Monday, September 27, 2010

Opportunity within reach By Huma Yusuf

It has been a good week for Sino-Pak relations. China reiterated its commitment to expanding the Chashma nuclear energy complex by building two additional reactors, and pooh-poohed any talk of seeking approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group for the project.

Moreover, while addressing a United Nations anti-poverty summit, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao announced $200mn — in addition to the $47mn already pledged — in emergency flood aid for Pakistan.

Jiabao’s announcement helped close the gap between US and Chinese support for Pakistan’s flood relief effort. The US has provided approximately $345mn in relief aid, as well as food, infrastructure and air support valued at $60mn. By “stepping up to the plate”, to borrow a phrase from US special envoy Richard Holbrooke regarding China’s initially underwhelming response to the Pakistan floods, Beijing has reinvigorated Islamabad to continue the close allegiance in good conscience.

Given that Pakistan is still recovering from the Chinese snub of Oct 2008, when Beijing refrained from offering Islamabad an economic bailout, this week’s aid announcement will help keep an old friendship on track.

But it is important for Pakistanis to keep these Chinese overtures in perspective. Beijing’s partnership with Islamabad is, after all, an aspect — albeit an historical and important one — of its broader, geo-strategic goal to emerge as the dominant power in Asia. That goal received a fillip last month when China officially overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.

So this week while China was proffering gifts to Pakistan, it was slamming its fists elsewhere in Asia. Demanding the immediate release of the captain of a Chinese trawler that collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels earlier this month, Beijing warned Tokyo of the possibility of “further action” to follow the suspension of high-level government talks and economic ties. The threat worked: Japan agreed on Friday to release the captain, and the international community was reminded of Beijing’s commitment to defending its territorial claim over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Beijing’s diplomatic stand-off with Tokyo follows other aggressive posturing regarding China’s maritime influence. Recently, China has objected to the US carrying out naval exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, which Beijing has declared its exclusive military operations’ zone. China is also entangled in a series of disputes with the array of South-East Asian countries over islands and maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.

For Pakistan, Beijing’s regional aspirations are primarily relevant with regards to the effect that China’s actions have on Indian foreign policy. In recent years, Beijing and New Delhi have been coming head to head in what The Economist has described as the “contest of the century”. Indeed, while the Pakistan Army continues to think of India as its perennial enemy, the Indians have been reorienting their international security concerns with an eye to China.

Many of India’s worries about China’s territorial ambitions stem from the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh, along India’s north-eastern rim. Since 2006, there have been numerous reports of Chinese military incursions along that contested border. The Indian media has also reported on China’s relocation of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles towards the Indian border. And like much of South-East Asia, India is keeping close tabs on the modernisation of the Chinese navy. New Delhi also fears Chinese attempts to sideline India in the procurement of essential energy supplies.

Increasingly, in thinktanks across India, security discussions about Pakistan now fall within the broader ambit of Chinese expansionism, and are tied to fears of encirclement by China (these fears are exacerbated by China’s strengthening relations with other South Asian states). It was this underlying anxiety that sparked a flurry of speculation in Indian and some international media outlets earlier this month that China had taken control of Gilgit-Baltistan (thereby potentially sandwiching Indian-held Kashmir between Chinese military might).

Despite strong rejections from both Beijing and Islamabad of such reports, the blogsphere is still abuzz with conspiracy theories of a Chinese ‘occupation’ of the region, spurred no doubt by Selig Harrison’s controversial article on the subject.

Of course, for many Pakistanis, the economic development angle of the Islamabad-Beijing relationship is probably more important than the security dimension. Pakistan is quite happy to let China traverse its territory to gain access to Gwadar, and through that port, to the Gulf. After all, Chinese investment means infrastructure development for Pakistan, as well as added benefits such as the civilian nuclear power deals.

China’s current incarnation as pushy and power-loving has, however, led many Asian states, including India and Japan, to turn to the US to maintain a balance of power in the region. This trend could prove beneficial to Pakistan in coming years. The fact is, while the US intervenes to check Chinese ambitions, Washington cannot risk open confrontation with Beijing. Ever since US President Barack Obama described America’s ties with China as the “most important bilateral relationship”, the emphasis has been on interdependence and cooperation.

One of the few things that the US and China agree on is the need for security, stability, and prosperity in Pakistan. As such, Pakistan is uniquely situated to take advantage of the geopolitical tussle currently underway in Asia. Drawing on decades-old allegiances, Islamabad can create circumstances in which the US and China can work together effectively. But such trilateral cooperation must occur on terms that privilege Pakistan’s national interests, rather than make it a pawn in an Asian power struggle.

To kick off this process, Islamabad should consider acknowledging US concerns about the Chinese proposal to build nuclear reactors without NSG approval by offering to place the expanded Chashma site under the scrutiny of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Such small steps, when taken in the broader context, could help the cause of regional stability.

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