The Art of Balancing Poles by Parvez Asad Sheikh

‘m honoured to present another brilliant paper by Parvez Asad Sheikh. With the authority of the people of Soofiya I can say proudly that we are dealing with a future leader of the Muslims of the Sub-Continent.

Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi

The Art of Balancing Poles

Two developments in American foreign policy that have occurred during the course of this year serve as indicators of the world that will emerge from the rhetorical mist of the Afghanistan-Pakistan War. The first of these is President Obama’s visit to Beijing in November. The second is his unveiling of the much awaited, and much delayed, ‘exit strategy’ from the ‘Af-Pak’ imbroglio. The China visit has shown that America has changed significantly its stance towards China, recognising its rise as a harbinger of the post-modern, multi-polar world; as well as its largest source of funding. The New York Times described the visit as that of ‘a profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker’. The new exit strategy further reveals that the US has recognised that it needs some closure to the costly and unpopular war in Afghanistan and the subsequent instability in Pakistan. Both of these moves have their foundation in America’s need to contain China, militarily, in the context of an economic symbiosis that has come to the fore during the economic crisis.

America can only gain from Afghanistan if it establishes permanent military bases in the country and ensures that it leaves behind a ‘friendly’ government that will act as a strategic extension of its interests. Both of these are inconceivable without the support of the other ungainly-abbreviated country, Pakistan. The Karzai government cannot hold itself together without a foreign military presence to prop it and the Taliban control a sizable amount of Afghan territory. Obama’s recognition of the possibility of negotiations with the Taliban “who abandon violence” lends weight to the fact that any viable government that the US leaves behind will have to include the natural leaders of the Pathan majority. Pakistan is the only country able to establish communication between the two sides and vicariously maintain US influence in the region.

At the same time, Pakistan has seen acceleration in its alignment of long-term interests with its ‘all weather’ ally China. Their long-standing regional ties are being built on in such a way that, if successful, Pakistan would give China access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and become an economic extension of China’s greater regional and international interests. The Sino-Pakistan alliance is therefore a central concern to America’s ability to avoid another Vietnam. While Pakistan has managed to balance its ties with China and the US in the past, its centrality to the success and ultimate conclusion of the ‘Af-Pak’ War places it at the centre of the wrangling between two poles of a new and shaky ‘multi-polar’ reality.

Pipelines, Trade, Ports and Jets:

The Sino-Pakistan alliance has its roots primarily in the 1962 Border War between China and India that was fought over the northern-eastern Kashmiri region of Aksai Chin. The US’s support of India propelled China and Pakistan into a strong strategic and military pact. This alliance was primarily a means to contain India who, following the famous handshake between Nixon and Mao Zedong of 1972, signed a strategic pact with Soviet Russia. The Cold-War complicity between the two countries worked well. Pakistan established itself as a diplomatic and economic conduit connecting China to the outside world as a means of alleviating the international isolation it faced and China used its position in the UN and military ability to back Pakistan in the 1971 secession of East Pakistan and establish its self-sufficiency in conventional arms. The development of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities was significantly aided by Chinese interaction with A.Q Khan. China established itself as Pakistan’s main arms supplier during the US sanctions that followed its successful nuclearisation.

The links that held the two countries together during the dynamics of the Cold War were therefore largely military and geo-strategic in nature. The level of trade between the two countries was negligible owing to the similar foci on textiles, agriculture and an unfavourable reputation of the quality of Chinese goods. With the end of the Cold War, this relationship has undergone some changes, namely in terms of China’s approach to the India-Pakistan Kashmir dispute and the manner in which Pakistan has attempted to adapt to the economic rise of its once lonely neighbour in the midst of a destructive new geo-political dialectic. China has taken a neutral stance on the Kashmir dispute. Where it would in the past have supported Pakistan’s arguments for the plebiscite stated in the UN Resolution on the matter, during the 1999 Kargil conflict, it adopted a markedly less hostile stance towards India and urged a bilateral resolution of the affair. While both countries still see the containment of India as a strategic objective, the sizable amount of trade between India and China, which dwarfs that with Pakistan, is a factor that has led to an apparent ‘thaw’ in Sino-Indian relations.

During the past decade, there has been an increase in focus on the economic aspect of the Sino-Pakistan alliance. A number of economic agreements between the two countries such as the Free Trade Agreement signed in 2008 and the 5 Year Programme look to allow Pakistan access to the Chinese market and the creation of Chinese Export Processing Zones in Pakistan. Cooperation in the realm of military equipment remains strong. The recently unveiled Pakistani-made JF-17 fighter aircraft was bright green with the star and crescent emblazoned across its fuselage and somewhere on its underbelly a ‘Designed in China’ sticker was undoubtedly to be found.

The long-term aim on the part of Pakistan, however, is to integrate its economic interests with those of China’s by becoming what Pakistani leaders since the Musharraf era have termed a ‘Trade and Energy Corridor’. Pakistan sees itself as a potential link between Central Asia and China and the maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean. At the centre of this vision lies the deep-sea port of Gwadar in Balochistan. The ‘visionaries’ of the development of Pakistan into a TEC see Gwadar as the hub of trade in energy from the Middle East to the carbon-hungry China and a conduit of trade in goods and hydrocarbons to and from the energy rich Central Asian states. This includes plans to build pipelines to China as an alternative to the current route its Middle Eastern energy supplies take via the vulnerable chokepoint of the Straits of Malacca. The recently renovated Karakoram Highway linking Islamabad to Xinjiang aims to be followed by a rail link along the same route.

The idea of Pakistan as a hub for international trade is both promising and a monumental task. While the prospects of the economic and geopolitical benefits of such a large amount of trade passing through Pakistan are altogether positive, it remains dependant on a massive amount of funding, namely from China, who have proven reserved in their reaction to the plans. The cost of transporting oil and gas from Balochistan to the east coast of China, where the energy is needed, is economically untenable and the funding the TEC plans necessitate naturally place it on the back-burner as a ‘long-term’ goal. Yet China has, doing its best not to cause too much clamour from giddy onlookers, enthusiastically aided the completion of the first phase of the Gwadar port and has already contributed to the ongoing second phase as well as the construction of the road works that connect the port with the rest of the country and its western regions.

The fact that China is bolstering its economic ties with Pakistan and racing forward to complete the Gwadar facility indicates that, while Pakistan’s almost utopian plans as a TEC are not a pressing concern, the completion of Gwadar falls into China’s broader regional strategy. Known as the ‘string of pearls’, China has developed a network of naval bases along its maritime energy routes in Burma, Bangladesh, Cambodia and other key maritime areas. To market these ports it has used an approach similar to the one it is using with Pakistan, by proposing to fund the construction of naval ports that will boost trade for the country while at the same time acting as a means to project Chinese naval power in the region and ensuring the security of its energy supplies.

“All of these port construction projects are occurring in countries that enjoy deep economic relationships with China. They welcome investment from China to construct dual-use infrastructure along their coastlines that will expand ocean-going trade and facilitate the processing of energy imports.” -Daniel Twining, Senior Fellow for Asia, The German Marshall Fund in his testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on May 20, 2009.

A fully functioning Gwadar port would be the most strategically devastating ‘pearl’ in China’s chain of naval bases. With its proximity to the Straits of Hormuz, through which around seventy percent of global oil supplies pass, a Chinese naval presence in the area would greatly perturb the control that the American Navy has traditionally maintained in the region. Pakistan’s economic consolidation with China therefore has seismic implications not only for America, but its own role in shaping China’s greater geopolitical influence. Pakistan would, by going forward with its Sino-dependant long-term economic plans, become intricately bound to maintaining Chinese interests in a way that goes beyond the traditional containment of India. India would become almost entirely surrounded both at sea and in terms of its access to continental Asia. That is probably an important factor behind India’s increasing hand in Afghanistan and its spurious funding of the Chahabar Port on the coast of Iranian Balochistan that it markets as an alternative to Gwadar. China is the largest investor in Afghanistan with acquisitions such as the Aynak copper-mine and investment in the renovation of the country’s decrepit transport infrastructure. By engulfing Pakistan into its intimate sphere of influence, it would consolidate its presence in Afghanistan and further enhance its links to Iran, Central Asia and Europe.

The Unenviable Role of the Surrogate:

It is important to point out that what was originally the region of Pakistan, before an obscure Ismaili politician rode the idea of a separate state to his own political ‘self actualisation’, was the military buffer that protected the British Raj from invasion. During the Cold War, America rested its hold on continental South and Central Asia extensively through its strategic ties with Pakistan. This strategic significance of the country’s location is probably the most valuable asset it holds. Pakistan must proceed with its economic consolidation with China cautiously. While its plan to become a corridor of international trade is a good and viable long-term objective, the almost absolute alignment it will entail with China’s interests will effectively lead to an undermined freedom of manoeuvrability; an undermined sovereignty. Pakistan’s (and the OIC’s, for that matter) pronounced silence on the matter of China’s ‘Strike Hard’ policy in its East Turkestan region of Xinjiang is a foretaste of this vulnerability that a growing economic dependence on China entails.

Pakistan must play a strong diplomatic role in Afghanistan and use America’s dependence on it as a means to ensure its continuing geo-strategic and economic relevancy and independence. By helping to broker negotiations between the Taliban and the US/Karzai Administration, Pakistan can play a central role in stabilizing both its own situation (to end a futile civil-war) and lend America the chance of a graceful exit. At the same time, the increased economic and strategic aid offered by Washington can be used as a means to carry out Pakistan’s vision as a TEC without an over-dependence on Chinese funding. A significant diplomatic and economic overture towards the Central Asian States and Russia will help establish Pakistan’s role and image as a key strategic ally in the post-terror, multi-polar world. Its ties with China would not necessarily suffer from such moves as long as Pakistan maintains a role of equal partner in the relationship. China’s foreign policy is based on the principle of ‘Containment through Surrogates’. Pakistan must ensure that it does not sell its strategic treasure to become a mere ‘surrogate’ to a growing China.


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