challenge India in its own maritime backyard.

Not surprisingly, Xi has gone out of his way to shield Pakistan, including from accusations that its intelligence service was behind recent grisly terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India. For example, Xi ensured that the final communique issued at the end of the Oct. 14-15 summit of the five BRICS countries — Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa — omitted any reference to state sponsorship of terror or to any Pakistan-based terrorist group, even as it mentioned organizations like the Islamic State and al-Nusra.

A more potent reminder of such support was China’s action last month in blocking proposed U.N. sanctions on a Pakistan-based terrorist leader Masood Azhar, who heads Jaish-e-Mohammed, a covert front organization for Pakistani intelligence service. It was the sixth time since September 2014 that China single-handedly thwarted sanctions against Azhar, despite support for the move by all other members of the Security Council’s Resolution 1267 committee, including the United States, Britain and France. Resolution 1267 mandates U.N. sanctions on the Islamic State, al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities.

The Security Council proscribed Jaish-e-Mohammed way back in 2001, yet the group operates openly from its base in Pakistan’s largest province of Punjab. The need for U.N. sanctions against the group’s chief has been underscored by evidence linking him and his group to two terrorist attacks this year on Indian military bases that killed 27 soldiers.

Despite repeatedly vetoing U.N. action against Azhar, China seems unconcerned that it could be seen as complicit in the killing of the Indian soldiers.

Previously, China also blocked U.N. action against some other Pakistan-based terrorist entities or individuals. For example, it came in the way of the U.N. proscribing United Jihad Council chief Syed Salahuddin and probing how U.N.-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed is still able to raise funds and organize large public rallies in major Pakistani cities. With China’s help, Pakistan escaped U.N. censure for freeing on bail Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist strikes.

In fact, with China boosting its strategic investments in Pakistan, Beijing is stepping up its diplomatic, economic and military support to that country. In the process, it is seeking to cement Pakistan’s status as its client.

For example, China has already secured exclusive rights for the next 40 years to run Gwadar, which could become a hub for Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean. The Shanghai Stock Exchange, for its part, is poised to take a 40 percent stake in Pakistan’s bourse.

Some analysts like the American author Gordon G. Chang believe that the tide of new Chinese strategic projects, including in divided and disputed Kashmir, is turning Pakistan into China’s “newest colony.”

Indeed, Beijing has persuaded internally torn Pakistan to set up special security forces, including a new 13,000-strong army division, to protect the Chinese projects. Still, the growing security costs of the “economic corridor” to the Indian Ocean prompted a Chinese state paper in September to warn that China “be prepared for potential setbacks,” adding that “it would be unwise to put all its eggs in one basket.”

The fact is that the corridor will cement Pakistan’s status as Beijing’s economic and security client. By tightening China’s grip over the country, it will preclude Pakistan from possibly emulating the example of Myanmar or North Korea to escape Beijing’s clutches.

Indeed, several years before China unveiled its plan to build the corridor, it started stationing its own troops in the Pakistan-held part of Kashmir, ostensibly to shield its ongoing highway, dam and other projects in the mountainous region.

The implications of China’s growing strategic penetration of Pakistan are ominous for the region and for Pakistan’s own future. Concern is increasing in Pakistan that, thanks to the Chinese projects, the country is slipping into a massive debt trap that could compromise its sovereignty and future.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut,” “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” and “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.” He is a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times