Tuesday, April 21, 2015


China Picks Pakistan as First Stop on $40 Billion Silk Road

What China’s and Pakistan’s special friendship means

By Ishaan Tharoor

The friendship between China and Pakistan, read billboards in Chinese and English dotting Islamabad this week, "is higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel." This sort of romantic sloganeering routinely bubbles up ahead of key bilateral summits between the two countries, and so it did this week as Chinese President Xi Jinping made his maiden visit to the South Asian nation.

"This will be my first trip to Pakistan, but I feel as if I am going to visit the home of my own brother," Xi wrote in an article published in Pakistani papers ahead of his arrival, adding another metaphor about how the relationship between the two countries "has flourished like a tree growing tall and strong."

It's easy to see such rhetoric as the cringe-worthy, cynical clap-trap that accompanies international diplomacy. After all, China and Pakistan may share a border, but cultural ties between the two nations and its people are thin, to put it mildly.

But the bond between Beijing and Islambad is indeed old and strong, stretching back to the 1970s and the Nixon administration's opening with China. Here's a primer of what you need to know.

What's happening now

Xi arrived in Islamabad on Monday bearing real gifts: an eye-popping $46 billion worth of planned energy and infrastructure investment to boost Pakistan's flagging economy. This would include adding some 10,400 megawatts to Pakistan's national grid through coal, nuclear and renewable energy projects.

Years of widespread power cuts have been a real drag on the country; energy shortages were one of the main popular grievances voiced ahead of the 2013 elections won by current Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

At the center of what's being announced this week is a new economic "corridor" — railways, roads and pipelines — that would connect an existing mountainous highway from the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang through to the Chinese-developed port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.

It's an impressive proposal, on a scale that we've come to now associate with China's overseas footprint — more usually in corners of Africa. According to the BBC, the Chinese state and its banks would lend to Chinese companies to carry out the work, thereby making it a commercial venture with direct impact on China's slackening economy.
The project is also a key cog in China's own grand-historic vision of itself as a global power and the font of new sea and land "Silk Roads." The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor would link up a major land route in Central Asia to what China imagines will be a key maritime hub at Gwadar.
Sure, there remain real reasons to be skeptical. Much of the new construction would be done in the vast, restive Pakistani province of Baluchistan, where the army is still grappling with an entrenched separatist insurgency. Moreover, as Pakistani journalist and columnist Cyril Almeidapoints out, the proposed Chinese numbers stretch credulity, especially when set against the meager sums currently being invested from the outside into Pakistan's economy. The proof, in this case, will be in the building.
An unequal relationship
The saccharine statements of love and friendship belie a harsher truth. In many ways, this is not a relationship of equals.
Pew survey conducted last year found that an impressive majority of Pakistanis — 78 percent — viewed China favorably. Compare that to the 14 percent of Pakistanis who looked positively upon the U.S., a figure larger only than the 13 percent who have favorable views of India, Pakistan's archrival.
Yet, the same number of Chinese hold favorable views of India and Pakistan — that is, a minority of 30 percent. Surging Pakistani admiration for China, it seems, laps up on the shores of Chinese indifference.
China is one of Pakistan's top trade partners. But the volume of trade with Pakistan is a drop in the bucket for Beijing.
China views Pakistan also through the lens of counter-terrorism: a number of extremist outfits allegedly linked to ethnic Uighur separatists within Xinjiang have training camps in Pakistan's rugged borderlands with Afghanistan. Curiously, in a country where there are frequent displays of solidarity with Muslims suffering elsewhere in the world, the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority chafing under Chinese rule, rarely galvanize much Pakistani support.
The bigger chessboard
There are two elephants in the room whenever considering China-Pakistan ties: India and the United States.
Both China and Pakistan have fought wars with India in the past, and to this day squabble over disputed Himalayan territory. China helped Pakistan build its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and remains one of Islamabad's biggest arms suppliers — even as the U.S. continues to commit significant military aid to Pakistan.
After President Obama was India's guest of honor during its annual Republic Day commemoration last January, Pakistan extended a similar invitation to Xi to attend their National Day parade in February. The Chinese leader declined, perhaps wary of such unsubtle gestures.
As Andrew Small, an expert on China-Pakistan relations at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, writes, it would be an oversimplification to see China's expanding role in Pakistan as just a challenge to a U.S.-India consensus that's emerged in recent years. China, after all, likely values its bilateral relations with the U.S. and India as much — and likely more — than its ties with Pakistan.
While China has a more assertive stance in East Asia — its backyard — it's playing a different game to the west. China's recent offer to help mediate talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Small notes, marks a real departure from decades when Beijing's official policy has been that of non-interference in the politics of other countries.
Now, as the U.S. has technically withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Chinese have become stakeholders and not just bystanders. Guaranteeing stability in Afghanistan may involve China exerting its own leverage on Pakistan, which has a complicated relationship with the Afghan Taliban.
China, Small suggests, "is finally easing into its role as a great power." And, indeed, it's using Pakistan as a corridor.

War in Yemen Threatens Pakistan’s Ties to the Gulf

By Saagar Enjeti

After spearheading a coalition of nine Arab states to bomb Yemen’s Houthi rebels for the past several weeks, Saudi Arabia is trying to attract new partners. It has a good case to recruit Pakistan to join the fight: the Saudis have spent lavishly to cultivate Islamabad as a military ally, recently sending over $1.5 billion in economic aid.
Riyadh attempted to cash in on that commitment in early April, formally requesting Pakistan’s assistance in its campaign in Yemen. But when Pakistan’s parliament took up the matter two weeks ago, not a single member of the national assembly or the senate supported intervention. That decision didn’t take place in a vacuum, either: prior to the vote, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Islamabad to counsel Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Raheel Sharif against authorizing the use of military force in Yemen.
The war in Yemen has put Pakistan at the center of Riyadh and Tehran’s power struggle in the region. What does this mean for Pakistan’s role in the Persian Gulf?
The vote marks a major shift in the relationship between Islamabad and Riyadh. Pakistan has a long history of military cooperation with Saudi Arabia, basing thousands of troops there during the 1991 Gulf war. Sharif himself found refuge in Saudi Arabia after he was exiled in a military coup 16 years ago.
But Riyadh’s sectarian jostling with Iran has deeply impacted Pakistan since then. While Islamabad maintains strong economic and military ties with Saudi Arabia, it recognizes the rising power of Iran. Complicating matters further, the two countries share a 565-mile border.
Pakistan, which has the world’s second-largest Shia population, fears that intervening in Yemen could deepen sectarian conflict within its own borders. Shireen Marazi, a prominent Pakistani politician, expressed fears thatsending troops into Yemen would worsen sectarian tensions within the country. The growing Shiite minority could erupt in protest, especially if the conflict in Yemen further ignites religious tensions.
Pakistan is also wary that intervention could kill a proposed natural gas pipeline project between Iran and Pakistan. This proposed pipeline would supply Pakistan with enough energy to bridge its current electricity shortfall. While Iran has completed its half of the pipeline, Pakistan has refrained from continuing construction, fearing U.S.-imposed trade sanctions for cooperating with Tehran. Under the current framework of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of powers, among the first sanctions lifted by West would be those on Iranian energy exports.
The vote for neutrality and its affirmation by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif demonstrates Pakistan’s commitment to the pipeline plan and to better relations with Iran in the future. Intervening in Yemen against the Houthis, with the Iran nuclear deal in flux, could agitate a vital ally.
Pakistan’s decision to remain neutral in Yemen’s conflict shows that its approach in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula is a challenging balancing act. The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia has manifested itself in war zones throughout the Middle East, including in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Those conflicts, and the friction they cause between Tehran and Riyadh, will make it tough for Pakistan to find a middle ground in its foreign policy.

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