Pakistan’s Strategic Ties with China
Weekly Pulse
February 24-March 2, 2006
President General Pervez Musharraf and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao have reinforced the steadily warming relations between China and Pakistan by concluding in Beijing some 13 agreements covering a wide spectrum of bilateral cooperation, especially in the fields of defense, trade and investment.

Last week, President Musharraf was on five-day visit to China to mark the 55th anniversary of Pak-China diplomatic relations. During the visit, apart from holding extensive parleys with the Chinese President, General Musharraf met other Chinese leaders, including the Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Chinese Prime Minister and the head of National Peoples Congress, the principal legislative organ of China. President Musharraf also interacted with China’s top business executives in a bid to re-assure them that political and economic climate in Pakistan was conducive for Chinese investment.

The President’s visit to China took place in the immediate backdrop of the killing of three Chinese workers in the Hub town near Karachi. This was not the first time the Chinese workers were killed by militants of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). A similar incident in Gwadar had claimed three Chinese lives in 2004. This time, however, as soon as the BLA claimed responsibility for the attack, the country’s security forces detained close to 50 of its suspects. There are around 1,000 Chinese workers involved in infrastructure projects and industries in Pakistan. The authorities in Islamabad have assured due protection to Chinese engineers and other workers.

China also seems to understand Pakistan’s security predicament, especially vis-à-vis the Gwadar port in Balochistan, where one of the tribal chieftains, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, has vowed to struggle against Center’s interference in the provincial affairs. As President Hu Jintao made it clear during President Musharraf’s visit that China would cooperate with Pakistan to combat the “three forces,” which he named as “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.”

The construction of Gwadar port threatens the traditional hold of the tribal lords over the poverty and illiteracy ridden populace of Pakistan’s geographically largest but demographically smallest province. There are allegations of external help to BLA, especially from across the Duran Line in Afghanistan, where India has gradually extended its influence. China is also concerned about Islamic militancy spilling into its western Muslim-dominated province of Xinjiang. Pakistan considers the BLA as a terrorist organization, and it has also taken stern action against religious extremists having links with radical Islamic organization in Xinjiang and Central Asian region bordering China.

One of the 13 agreements concluded recently involves cooperation between the two countries’ defense ministries. Another pertains to cooperation in energy cooperation. China has helped Pakistan set up a nuclear power plant at Chashma, and the two recently started to work on a second nuclear power plant at the same site. The Chashma II nuclear power station, with the whole equipment imported from China, had the first concrete poured on the site in December 2005.

The leadership in Islamabad has for some years been looking for diversified domestic and external sources of energy generation, and, for the purpose, has sought further Chinese assistance in the establishment of a few other nuclear power plants with a capability of generating over 8,000 mega watts of electricity.

Under other agreements, Beijing would provide Pakistan with $300 million in loans to buy Chinese goods, and help upgrade the Karakoram Highway, which was badly damaged by the October 8 earthquake. The two sides also signed a pledge to work together on quake research following the massive disaster. Other agreements cover expanding economic ties, cooperation in health, joint work on family planning, a plan to boost two-way trade, meteorological research, fisheries, pesticide management, and an agreement for China to help Pakistan provide vocational training.

From nuclear and missile cooperation to joint defense production ventures such as those covering the production of aircraft and tanks, China and Pakistan have been engaged in a multi-faceted strategic cooperation for several years. It is, however, their joint engagement in building Gwadar port that the two countries’ strategic interests have significantly converged. The strategically significant port of Gwadar located on the shores of Balochistan as well as the main highway linking it to Karachi are being built with over 100 million dollars assistance from China. The deepening of the Gwadar port will be completed in June 2006.

The diplomatic relationship between China and Pakistan began soon after the 1949 Communist revolution in China under the leadership of Mao Tse-Tung. China assisted Pakistan during both 1965 and 1971 wars. Pakistan also facilitated China’s first diplomatic contact with the United States through the so-called Ping Pong Diplomacy. The US Secretary of State under the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger, flew secretly to Biejing via Islamabad in the early 1970s, paving the way for the establishment of full diplomatic ties between China and the United States.

After the death of Mao, politically communist China began an economic transformation towards free market economy under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping—a process that gained further momentum under the presidency of Jiang Zemin. Hu Jintao is one of the ‘fourth generation” of Chinese leaders who have quickened the pace of market reforms in China’s southern regions.

Even though capitalist reforms contradict the authoritarian nature of China’s political system—still led by the Chinese Communist Party—the country continues to surprise the world by showing the highest economic growth rate. Its GDP has shown an annual 10 per cent growth rate for one and a half decade, which is the highest average economic growth rate of an individual country in the world. It is widely predicted that if China’s economic growth rate continues to be at the existing level in the next two decades, it will emerge as the world’s richest economy by 2025, provided the other two economic giants of the world, especially the United States (the richest economy) and Japan, do not economically grow faster than presently.

China’s corporate pursuits have introduced pragmatism in the country’s foreign policy, which is increasingly guided by realistic concerns. Given that, the traditional phenomenon, rooted in a romantic discourse such as the one characterized by phrases like “most-trusted ally,” does not apply as much to Pakistan’s ties with China as it used to be, for instance, during Mao’s rule. It is in this broader context that we should see Pakistan’s strategic relationship with China at present.

As China grows economically, and as world politics shifts from Euro-centric to Asia-centric, principally due to China’s rise, the strategic significance of Gwadar port for China will grow. Pakistan also looks at this port through a strategic prism, especially in the context of its almost a decade-old quest for Central Asian oil and natural gas riches. That is why Islamabad wishes to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Chinese leadership should eventually facilitate Pakistan’s membership in this predominantly Central Asian body.