Commentary / World

The China-Pakistan axis gathers momentum

by Harsh V. Pant

The recently expanded Gwadar deepwater port in Pakistan that is part of the so-called China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is nearing completion.

According to Zhang Baozhong, chairman and CEO of China Overseas Ports Holding Company Ltd, “The port cranes are almost ready, and we are thinking that the port will be (at) full operation by the end of this year.” The port will process about 1 million tons of cargo next year, most of which will be incoming construction materials to be used in projects related to CPEC. The port city Gwadar, in southwestern Baluchistan province, is central to the CPEC.

Pakistan’s army chief has accused regional rival India of attempting to undermine the $46 billion project with China. Speaking at a development conference on the impact of CPEC, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, stated: “I must highlight that India, our immediate neighbor, has openly challenged this development initiative. … I would like to make a special reference to Indian intelligence agency RAW, which is blatantly involved in destabilizing Pakistan. Let me make it clear that we will not allow anyone to create impediments and turbulence in any part of Pakistan.”

Chinese-Pakistani collusion against India has taken new turns recently. Despite Modi government’s attempts to improve ties with Pakistan and China, both have responded negatively so far. The writing is very clear on the wall and has been for quite some time. The Pakistani military-intelligence complex has no interest in a rapprochement with India and they made it a point to scuttle the growing Sharif-Modi bonhomie. Last month, Pakistani authorities announced they captured a suspected Indian spy in Baluchistan, identified as Kulbhushan Jadhav. The military also aired video footage of Jadhav saying he was working out of his base in Chabahar in neighboring Iran.

The Pakistani investigation team that visited Pathankot ended up suggesting that the Pathankot attack at the end of December was in fact staged by Indian agencies. This was followed by the Pakistani high commissioner announcing the suspension of Indo-Pakistani peace talks. China then turned the screws tighter and made it a point to scuttle the nascent counterterror cooperation between Delhi and Beijing. By insisting that designation of any individual as terrorist by U.N. is a “serious issue,” China blocked the U.N. from banning Jaish-e-Mohammad chief and Pathankot strike mastermind Masood Azhar by the global body. The Jan. 2 attack at Pathankot was followed by a raid on an Indian consulate in Afghanistan that has also been linked to Jaish-e-Mohammad, or the Army of Mohammad. Jaish-e-Mohammad militants were also behind the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.

The Chinese-Pakistani relationship has now moved beyond the “higher than Himalayas and sweeter than honey” phase. Chinese strategists are openly talking of Pakistan as their nation’s only real ally. China’s submarine operations in the Indian Ocean and the Chinese-Pakistani naval cooperation are challenging naval supremacy and have the potential to change the regional naval power balance. China is also busy redefining the territorial status quo in the region. By deciding to construct major civil, energy and military infrastructure projects in the CPEC, which runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, China has accorded de facto “legitimacy” to Pakistan’s illegal occupation of these areas.

China — the world’s third-largest weapons exporter — has Pakistan as the top recipient of its arms. By aiding Pakistan in setting up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, besides supplying conventional arms, Beijing had made sure that the Indian-Pakistani military balance is maintained. China is considered a reliable ally that has always come to Pakistan’s aid when India has seemed on the ascendance — so much so that China has even tacitly supported Pakistan’s strategy of using terror as a policy instrument against India.

With India ascending in the global hierarchy and strengthening its ties with the United States, China’s need for Pakistan is likely to grow. This has been evident in China’s polices toward Pakistan on critical issues in South Asia. A rising India makes Pakistan all the more important in China’s strategy for the subcontinent. It is highly unlikely that China will give up playing the Pakistan card vis-a-vis India anytime soon. The Chinese-Pakistani partnership serves the interests of both partners by presenting India with a potential two-front theater in the event of war with either country.

And for China, Pakistan is increasingly important to fend off a joint Indian-U.S. challenge. South Asia is emerging as an important new front in the power struggle between the U.S. and China as well as India and China, and the region’s importance is only likely to increase in the coming years.

The Modi government needs to recognize that the challenges of a two-front adversarial strategic environment are only likely to intensify in the coming years. New Delhi needs to be prepared to take on this challenge head-on. Even as India reaches out to China in the next few weeks with the visits of the national security adviser and the defense minister, it should be clear that Chinese behavior is unlikely to change in the near future.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the defense studies department at King’s College London with a focus on Asian security.