If a head of the state of a friendly nation is arriving for an official visit, who in the host country should receive the guest? Most common answers as enunciated by diplomatic practices around the world could be: the Chief of Protocol, or the Foreign Minister, or both, or may be, for a higher gesture of true friendship, the Prime Minister.
Well, everything appears to fall short when it comes to Pakistan-China relationship. When Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan landed at Pakistan’s Noor Khan Airbase in Islamabad on 20th April for a two-day state visit, they were given a mammoth welcome by Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain, Prime Minister Nawaj Shariff, Defence Minister Khwaja Asif, together with almost entire Pakistani Cabinet. Chief of Pakistan’s military General Raheel Sharif led the queue of the state dignitaries that waited to welcome the guests.
This welcome matched the unprecedented financial aid of $ 46 billion to Pakistan extended by President Xi during the visit. Comparing the $ 7.5 billion assistance over the five year period from 2009 to 2014 from the US, which also considers Pakistan a closest ally ever, US officials were left to chagrin, admitting that the Chinese aid had dwarfed theirs in Pakistan, reported Dawn in Pakistan and The New York Times in the USA.
Pakistan, in view of the deepening tensions in Afghanistan and hurt by the covert US military action in Pakistani territory against Osama Bin Laden four years ago, has strategically sought to nurture the impression that potential fall out with America would nudge it closer towards China. It has actually done so in recent years.
In any case, Pakistan and China have remained close partners over decades. The leaders and officials in the two countries go beyond the formal diplomatic phrase of “all-weather friendship” to describe their bilateral relations and employ the metaphors that are often used by the love-stricken college couples, saying that their association is “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey, and so on.” Pakistani authorities left no stone unturned to display this during the two-day visit of Xi Jinping.
Leaving the metaphors aside and coming to pragmatic politics, the partnership between the two nuclear neighbors certainly remains the geopolitical balancing factor for both. While Pakistan serves as China’s closest Islamic ally and South Asian partner, China for Pakistan balances Indian strategic interests in South Asia, and American presence in Afghanistan, including at the global stage.
The current visit of the Chinese president comes at a time when the younger generation of Pakistan dreams more of development and economic progress over religious fanaticism. Islamic fundamentalism remains a problem but a powerful parallel narrative of progress, driven by aspirational Pakistanis is also rising.
Therefore, the massive chunk of the $46 billion dollar aid, to be spent in the period of next fifteen years, is being channeled towards starting new infrastructure projects and completing certain ongoing ones that the two countries bill strategically important.
A total of 51 agreements were signed between the two sides during this visit. Signaling the immediate implementation of the deal, President Xi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif performed a remote inauguration of five projects via video link. These projects included the $1.65 billion Karot dam to be constructed by China Three Gorges Company over the next three years on the Jhelum River, capable of producing 720 MW of hydroelectricity. Add to this the $1.5 billion Bahawalpur solar power park, with the capacity of 900 MW.
The biggest of all projects was the rail and road network amounting $28 billion, connecting Pakistan’s Gwadar Port in the Arabian Sea with China’s Xinjiang Province in the southwest. Known as Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, the network travels through Pakistan’s tribal Baluchistan into the restive Uighur of China, and deep down into the Central Asian Region. This corridor is the part of China’s ambitious plan of reviving ancient Silk Road linking Asia and Europe. The corridor would shorten the trade route bypassing the Strait of Malacca in the Pacific Ocean, which China thinks is surrounded by US allies and, therefore, is fraught with dangers at wartime.
China has recognized the importance of the warm-water, deep-see port of Gwadar in Baluchistan. Its companies were awarded initial construction in 1998, completing the work in eight years. China has now agreed to fund a massive expansion of the port at the cost of over $1.5 billion, with an objective of transforming this trade point into the high-volume, blue- water port. The trade between the two countries is rapidly increasing. It touched $10 billion this year, up by 200% from five years ago.
The aspects of Military assistance were played down in the narrative of the highly celebrated trip, apparently not to raise nerves in India and beyond. The most evident deal was $5 billion sale of eight Chinese submarines to Pakistan.
Pakistan has conventionally looked up to the US for military supplies and technology. But in 1989, US President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker imposed military sanctions on Pakistan over its nuclear weapons program, which continued until the 9/11 terror attacks, forcing the US to redefine its policy with Pakistan and Afghanistan. China monopolized the supply of military hardware to Pakistan during these thirteen years of sanctions, contributing to the further consolidation Pakistan’s missile program, as opposed to the US desire of keeping it to a status quo, if not weaken.
The new Chinese submarines would enable Pakistan to fire nuclear weapons at sea, giving it parity with arch-rival India. This has raised questions over Chinese intentions as this would further fuel South Asia’s militarization. “The submarine sale will add to tensions in regional waters as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi bulks up India’s navy to prevent China from gaining a foothold in the area”, Bloomberg reported.
Pakistan has one of the most aggressive nuclear programs in the world. Their sixth nuclear test at Kharan in 1998 successfully developed “powerful plutonium bomb” compatible to be carried in land water and air.
Pakistan’s plutonium based nuclear weapons program with Tritium tasted success thanks to Chinese technology. In 2010, China provided Pakistan with two atomic reactors, breaching the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), according to which China as a member of the 45-nation Nuclear Supplier Group is prohibited from nuclear trade with the non-member of NPT like Pakistan. Compared against the recent efforts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi getting Uranium deals with USA, Canada and Australia, Pakistan’s militarization is likely to fuel new security problems in the South Asian region. Love in Islamabad has sent the bells ringing in Delhi and Washington.
Dhakal is a strategic affairs analyst in Kathmandu
Email: [email protected]