NEW DELHI – After the daring U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout next to Pakistan’s premier military academy, Islamabad has openly played its China card to caution Washington against pushing it too hard. And China has been more than eager to show itself as Pakistan’s staunchest ally.
China’s deepening strategic penetration of Pakistan — and the joint plans to set up new oil pipelines, railroads, and even a naval base on the Arabian Sea that will serve as the first overseas location offering support to the Chinese navy for out-of-area missions — are spurring greater U.S. and Indian concerns. For India, the implications of the growing strategic nexus are particularly stark because both China and Pakistan refuse to accept the territorial status quo and lay claim to large tracts of Indian land.
An influx of up to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army into Pakistan’s Himalayan regions of Gilgit and Baltistan to supposedly work on new projects, including a railroad, an upgraded highway, dams and secret tunnels, has raised concerns that those strategic borderlands could come under the Chinese sway. The predominantly Shiite Gilgit and Baltistan are in Kashmir, where the borders of China, India and Pakistan converge.
The PLA influx has resulted, according to India, in the presence of Chinese troops close to Pakistan’s line of control in Kashmir with India. This presents India with a two-front theater in the event of a war with either country.
Despite the bin Laden affair, the United States is seeking to repair its relationship with — not discipline — Pakistan, the largest recipient of American aid. Yet Pakistan and China have made a public show of their close strategic bonds.
Within days of bin Laden’s killing, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani traveled to Beijing. The accompanying defense minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, reported that whatever requests for assistance the Pakistani side made, the Chinese government was more than happy to oblige, including agreeing to take over operation of the strategically positioned but underused port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea upon expiry of an existing contract with a Singaporean government company. Beijing also decided to gift Pakistan 50 JF-17 fighter jets.
More important, Mukhtar disclosed that Pakistan had asked China to begin building a naval base at Gwadar, where Beijing funded and built the port. “We would be … grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base is … constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan,” he said in a statement. He later told a British newspaper in an interview: “We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar.”
Mukhtar’s comments on the naval base embarrassed Beijing, which wants no publicity.
China usually makes strategic moves by stealth. It launched work even on the Gwadar port quietly. So how can plans on a naval base be publicized?
After Pakistan spilled the beans on the Gwadar naval base, China responded with equivocation, saying “this issue was not touched upon” during the visit. But the Chinese Communist Party’s hawkish Global Times was not shy about advertising China’s interest in setting up bases overseas. In an editorial titled, “China Needs Overseas Bases for Global Role,” the newspaper urged the outside world to “understand the need of China to set up overseas military bases.”
Opened in 2007, the port at Gwadar — which overlooks Gulf shipping lanes and is near the Iran border — was intended from the beginning to represent China’s first strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea and to eventually double up as a Chinese-built naval base. It was widely seen as part of China’s efforts to assemble a “string of pearls” along the Indian Ocean rim. Yet until Mukhtar’s recent statements unmasked the larger plans, China and Pakistan continued to deny that Gwadar had any role other than commercial.
Whereas Pakistan wants to help the Chinese navy counterbalance India’s naval forces, China’s aim is to have important naval presence in the Indian Ocean to underpin its larger geopolitical ambitions and get into great-power maritime game. It thus needs Gwadar to plug its main weakness — the absence of a naval anchor in the region.
China’s plan also is to make Gwadar a major energy hub transporting Gulf and African oil by pipeline to the Chinese heartland via Pakistan-held Kashmir and Xinjiang. Such piped oil would not only cut freight costs and supply time but also lower China’s reliance on U.S.-policed shipping lanes through the Malacca and Taiwan Straits.
Significantly, as China’s involvement in strategic projects in Pakistan has grown, it has started openly started needling India on Kashmir, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation. It has used the visa issue and other innovative ways to question India’s sovereignty over Indian-controlled Kashmir. It also has shortened the length of the Himalayan border it claims to share with India by purging the 1,597-km line separating Indian Kashmir from the Chinese-held Kashmir part.
By deploying troops in Pakistani-held Kashmir near the line of control with India and playing the Kashmir card against India, China is clearly signaling that Kashmir is where the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India. The military pressure China has built up against India’s Arunachal Pradesh state — at the opposite end of the Himalayas — seems more like a diversion.
In truth, the more Pakistan has slipped into a jihadist dungeon, the more China has increased its strategic footprint in that country. And 2011 has been proclaimed the year of China-Pakistan friendship.
Brahma Chellaney, professor at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (Harper, New York) and “Water: Asia’s New Battlefield” (Georgetown University Press).