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The Sum of All Things

The Eagle

Oct 15, 2015
The Sum of All Things
Published inHilal English

Written By: Zarrar Khuhro

“The old is dead, and the new cannot yet be born.”
(Antonio Gramsci)

Say what you want about the Cold War, it was at least a time of relatively certainty. Lines were clearly drawn, alliances were well-defined and the world was divided neatly into first, second and third categories.

And while there were wars, coups and massacres, the world remained frozen in place for the most part with superpower rivalry being the main geopolitical driver.

But all things must come to an end and so did the Cold War, with the following thaw ushering an era of relative flux where the triumphant U.S. sought to enjoy the spoils of war while other nations sought to adjust themselves to the New World Order – some with more success than others.

While the United States looked around for the next great rival to define itself against, no real contenders showed up until the geopolitical earthquake of 9/11. The events of that fateful day plunged the world into the so-called War on Terror, embroiling the U.S. into a conflict in Afghanistan and then into the disastrous neocon adventure that was the occupation of Iraq. While these wars did indeed shatter what remained of regional order, especially in the Middle East, they also distracted the U.S. from completing what would later be called the ‘Asian Pivot’, a realignment of forces towards the Pacific in an attempt to contain and curb an increasingly prosperous and assertive China. Now, with the U.S. virtually divorced from Middle Eastern affairs (after having effectively plunged the region into a mini world war), it is free to focus on China and the East – though China has indeed taken advantage of the breathing space the War on Terror afforded it. So with what seems like a new system of alliances emerging, what is Pakistan’s place in the world? Admittedly this is a vast topic and one better suited for a book, but one shall attempt to cover as many bases as possible in this piece.

The Way of the Dragon
Before we examine what CPEC means for Pakistan-China relations, we have to understand what this project, and the larger One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project that it is a part of, means for China.

Let’s start with what then-president Hu Jintao called the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ back in 2003. He referred to the Malacca straits, a narrow 850km stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra – a crucial maritime thoroughfare through which about 80% of China’s oil imports have to pass. In the event of a blockade in these straits, China would face a crisis of great proportions given the lack of a viable alternate sea route to provide the massive amount of energy that China needs.

Then we must turn to the increasingly contentious South China Sea, where an arbitration council recently gave a ruling against China’s claims on this body of water. Here we see Japan, South Korea and other littoral nations, backed by the U.S. both diplomatically and militarily, opposing China’s claims. Undeterred, China is going ahead with a variety of measures such as the deployment of naval assets and the construction of artificial islands that could potentially serve as naval staging posts. However, in the unlikely event of a military confrontation, China will certainly find herself outgunned just as it finds itself relatively cornered diplomatically. Granted the Phillippines president Duterte seems to have flipped to China, but whether that results in an actual realignment remains to be seen.

All this points to the need for an alternative trade route or series of routes, and that’s where OBOR comes in. Here we have two major components: the Silk Road Economic Belt, roughly analogous to the ancient Silk Road, and the Maritime Silk Road – anchored by naval bases in friendly countries, stretching from China’s coast all the way to Africa. Where CPEC comes in as a 3,000 kilometer long corridor linking the Belt and Road.

But that’s just one part of the picture. OBOR also aims at creating a network of regional economies that will be, to one extent or another, dependent on the Chinese economy and thus politically tied to Beijing. Once complete, this network will also provide immense diplomatic dividends to China, as nations whose economic well-being depends on China will be inclined to lend it support in diplomatic forums.

Yet another reason for OBOR’s importance to China is purely domestic. China pulled off one economic miracle in the recent past, lifting some 800 million people out of poverty, but maintaining that prosperity entails finding work for Chinese industries which are increasingly operating below capacity. Moreover, China faces the issue of increasing domestic economic inequality and must now transfer resources from its prosperous coastal areas to the relatively underdeveloped hinterland in order to stave off discontent that could potentially destabilize Beijing. CPEC in particular aims to do just that, by turning the remote area of Kashgar into a trade hub.

Thus, we see that OBOR represents for China the solution to various strategic, diplomatic and economic issues and that its importance is nothing short of paramount. It does not then take a great deal of imagination to recognize that Pakistan’s importance to China has also increased manifold – something that is reflected by increasingly close ties and coordinated diplomatic support. The Chinese have also become uncharacteristically active in their outreach of late, with the Chinese embassy issuing statements and data on CPEC in an apparent attempt to address domestic Pakistani concerns and the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan Sun Weidong also recently met PTI Chairman Imran Khan where CPEC was the main topic of discussion.

At the same time, we see increased jockeying for influence between China and India when it comes to the Maritime Silk Road, with both countries actively courting littoral states to try and draw them into their respective orbits.

Early last year Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed several deals with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in what was billed as Modi’s first ‘big ticket achievement’ in the diplomatic field. For China this was something of a reversal of fortune, as the previous Sri Lankan president, Rajapakse, had pointedly increased defence cooperation with China, which funded the construction of a port in Colombo and also provided soft loans for a variety of infrastructural projects.

The tiny island nation of the Maldives is also being similarly wooed, with China said to be interested in building a port in the Southern part of the country – the Laamu Atoll – which India fears could be used to host troops and naval assets. China is already providing funding for the expansion of Maldives’ international airport, all of which is happening despite Maldives’ stated ‘India-first’ policy, and there are concerns in New Delhi that Maldives may be slipping into the Chinese orbit. One should of course note that the Indian Navy has maintained a presence in Maldives since 2009, and that the country’s former president, Mohamed Nasheed has been outspoken about his country’s increasing closeness to Beijing, in an attempt to curry Indian favour.

Armed with these examples, we now have a suitable context to examine Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Bangladesh, the first by a Chinese head of state in 30 years. During this ‘milestone’ visit deals worth over $21 billion were signed, which was in addition to previous multi-billion dollar investments made by Chinese companies in Bangladesh. China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner with trade crossing $10 billion and Bangladesh is already a major buyer of Chinese weapons, second only to Pakistan according to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Another misstep by India that has yet to be sufficiently exploited is its open endorsement of Baloch insurgent groups which have declared CPEC as a prime target. That’s a move sure to invite Chinese chagrin, especially if Chinese nationals are targeted in Pakistan and is certainly a point Pakistan can use diplomatically. Moreover, a somewhat less explored area is how Iran, which is concerned with possible separatist feelings amongst its Baloch population, is viewing this Indian declaration. Certainly there too is a possible schism in Tehran’s relations with New Delhi that can be exploited.
Naturally, this is ringing some alarm bells in India which fears that China may thus gain access to the Bay of Bengal. However, geography dictates that Dhaka will remain closer to New Delhi while also taking advantage of Chinese largesse.

While Bangladesh will not be spinning out of the Indian orbit anytime soon, it does give an indication of the shape of Beijing’s OBOR-linked diplomacy and its attempts to curtail Indian influence.

The importance of this outreach is magnified when we consider that India is also attempting to make similar inroads in China’s sphere of influence, as evidenced by the Malabar naval exercises held with the U.S. and Japan in the Philippines Sea this year and India’s stance on the South China Sea arbitration council ruling.

As New Delhi moves more firmly into its strategic alliance with the United States, one can expect more countermoves from Beijing, but given the massive trade volume between India and China one should not expect push to come to shove anytime soon and nor should Pakistan take Chinese support for granted. After all, the business of China is business and the stated Chinese policy is to emphasise economic development over military confrontation – something we could stand to learn from. As a case in point, take the Bangladesh example; China did not recognize that country in 1971 and opposed its entry to the United Nations but now, spurred by its own interests, is no longer looking at Dhaka through a Pakistani prism.

The Russian Enigma
Beaten and bruised though it may have been, the Bear is back – sort of. For decades, a supine Russia shorn of its Soviet Empire watched haplessly as NATO expanded ever closer to Russia’s borders and former client states and allies defected to the West.

A pushback was inevitable, as even a casual reading of Russian history would tell us and a pushback – from Ukraine to the Crimea and all the way to Georgia – is what we are seeing.

Taking advantage of the United States’ relative disengagement from the Middle East, Putin has recently sent what is Russia’s largest naval deployment since the Cold War to aid its ruthless campaign in Syria – which has already effectively become a proving ground for Russian arms technology and tactics.

Engaged in an alliance with Bashar-al Assad and Iran, Russia has now become one of the main power brokers in the Middle East – a considerable irony given the new era of U.S.-Iran cooperation that the Iran nuclear deal was supposed to usher in.

Another component of Russian strategy is to stymie the U.S.’ ‘Asian Pivot’ by forging closer ties with China, something that became rather evident when Russia and China staged joint naval exercises in the South China Sea in September this year.

But at the same time, the U.S. is becoming closer to countries that were previously considered close Russian allies, such as India – which has also prompted a pushback from Moscow.

It is in these contexts that the recent improvements in Pakistan-Russia ties should be viewed. Make no mistake, Moscow and Islamabad moving closer in recent years is a break from their historic Cold War hostility. This is evident by a number of factors above and beyond the recent Druzhba-2016 military exercises held between Russia and Pakistan. While these have been billed as the ‘first-ever’ such exercises, one should bear in mind that Russia has held two previous naval exercises – Arabian Monsoon 2014 and Arabian Monsoon 2015 – with Pakistan, though the Druzhba exercises are more significant in that they are ‘real’ military exercises involving combat troops.

Nor is this exercise the only example of growing Russo-Pakistani ties; in 2014 an agreement on military technical cooperation was signed and the Russian-Pakistani Consultative Group on Strategic Stability is very much functional. Also, when Russia was imposed an embargo on food supplies from the West in 2014 in retaliation for sanctions imposed over Ukraine, Pakistan stepped in to take advantage of the vacuum by enhancing food exports to Russia. Another move that has slipped under the radar is the construction of a North-South gas pipeline between Russia and Pakistan with an estimated cost of $2 billion and an expected annual capacity of up to 12.4 billion cubic meters of gas. Work on this project, a partnership between RT Global Resources, a subsidiary of Russia's state technologies corporation Rostec, and Pakistani Inter State Gas System, has already begun. And then there is of course Russia’s support for Pakistan’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

In and of themselves these projects and liaisons are not earth-shattering, but viewed in the backdrop of the previously contentious relations between Pakistan and Russia these are indeed significant.

Here one must also bear in mind that for Russia, Indo-Pak relations are not a zero-sum game. Russia’s historic ties with India will certainly be maintained and Moscow – which essentially has only weapons and energy to offer – will not miss out on the chance to get a slice of the lucrative Indian defense market for Pakistan’s sake. Take for example, the multi-billion dollar defense and energy deals recently signed by Indian PM Modi and Russian President Putin.

Viewed on a larger canvas, Russia’s burgeoning ties with China – and by extension, Pakistan – are also diplomatic bargaining tools in its relations with the U.S. and India. Nevertheless, the openings that have been made in relations with Moscow are positive and should be further developed without regard to Russia’s relations with India. Indeed, we should take pains to not emulate the increasingly shrill and unrealistic tone adopted by Indian diplomats in their rather unsuccessful attempts to ‘isolate’ Pakistan.

A Game of Chess
While a chessboard is black and white, we must bear in mind that the world we live in is defined by shades of grey. A world in flux is one in which adaptability is a key survival trait for any nation, and especially for one positioned as complex as Pakistan.

Given that our strategic outlook is largely determined by a seemingly unending confrontation with a much larger neighbour, we need to avoid the trap of engaging in an ultimately self-defeating arms race. Indeed, to hearken back to the Cold War, it is this very race that eventually doomed the USSR. While it is tempting to view the world primarily through a security lens, one cannot escape the corollary that a strong defence is impossible without a strong economy, and that in turn is impossible without a strong educational and social base.

When it comes to the field of diplomacy, the temptation to view relations with other countries, whether neighboring or otherwise, purely through an Indian lens (a local variant of ‘you are with us or against us’) must be avoided at all costs. Indeed, we need to take advantage of miscalculations made by India and in fact exploit those miscalculations. Take for example India’s comically failed attempt to use BRICS as a platform for Pakistan-bashing, something that even sections of the usually shrill and jingoistic Indian media reluctantly admitted. While India overplays its hand by raising the issue of terrorism and Pakistan at fora where such talk is politely ignored, Pakistan can and should present itself as a state keen to do business with others and act in a responsible manner.

Another misstep by India that has yet to be sufficiently exploited is its open endorsement of Baloch insurgent groups which have declared CPEC as a prime target. That’s a move sure to invite Chinese chagrin, especially if Chinese nationals are targeted in Pakistan and is certainly a point Pakistan can use diplomatically. Moreover a somewhat less explored area is how Iran, which is concerned with possible separatist feelings amongst its Baloch population, is viewing this Indian declaration. Certainly there too is a possible schism in Tehran’s relations with New Delhi that can be exploited. Of course, this is not enough in and of itself and must be matched with developing closer economic ties with Iran as well, and CPEC gives us the opportunity to do just that. Iran has already expressed its desire to participate in CPEC, something that has been welcomed by China, and has taken pains to stress that the Chabahar project is not meant as a rival to Gwadar. Whether or not that is true, Iranian frustration with what they see as the slow pace of the Chabahar project is increasingly evident. Here, one advantage we can leverage is Pakistan’s rather deft avoidance of getting entangled in the Saudi-Iran proxy conflict that is raging across the Middle East.

For the purposes of brevity, a detailed analysis of Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan and the U.S. has been omitted, but suffice it to say that the same pragmatic approach that we need to adopt in our relations with other countries applies here as well. In the emerging multipolar world, the old dictum that states have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, holds truer than ever.

The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV Channel.
E-mail: zarrar.khuhro@gmail.com

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