In the recent period, relations between Washington and Islamabad have developed into a full-blown crisis. According to some analysts, the trust gap between these erstwhile allies has put a damper on the Obama administration’s plan to withdraw a significant chunk of troops from the battlegrounds of Afghanistan during 2011. The subject of discussion has been a plaintive one: whether to hit Pakistan harder or to deal with Islamabad with kid gloves. Washington has no clue which of the two options will enable the American president to bring U.S. troops home during the upcoming election year. For some time now, knee-jerk reactions to developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan have substituted for policy. The outcome is there for all to see: the Pakistani people have become virulently anti-United States, pushing even America’s best friends in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to distance themselves from Washington.
The expanded basing agreement with Australia is just one of several initiatives the Obama administration has taken that have surely put Beijing on edge.
As if that were not enough, Washington is now engaged in a grand plan to weaken, and eventually change, the regimes of Syria and Iran. The originators of this plan are the colonial forces in Europe, who, of course, cannot achieve their goal without Washington’s “helping hand”—namely its killing machines, such as drones and missiles. This foolish policy has antagonised both China and Russia. India, much compromised and weaker, has stayed silent, unwilling to criticise such plans. But it is almost a certainty that, though not a member of the U.N. Security Council, India will find it domestically suicidal to back any Europe-United States effort to remove Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the clerical regime in Tehran using military force. So the Manmohan Singh government will do what it does best, sit on the fence and quietly cheer for the colonials.
It is likely that neither Russia nor China will endorse the effort either, although it is possible that Syria could be used by both Beijing and Moscow to cut a deal with Washington—a deal that would benefit them directly. Both had spoken out against the violent methods used to oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and kill him, but that did precious little to change the geometry.
Obama is aware that the Chinese leaders do not want Chinas economy disrupted when the global financial system is undergoing death pangs and preparations are being made to transfer power to a new leadership next year.
At the same time, despite the financial disaster staring the West in the face, and perhaps because of it, forces in both the United States and a couple of European colonial powers—Britain and France, in particular—have also begun beating the drums for another Cold War with China as the new villain. In mid-November, President Obama announced that he would send military aircraft and up to 2,500 marines to northern Australia to man a training hub to help allies and protect American interests across Asia. He declared that the U.S. is not afraid of China, by far the biggest and most powerful country in the region. (About 250 U.S. marines will begin a rotation in northern Australia starting next year, with a full force of 2,500 military personnel staffing up over the next several years. The United States will bear the cost of the deployment, and the troops will be shifted from other deployments around the world.)
The expanded basing agreement with Australia is just one of several initiatives the Obama administration has taken that have surely put Beijing on edge. The U.S. is China’s second-largest trading partner, and the economies are deeply intertwined. Obama is aware that the Chinese leaders do not want China’s economy disrupted when the global financial system is undergoing death pangs and preparations are being made to transfer power to a new leadership next year.
Beijing did not respond to Obama’s muscle-flexing speech immediately. But on 12 December, Chinese president Hu Jintao told the Central Military Commission that its navy should modernise in the interest of national security. The Chinese navy has grown in recent years from a coastal protection force to one planning to span the globe, and it has already sent ships as far as the Caribbean on goodwill missions and to the Mediterranean to escort vessels evacuating Chinese citizens caught up in the fighting in Libya. Beijing is considering an offer from the Seychelles to host Chinese naval ships in the Indian Ocean island nation, highlighting the increasing global reach of a navy that recently launched its first aircraft carrier.
“¦these developments, the Sino-Pakistani relationship is becoming a significant factor in its own right on the U.S. strategic radar screen, and a thorough understanding of its dynamics and implications is clearly essential.
The Chinese navy also began sea trials in August for its first aircraft carrier, the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, towed from Ukraine in 1998 minus its engines, weaponry and navigation systems. China’s claim that the carrier is intended for research and training has led to the speculation among some military analysts that it plans to build future copies.
Given these developments, the Sino-Pakistani relationship is becoming a significant factor in its own right on the U.S. strategic radar screen, and a thorough understanding of its dynamics and implications is clearly essential.
Sino-Pakistani Ties: The Cold War Groundwork
The ground in which relations between China and Pakistan—two nations with very different regimes—took root, with helpful watering from Washington, was made up of the arguments and justifications provided internationally by the United States during the Cold War from the 1950s through the 1980s. U.S. policy was to support any regime—communist, monarchic, dictatorial, feudal or democratic—that opposed the Soviet Union and its form of communism. Washington did not discriminate among the leaders in power around the world as long they were not pro-Soviet. Pakistan’s leadership was firmly in the hands of two groups of people (as it still is)—the uniformed army and the land-based feudals, who drew their political power from maintaining the country’s vast rural population under their control. China was, at the time, under the control of a Maoist clique, but that clique’s main objective was to bring China out of the morass it had been in for centuries.
“¦geographical proximity and security issues led the two states to come together, without doubt the United States played a key role in supplying the glue for the Sino-Pakistani relationship.
A strange marriage of two entirely different political systems from the outset, the Sino-Pakistani relationship was based strictly on the two nations’ shared security concerns. In Washington, those who note that Sino-Pakistani relations took root during the Cold War to counter common enemies point to a series of security-related events in the region over the years to explain why this bilateral relationship “deepened.” Tarique Niazi, for instance, of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, notes that the two countries have never had a public disagreement over any bilateral, regional or global issue. If there was any wrinkle in their mutual relations, it was amicably resolved in private, outside the view of the world’s eye. The key to this closeness, Niazi avers, has been the frequency of highest-level contacts between the two countries, which yielded unprecedented results (“Thunder in Sino-Pakistani Relations.” China Brief 6, no. 5).
Similarly, American scholars Rizwan Naseer and Musarat Amin, in the abstract to their recent treatise, “Sino-Pakistan Relations: A Natural Alliance against Common Threats” (Berkeley Journal of Social Sciences 1, no. 2), state that in the early days of their relationship, China and Pakistan confronted challenges to their survival. Pakistan had to engage in war against India over Kashmir (1948), and China was dragged to the Korean War (1951). The Soviet-Chinese union provided strength to China, but the Sino-Soviet China was left with no real support internationally. Meanwhile, Pakistan had joined the U.S. as an ally against the expansion of communism by joining Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) (1954) and the Baghdad Pact (1955). And although this alliance provided Pakistan with economic and military aid, Islamabad was virtually abandoned in its hour of trial (1965 Indo-Pak war), Naseer and Amin note.
According to these two scholars, because both China and Pakistan had fought wars with India, they had a common threat in the neighbourhood. India, a nonaligned state, received economic and military aid from both superpowers (USSR and the U.S.). When USSR supported India, a noncommunist state, against China, officially a communist state, during the Sino-Indian border clash in 1962, Naseer and Amin claim, Beijing realised that it should normalise relations with Washington—a capitalist state. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan played a key role in bringing the United States and China to the discussion table and bridged their differences by identifying the Soviet Union as their common enemy. Naseer and Amin argue that the 1971 Indo-USSR Treaty of Friendship posed another challenge to both Pakistan and China. The treaty perhaps strengthened Pakistan’s relations with the United States.