Pakistan managing relations in a complex world
Pakistan’s leadership has a strong multidimensional relationship with China spanning 56 years with strong political, economic and strategic dimensions. The Pakistani leadership maintains a close liaison with Chinese leaders and would normally take similar positions on major global issues. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has been the lead program through which Beijing has invested over the years, nearly $28 billion in strengthening Pakistan’s energy and physical infrastructure. As recently mentioned by Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal: “CPEC would turn ties between Pakistan-China into a long-term strategic economic partnership.” The program and strong relationship with Beijing have bipartisan support and the full backing of the military. The present Muslim league led coalition in particular values the relations even more. And the Chinese leadership feel they have more experience in managing projects and are comfortable working with them and expect that they would pursue the programs diligently.
Common security interests add further glue to the Pakistan-China relationship. The Sino-Indian war in 1962 over the disputed Himalayan border and the more recent Chinese and India skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border in 2020, are events that had a pronounced effect on their relations.
China remains among India’s leading trade partners. But at the strategic level, India and China are adversaries, with the former close to the US and a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), commonly known as QUAD-- an anti-Chinese group of major countries that includes Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India and the US.
By and large, China and Pakistan try to align their policies on most international issues. China supports Pakistan’s position on Kashmir and has reinforced its stand on global forums. The blatant human rights violations in the Indian-administered territory in Kashmir has failed to move the conscience of the world. Even the West, normally at the forefront in promoting human rights is silent. Expediency seems to trump principle. Pakistan, like most nations, does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state and has no dealings with it.
Interestingly, there is unanimity among Pakistan’s major decision makers – political, military and bureaucracy – that the country should simultaneously maintain a good functional relationship with the US.
China is also Pakistan’s main arms supplier. After the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, when the US and West placed arms’ embargoes, it has been mainly relying on China for its defense needs and especially for major defense systems of the three services. Pakistan’s main battle tank, Al Khalid MBT 2000, was developed with close cooperation between the two countries. Similarly, for the Pakistan airforce, the JS-17 fighter aircraft, a joint venture between China and Pakistan was inducted by Pakistan’s airforce. Lately, the J-10C Fighter Jets of Chinese origin have been inducted and facilities for its overhaul and repair at the aeronautical complex are being established. Similarly, the Pakistan Navy has in its fleet frigates and submarines of Chinese origin. The attractive feature of collaboration with China is the assistance it has provided in development of indigenous capability and greater reliability in logistics and back-up support.
The two countries also collaborate closely on nuclear energy and four of the plants built with Chinese assistance located in Chashma make a modest contribution by feeding the national energy grid.
Interestingly, there is unanimity among Pakistan’s major decision makers-- political, military and bureaucracy that the country should simultaneously maintain a good functional relationship with the US. It should initially focus on trade, commerce and security and later expand its cooperation into areas of mutual advantage. The US is considered the most attractive destination for the export of Pakistani textiles. Remittances from Pakistani diaspora in the US are a major source of foreign exchange. Pakistani students especially those pursuing science and technology, economics and other disciplines or engaged in research, aspire to be admitted in US major universities. They are attracted by the high educational standards and the freedom of expression enjoyed by students in general.
And they see no contradiction in it.
Washington’s interest in Pakistan is in the context of its strategic position, as a nuclear power, its proximity with China, the fallout with India and as a major Muslim country. Stability in Afghanistan and countering the rise of militant elements in border areas is equally within US interests. Moreover, the US does not want Pakistan to lean heavily on China and improve its relations with Russia.
But Pakistan’s suicidal domestic politics and the misplaced priorities of its leaders have denied the country of the benefits of optimizing the relationship with major powers to mutual advantage. In fact, most are apprehensive as to how the present internal situation in Pakistan will evolve. With democracy faltering and the rule of law in tatters, their fears are justified. Adding to the country’s woes have been recent floods of biblical proportions with a third of the country submerged in water and millions of its people displaced. One hopes sanity will eventually prevail.
- Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General from Pakistan Army and an eminent scholar on national security and political issues.
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