China and Pakistan: Dangerous Liaisons

Pakistan’s relation with the US has been marked by an unprecedented low post the elimination of Osama Bin Laden in a US commando operation inside Pakistan. Amid these moments, Pakistan’s “time-tested and all-weather friend” China has been continuously expressing support for the country. Pakistan PM Yusuf Raza Gilani’s four-day official visit to China from May 17 to May 20 was a crucial event post the killing of Osama Bin Laden. On 17 May 2011, Beijing expressed its “unswervingly” support to Pakistan in its efforts to counter terrorism. The timing and nature of these words were intended to send a strong message to powers like the US and India.

During the visit, China agreed to expedite the delivery of 50 JF-17 fighter aircrafts, fully funded by China to boost Pakistan’s defence capability. Further negotiations are being undertaken for the supply of Chinese J-20 Stealth fighter and Xiaolong/FC-1 multi-purpose light fighter aircraft to Pakistan. This is yet another testament of the ever growing and strengthening alliance between China and Pakistan.

Following the visit, Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar stated that Pakistan would be grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base was constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan. China has a penchant for undertaking strategic moves surreptitiously and the naval base issue spilling out in public seemed to have embarrassed the Chinese government. Beijing unequivocally responded that the “issue was not touched upon.” Most of the aspects of Sino-Pak strategic cooperation materialize behind closed doors; therefore it becomes difficult to infer the exact nature and magnitude of their nexus.

The Sino-Pak cooperation is proving to be an imminent threat for India, even though the government tends to downplay it to a certain extent. But, it seems that the government is finally waking up to the threat. Recently India’s Defence Minister AK Antony while replying to a press question  on the JF-17 deal between  China and Pak said “It is a matter of serious concern for us. The main thing is, we have to increase our capability, that is the only answer”. India and China’s economic cooperation is on the rise, owing to which, many believe that the mutual dependencies between them is likely to keep a conflict at bay. However, while the economies flourish and there is stability in the strategic sphere, the undercurrents of suspicion and dilemma continue to affect the relations at the tactical front. The level of mistrust between India and China continues to be reinforced by the Chinese moves of constructing dams on the  river Brahmaputra in Tibet. Many experts believe that the dams could reduce the flow of water in the river as it enters India. In addition China’s changing stance on Jammu and Kashmir, the issue of stapled visas, assistance in nuclear materials to Pakistan and its growing footprints in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) have kept Sino-India relations on tenterhooks. Chinese activities are posing considerable challenges not only along the LAC but also along the LoC with Pakistan. PoK is of immense strategic importance owing to its location. The Chinese continue to make inroads into the PoK region in order to gain strategic influence over the Islamic countries of West and Central Asia . It is important to note that the area of Indian Kashmir is 101,437 sq kms and the Kashmir area under Pakistan and China is 120,799 sq kms.

Reports about the presence of 11,000 Chinese construction workers and PLA combat engineers in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) tends to  emerge periodically but no concrete moves are being undertaken to counter this rising threat. Pakistan seems to have outsourced the area of Gilgit-Baltistan to China for “developmental activities.” In May 2011, Indian intelligence agencies confirmed that the many hundreds of Chinese working in PoK are actually People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engineers. They continue to verify whether the engineers are engaged in any type of military construction like bunkers. Such developments reinforce the Chinese pattern of using Pakistan in order to secure its interests in the region. Reports in the Pakistan media state that few deals (like a $2.2 billion Pakistan Steel with Metallurgical Corporation of China MCC) are non-transparent and Chinese companies are given contracts without open bidding.

As reported in The Hindu, the Government of Pakistan has allowed Chinese companies to take up construction work for large-scale power generation and tap power from the Jhelum and Neelum rivers. China is also involved in the widening of roads such as the Neelam Valley Roads (from Muzaffarabad to Athmuqam) and the Tariqabad Bypass (Eastern). It is also engaged in the construction of the Naluchi Bypass (Western) near Muzzafarabad. A major project also includes a Pakistan Rupee (PKR) 185.60 billion Neelum-Jhelum tunnel, which is being constructed by the China International Water and Electric Corporation (CIWEC).  Through developmental projects, China is strengthening its alliance with Pakistan and gaining strategic influence in the region.

Another ambitious collaborated project by China and Pakistan is the laying of cross border Optical Fibre Cable (OFC) system at a cost of PKR 10 million between Pakistan and China for secure communications. The project would be funded out of a Chinese soft loan and consists of laying 820 km of OFC along the Karakoram Highway, from Rawalpindi to Khunjerab Pass (Chinese border via Mansehra, Chilas, Danyore (Gilgit), Karimabad and Sust). These measures are possibly being undertaken to support PLA troops stationed in Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK. Basing troops requires supporting infrastructure, communication and logistics nodes to be established.  The laying of OFC lines would further establish Chinese claim and presence over PoK.

An IDSA report titled, “PoK: Changing the discourse,” stated that, “If the current pace of Chinese penetration is sustained then China may completely take over Gilgit-Baltistan by the year 2020.” Though Pakistan has always been a pivot of Chinese foreign policy, especially in South Asia, its importance in China’s grand strategy is likely to rise further. As the Indo-US relations gain further strength, China is strengthening its strategic cooperation with Pakistan to counter this strategic relationship. It will continue to use Pakistan as a proxy against India to keep  the latter boxed in South Asia.


Aditi Malhotra


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