Pakistan playing ball with China. Common enemy India the reason?

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Wajahat S. Khan |

Nawaz Sharif isn’t much of an orator. He rarely gives one-on-one interviews, and when he does, he has usually got an aide or two hanging around, whispering the appropriate response in his ear for a tough one, even handing him a scribbled note to read out.

The Man of Steel, as the industrial magnate has been baptised for his political prowess and foundry background, isn’t much of a number-cruncher either, and Punjabi jokes come more easily to him than statistics: all very unbecoming traits for the premier of a raucous land.

But before he holed himself up in Islamabad’s lush Prime Minister House last week, digging in to defend his family from the increasingly inquisitive Panama Papers probe, Sharif was most confident, even cavalier about one subject: the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

In a long roster of public appearances he made before being snowed under by the ongoing graft investigation, the usually taciturn Sharif had taken the lead in promoting the $50 billion trade and infrastructure Chi-Pak project as his own.

In his first speech to the nation on Independence Day in 2013, he promised to make Pakistan a “hub of economic and political activities” with its newly enhanced but iron-clad China partnership. Just two weeks later, at the induction ceremony of an ‘indigenously built’ frigate fitted by the China Shipbuilding Trading Company in Karachi, he would use what would become his favourite phrase for the next four years: “Game changer”.

Fast getting clarity and not yet past his first quarter in office, by mid-September 2013, Sharif was telling Turkish businessmen in Ankara to invest in a ‘corridor’ he was making with Beijing. By the end of the month, he was sharing his plans at the United Nations, telling the General Assembly that Pakistan wanted to work with Afghanistan to “establish and reinforce regional trade, energy and communication corridors”.

A month later, he would announce at an American Business Council lunch in Washington that “Pakistan’s proximity to two of the world’s largest markets-China and India” would place her in the “middle of all the action” as she geared up for something he would finally give a name to the “Pakistan China Economic Corridor”.

But ‘PCEC’ didn’t have the same ring as ‘CPEC’, and once the senior partner in the pact officially took over the title as well as the driver’s seat, marked by a state visit from President Xi Jingping in 2015, Sharif never looked back.

Ribbon cuttings, political speeches, power lunches and state dinners, there was never a time when Sharif was not flexing his China muscle in this premiership. Perhaps overexcited at a launch ceremony, he told an audience in Balochistan last winter that the project was conceived just two years ago (not entirely true, the Chinese reportedly pitched CPEC to Pervez Musharraf in some form as far back as 2003). Still, the fact-checking didn’t stop his courtiers from calling him the “architect” and “co-creator” of the project.

Meanwhile, Pakistanis of all sorts, business journalists, labour rights leaders, opposition politicians, ethnic nationalists, called him out for making CPEC a close-to-home project for himself and his own constituency, Punjab. In return, he unleashed his Wharton-schooled spin doctors on the talk show circuit. Soon enough, the CPEC civil war had erupted, and the project’s transparency was called into account. But like Le Carre’s Tailor of Panama, Nawaz had stitched a tale longer than any wardrobe could bear. The Mayfair Apartments scandal took over. The supreme court stepped in. And now, just a bad hearing or three away from being disqualified, he’s angling again: ruin Nawaz and ruin CPEC, or so his ruling Pakistan Muslim League would have us believe.

“If you lose political and economic stability right now, another 20,000 soldiers guarding CPEC won’t be able to stop the damage to this project,” warned planning minister Ahsan Iqbal. ‘We will make CPEC a success, Inshallah, come what may’, came the press release from the Army General Headquarters. It was quoting Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Thus, from being the only same page issue between the government and the army, CPEC has morphed into a potential civil-military flashpoint.

Away from Islamabad, down south, another component of CPEC is unfurling: China is coming to a naval theatre near you. Senior officials say they see ‘clear possibilities’ of Chinese military bases coming up on Pakistani soil, a development that would allow China extended access to the Indian Ocean.

China most likely will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a long-standing friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries,’ said the report, titled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017’.

Likely to be naval, with docking, refitting and even partial rebuild facilities for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the bases are likely to be on the Makran coast of Balochistan, the restive Pakistani province that sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, leading to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, some of the world’s most vital maritime, trade and energy corridors.

Read more:Beijing derides chatter of establishing military bases in Pakistan

A Pentagon report released in early June had also focused on China setting up military bases abroad. ‘China most likely will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a long-standing friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries,’ said the report, titled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017’.

“The bases can only be at Gwadar, with some rebuild facilities, and also in Ormara and Jiwani, as that is where the threat has to be mitigated,” a high-ranking Pakistani military official confirms, on the condition of anonymity, referring to three of the four main coastal cities of Balochistan, the largest of which, Gwadar, already has a commercial port built and operated by the Chinese.

Common Enemy

The ‘threat’, of course, is India, and other common friends, or now estranged partners, like the US and Iran. “Both Pakistan and China have a shared interest in leveraging the commons, and specifically the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for military and economic purposes and so would be interested in balancing US dominance and Indian strengths in the IOR,” says Sameer Lalwani of the Stimson Center, from Washington.

Read more:Is India all-set for Himalayan blunder 2.0?

The logic isn’t stretched. As theirs has been a long-enduring relationship, crafted from a security perspective revolving around containing India (and more recently, influencing Afghanistan), China, already Pakistan’s largest arms supplier would like to see it beefed up as a permanent South Asian bulwark against India. As for Pakistan, it wouldn’t mind an all powerful China in its backyard, providing extra cover against smaller players like India and Iran.

While the Chinese foreign ministry slammed the US report as ‘conjecture’, a senior diplomat confirms that Pakistan requested China to build a naval facility in Gwadar as far back as 2011, during  then premier Yousaf Raza Gillani’s visit to Beijing, just days after the US Navy SEAL raid to kill Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad. “The more that’s left unsaid, the better for Sino-Pak security purposes,” says the diplomat, asking not to be named. “Also, Pakistan isn’t Djibouti, so there’s little need for a pen-and-paper deal.”

“Cooperation between the two sides is so long-standing there is scope for more flexible arrangements, most importantly, reliable access for PLAN to Pakistani ports,” says Andrew Small, author of The China Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics. “The two sides can plan for developing facilities in Karachi, Gwadar or Ormara that the PLA can use whenever it needs without having to take the sensitive step of providing a separate base.”

“Primarily, we see a Chinese naval base in some shape or form at Gwadar, as half of Chinese oil imports move through the Strait of Hormuz,” assesses a Pakistani naval intelligence officer. “But survival is about keeping pace with change. India switched from non-aligned to its current American tilt, didn’t it? For a country like Pakistan, which has an existential threat from a larger enemy, we need an equalizer against India. Previously, it was the US and Saudi [Arabia]. Now, it’s China.”

One Belt, One Road, Two Bros

On June 11, as three Chinese warships docked for a training mission at Karachi port, where China is already manufacturing four attack submarines for its ally as a part of its biggest arms deal yet, nobody important skipped lunch at the port call reception, despite Ramzan.

As Pakistani admirals reaffirmed their country’s role in President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative with their all-hands-on-deck speeches, the famous ‘all-weather friendship’ of the two ‘Iron Brothers’ remained in play. OBOR is the new gravy train helping pull the contemporary Sino-Pak partnership. Crucially, Pakistan is banking on over $50 billion in OBOR loans and grants from China to develop CPEC, running from the landlocked western Chinese province of Xinjiang down to its Gwadar port, connecting Chinese trade and supplies to the larger Indian Ocean. “The economic relationship has previously been extremely weak and China has previously been very reluctant even to contemplate a serious overseas military presence,” says Small. “There is a significant correction going on now, on both counts.”

Read more:The differing futures of Pakistan and China. Does Beijing get a…

That correction is key. With CPEC kicked off, Pakistan’s success becomes a yardstick for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In effect, the Islamic Republic remains too big to fail for the People’s Republic, now more than ever. If it does falter, analysts think that Beijing will need to take measures to safeguard its own assets, too.

“OBOR would certainly provide a good reason for China to engage in such basing,” says Lalwani. “The CPEC intensifies Chinese investments and exposure in the region, so they have strong incentives to protect their assets.”

Basing isn’t a new concept for China. With an under construction military base in Djibouti and the man-made islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is showing an increasing interest in the protection of its sea lines of communication (SLOCs), if not power projection.

From Balochistan to Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan is gearing up to protect the under-construction Chinese trade routes. Its army has raised two new infantry divisions, speckled with commando, paramilitary and police units (around 15,000 personnel strong), to protect Chinese workers and investments.

As CPEC unfurls, Chinese presence in Pakistan is being felt in many ways. There are already over 50,000 Chinese nationals in Islamabad, says an intelligence official. Chinese companies are booking whole apartment blocks in the city, even as schools introduce compulsory Mandarin classes and banks adopt yuan-friendly practices.

Read more:CPEC: A game-changing project

PLA Part Deux

From Balochistan to Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan is gearing up to protect the under-construction Chinese trade routes. Its army has raised two new infantry divisions, speckled with commando, paramilitary and police units (around 15,000 personnel strong), to protect Chinese workers and investments. Hotel lobbies are filled with plainclothes officers tasked with protecting incoming Chinese visitors. The Frontier Corps in Balochistan, a vital component of CPEC security, has asked for and is getting as many as 50 new battalion-sized wings. Even the military academy in Kakul has increased its cadet intake by a third since CPEC was formally launched.

“No doubt, CPEC is going to be great, Inshallah. But remember: the Chinese are Chinese first, businessmen second and Pakistan’s brothers third,” warned the infantry officer who has been tasked with securing the Army’s largest land area of responsibility, Balochistan.

Read more: CPEC: Prosperity project

But interviews with a range of military personnel indicate that while Pakistan is confident about its ground forces protecting CPEC, there are gaps on the coast and at sea. Even though China continues to arm it, the Pakistan navy (and its Marines, in charge of port security) is the smallest and least funded of its three services. That’s where PLAN, already present in the Arabian Sea on the premise of anti-piracy operations, and other Chinese elements come in. “Chinese deployments in Pakistan could range from intelligence personnel, naval forces, air forces to support missions in Central Asia, or even special forces or counter-terrorism strike capabilities,” says Lalwani. But nobody, not even the People’s Republic of China, can pitch a tent in Pakistan and not worry about the weather.

Pakistan First, China Later

Last summer, when a Chinese nuclear attack submarine quietly docked in Karachi, no one noticed. As the development finally surfaced, Indian analysts were alarmed but the news didn’t even make it to Pakistan’s rowdy evening bulletins. Local editors saw nothing remarkable about a Chinese submarine doing its first port call in South Asia, that too at Pakistan’s strategic nerve centre. But days later, in an auditorium in Quetta, Lt Gen. Aamer Riaz, the man who runs Pakistan’s Southern Command, and former boss of military operations, made an important comment reflecting the strategic community’s stand on Sino-Pak ties. “No doubt, CPEC is going to be great, Inshallah. But remember: the Chinese are Chinese first, businessmen second and Pakistan’s brothers third,” warned the infantry officer who has been tasked with securing the Army’s largest land area of responsibility, Balochistan. “We should think the same way: Pakistan first, the business of the state next, then comes China.” Chinese military presence in Pakistan, or its effect on the country’s sovereignty, isn’t going to go unnoticed, or without debate.

“There is a firm opinion against any bases being given to any foreign country inside Pakistan. We’ve seen what happened when we gave such rights to the Americans,” says Lt Gen. Javed Ashraf, retired chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, referring to the forward bases Pakistan controversially granted to the US for military operations in Afghanistan and drone attacks in its own tribal areas in the 2000s. But Pakistani forces now depend on Chinese aid, and Chinese aid, while more readily available, doesn’t come cheap.

Wajahat S. Khan is reporting and producing for NBC News, America’s largest news network, and is the National Security Correspondent for Dunya News. He has reported extensively from the forward defended localities on the War on Terror. Besides, he remained associated with the CNN and BBC. The article was published in India Today and is being republished with permission.The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Wajahat S. Khan is reporting and producing for NBC News, America's largest news network, and is the National Security Correspondent for Dunya News. He has reported extensively from the forward defended localities on the War on Terror. Besides, he remained associated with the CNN and BBC.

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