Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) made a two-day visit to Pakistan on April 20 to further Sino-Pakistani strategic and economic ties. Xi took with him tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure, energy and military assistance to help a friendly neighboring country beset by external threats as well as terrorism and other political and economic troubles at home.
Xi has signed accords for US$46 billion for the construction of ports, roads, railway lines and power stations to be built on a commercial basis by Chinese companies over 15 years.
Aside from economic considerations, Xi also has an important strategic objective — to prevent the spread of militant groups in Pakistan into Xinjiang. Bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, Xinjiang is in China’s far western region, with a large Muslim population who have experienced growing restiveness and separatism in the past decade. A Muslim separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, founded by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethic minority concentrated in Xinjiang, operates alongside several Pakistani terrorist groups inside Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas. To please China, Pakistani armed forces in North Waziristan launched a military offensive, “Operation Zab-e-Azb,” against the Taliban and the Turkestan group in early June last year, claiming to have cleared 90 percent of the restive region.
The operation was costly. On June 8 and 9, a squad of Taliban militants attacked Karachi International Airport in retaliation, killing dozens of airport security forces and destroying commercial and private planes.
Furthermore, six heavily armed Taliban militants, wearing the uniforms of a paramilitary force, stormed into the Army Public School in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan on December 16 last year, killing as many as 100 teenage students. A spokesman for the Taliban declared that the attack was in retaliation to the military’s offense six months earlier.
In response to the shocking terrorist attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a hasty trip to Peshawar, saying that he would personally supervise the antiterrorist operation against the militants.
Critics labeled Sharif’s move an empty public-relations gesture, and asked if Pakistan, a “failed state” with its destabilizing radical groups and homegrown Taliban, is as “strategically useful” to China.
A large amount of China’s assistance, including a port facility at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, and roads and railway lines leading from the port across Baluchistan Province to Kashgar in Xinjiang, is a project called the Economic Corridor. It is to serve as a shortcut for the shipment of oil and goods from the Middle East and Europe to China, bypassing the Strait of Malacca.
However, the Economic Corridor must pass through territory close to the tribal areas, where hostile militant groups operate, territory that could be too forbidding even for the Chinese.
In the past decades, China has supported and used Pakistan to counterbalance and checkmate India. China is Pakistan’s leading arms supplier, and has assisted Pakistan to develop and produce nuclear arms, missile warheads and a new generation of fighter planes called FC-1 Xiaolong (Fierce Dragon) in China and JF-17 Thunder in Pakistan.
Xi’s latest military aid package also includes eight Chinese-made submarines. Reportedly, the new submarines are “very quiet, capable and lethal,” and would be deployed to counter India’s naval dominance in the Indian Ocean.
Pakistan fought two wars with India over Kashmir and tensions along the “line of actual “control,” which separates the two sides in Kashmir, flare up periodically. Pakistan has used militant organizations to stage a proxy war against India. The attack on India’s Parliament in 2001 and a commando rail in Mumbai in 2008, which killed hundreds of Indians and foreign tourists, were notable examples.
India is apprehensive toward China’s “string of pearls” around the India Ocean. Beijing has devised a strategy to develop and use port facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to contain India. To Xi’s chagrin, his own efforts to make a linkage with Sri Lanka in September last year fell through a few months ago. As former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in his re-election bid in January, the huge assistance program he concluded with Xi, including a US$1.4 billion deepwater port construction project in Colombo has come under critical review by the new government.
In fact, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has reoriented his nation’s foreign policy and adopted a pro-Indian strategy. At his invitation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a state visit to Sri Lanka in March — a first for an Indian prime minister since 1987 — and addressed the Sri Lankan parliament. The border war between India and China in 1962 has left a legacy of animosity and mutual distrust ever since. Their suspicions have been reinforced with China’s support for Pakistan in the ongoing Indo-Pakistani conflict.
Despite booming trade, with China becoming India’s largest trading partner — and the almost ritual exchange visits between their national leaders, and ministers of defense and foreign affairs — the two Asian giants have so far failed to resolve most sensitive strategic concerns and territorial disputes. Thus when Xi visited India in September last year with billions of dollars to invest in India’s infrastructure and manufacturing projects, suddenly a face-off between their troops in the disputed border region of Ladakh in Kashmir occurred just before a landmark Xi-Modi meeting.
The troop confrontation, which lasted more than two weeks, overshadowed the two leaders’ talk about expanding Sino-Indian economic cooperation.
Xi’s courtship of India is part of Beijing’s hedging strategy to cope with India’s “Look East” strategy and to woo India away from forging an India-US-Japan partnership. Beijing has reasons to be wary of India elevating defense and economic ties with Japan, conducting annual military exercises with the US, and joining the trilateral security dialogue.
The Global Times, Beijing’s mouthpiece, quoted a Chinese academic who complained that “as a South Asian country, India actively takes part in East Asian issues through the support of the US, which has been advocating for Asian countries to counter China.”
Parris Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University and president of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.
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