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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 37, September 4, 2010

China and Pakistan Relations: A New Chapter

Wednesday 8 September 2010, by Gunjan Singh

During the recent visit by the Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, to Beijing both sides declared to take forward the ‘all-weather friendship’. China and Pakistan have declared that they intend to build a railway line which will connect the Khunjerab Pass with Chinese towns including Kashgar. In addition to this, both the countries signed six agreements which covered areas ranging from health care and technology, justice and media, and agriculture and economy. During his visit President Zardari also met with the President of Exim Bank as well as the President of the Three Gorges Corporation. What was declared is that the company is interested in building dams at the Pakistani regions of Bunji and Kohala. It is expected that these dams will generate about 7000 and 12,000 megawatts or power respectively.

The next year marks the establishment of 60 years of diplomatic relations between Pakistan and China and Beijing insisted on starting the preparations for celebrations in time. Both sides also agreed to maintain contacts with respect to the reformulation of the United Nations Security Council. In another important development the Chinese military with its Pakistani counterparts undertook a joint anti-terrorism exercise from July 1 to 11, 2010 at the bordering province of Ningxia. What was surprising is that the Chinese officials did not specify the status of the nuclear cooperation between both the sides.

This move by Beijing becomes interesting when viewed in the context of its domestic developments. This step gives Kashgar the status of a special economic zone. This will provide encouragement in the establishment of business and industries in the city. By connecting it to Pakistan, Beijing is also ensuring an easy and direct access to an untapped market. This will definitely boost the status of trade between both the parties. On the other hand, so far the north-western regions of China were underdeveloped as most of the economic development happened along the coastal belt. With this move, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is attempting to prove to the domestic constituency that it is equally committed to the development of the inland provinces as well. The CCP is also worried about the increasing discontent which is brewing among the ethnic minorities. Last year witnessed one of the most severe riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Beijing was also taken aback by the severity of that riot. By giving access to Pakistan, the CCP is also hoping to control the Islamist elements in this region. China is using its friend Pakistan to the fullest extent in order to maintain peace and stability within its borders.

This opportunity is one which Islamabad will also love to exploit to the fullest. In addition to the promise of the rail link that promises to boost the already fragile Pakistani economy, they have also reached a tacit agreement for the conclusion of a nuclear deal from Beijing, that will be on the lines of the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is a known fact that the Pakistani nuclear industry is heavily dependent on Chinese support. Beijing has consistently provided Islamabad with the required help for the building of nuclear capabilities.

HOW should India perceive this development?

As far as India is concerned, this is a ‘glass-half-full’ situation. There are negative as well as positive consequences. One could be worried about the negative consequences of the rail link as this development following the emergence of ports surrounding India looks like the Chinese are working on a plan vis-a-vis India. It could possibly give China unhindered access to the Indian border regions. The rail link will provide for easy transport of people and other requirements near the Indian border. From a clear strategic point of view, India needs to streamline its development goals in the regions bordering Pakistan as well as China. In a situation of conflict, Beijing can successfully mobilise its troops on either side of the Indian border with unprecedented ease.

On the other hand, this very development can be perceived positively as well. The projection of the success of this move can bring about some stability in the already fragile Pakistani economy. Connectivity and access to markets can integrate the economy with the world and as it becomes more globalised and as the people start to reap the benefits and become prosperous, there will be a compulsion on Islamabad’s part to keep distance from extremism. One explanation for the extremist tendencies of Pakistan has been its sense of insecurity fuelled by the backward state of the economy. Once the people start to have better opportunities of employment and also a meaningful stake in maintaining law and order, it can be hoped that Pakistan would move away from extremism. Ultimately, a stable and peaceful Pakistan is what New Delhi wants and it will be in the larger interest of the region.

It is an unfortunate fact that India’s lack of initiative stands in stark contrast to Chinese actions in South Asia. India could have gained more than China ever can from the South Asian neighborhood. However, India’s regional policy has never had a long-term perspective. The fact that China is willing to overcome geographical constraints to reach to Pakistan shows that it is a long-term player in the region. Therefore, it would serve India better to embark on a course in our neighbourhood with a note of optimism in developing common ground and with a sense of purpose guided by a long-term perspective.

Gunjan Singh is a Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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