opinion: Time to get real —Shahzad Chaudhry
China has positioned itself for a leading role in global affairs, and will not sacrifice this advantage for the sake of any emotional connection with another state. Like the Chinese, Pakistanis need to discard their emotions and objectively review and redefine their linkages in view of their own national interests and the new global realities
There is a sacred status
accorded to the special Pakistan-China relationship by successive leaders in Pakistan, evidenced by statements that are usually meant to reassure a gullible public or simply shore up international support. There is no doubt that the relationship has special roots and has been well guarded over the years. However, in the current international environment, with several emerging scenarios in inter-state relations, the Pak-China relationship must be placed in the right perspective.
The 1962 Indo-China war was the catalyst for the evolution of a strategic dimension in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan saw the 1962 military defeat of India as an opportunity to seek strategic balance by seducing China into a relationship where Pakistan would act as a window to China for the world and vice versa. Pakistan began to actively operationalise this relationship by 1964, with Pakistan International Airlines becoming the first ever non-communist airline to fly to China. Soon after, Pakistan fought the 1965 war with India, hoping to seek a military solution to Kashmir while India was still recovering from the 1962 defeat.
Post-1965, a different set of dynamics emerged. The United States, still wary of any communist regime, was concerned with Pakistan’s flirtation with Mao’s China, even though Pakistan was a bona fide member of the US-led SEATO and CENTO alliances. In 1966, China emerged as an alternative to the US for provisioning the first major tranche of weapons to Pakistan as replacement for the 1965 war losses. There was, however, a price that Pakistan paid to retain China’s special favour: it ceded approximately 5000 square kilometres of the contiguous but disputed Aksai Chin to China. The remaining tract of the largely uninhabited area continues to be a source of irritation between India and China.
In due course, Pakistan was instrumental in arranging the first intimate contacts between the United States and China. China’s emerging global status, backed by its economic prowess, relates to that all-important window opened by Pakistan for China in the 1960s in return for perpetual preference in China’s consideration. It has not been easy to retain favour with China ever since.
China became central to Pakistan’s foreign policy after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over in 1971. Soon after, India conducted the 1974 Pokhran nuclear test, forever changing the regional strategic landscape. Having lost half the country and completely dependent on China in the face of India’s declared nuclear ambition, Pakistan became an underdog. This was where Bhutto rose to the occasion and initiated plans to make Pakistan nuclear. A combination of indigenous efforts and Chinese infrastructural support paved the way for Pakistan to match the Indians’ nuclear capability.
Another much publicised aspect of the Pak-China relationship is the Karakoram Highway. This highway is an extension of the Chinese initiative to link its remote western provinces to the region, which began in the 1950s with the Kasghar-Tibet highway through Aksai Chin. This was done in the long-term Chinese interest as it linked Xinjiang with the northern areas of Pakistan, allowing for easier movement of peoples as well as trade; however, our leaders continue to consider it a manifestation of the unconditional and undying love between Pakistan and China.
The Pak-China relationship, as stated earlier, has not been without its price. There has been a continuous give-and-take, and terming the relationship unconditional and holy is misleading. Usually, Chinese support is counted in numerous projects, mostly defence-related, without every questioning the quid pro quo in that relationship. It is a known fact that the Chinese, adept at reverse engineering, always found enough within Pakistan to reverse engineer and benefit from immensely. Pakistan’s professional exposure and quality of human resources was key in introducing the Chinese to technologies and doctrines they did not have access to. Today’s newfound confidence in China has a lot to do with Pakistan introducing them to the ways of the world.
While there is no harm in sharing the good between nations, it is problematic to attach holiness to such relationships beyond reflection or review. We must understand that today’s Chinese is an aggressive marketer; he thinks he knows the Asian mindset better and thus tends to play by the rules that suit a particular market. That such linkages many a times push a poor solution through at inappropriate costs is both damaging and destructive. It is more painful when leaderships at various levels play into such deals willingly for other reasons.
This lop-sided relationship has now been perpetuated for a number of years without any review of its relevance. The large Chinese corporate presence in Pakistan enjoys a reverence beyond any in comparison. But it should not be forgotten that China has always acted on its own interests. Consider that the South Asian region is changing rapidly, with India not only emerging as the most prominent political and economic entity, but also huge market of great interest to China. In addition, China has to consider the American presence in Afghanistan and the Islamist militancy in Xinjiang.
China has positioned itself for a leading role in global affairs, and will not sacrifice this advantage for the sake of any emotional connection with another state. As a mature society, the Chinese are realistic enough to realise the advantages and disadvantages of their linkages. Like the Chinese, Pakistanis need to discard their emotions and objectively review and redefine their linkages in view of their own national interests and the new global realities.
Unfortunately, the reverence that has been bestowed to the Pak-China relationship has blinded most Pakistanis to the ever-changing realities of this relationship. China changed from a close society to a progressively open one under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s and has not looked back since, and has continued to define its relationship with the rest of the world according to its interests. Yet the Pakistani leadership has remained pegged to the historicity of the Pak-China relationship.
Is it really a surprise, then, that China, despite its record foreign exchange reserves, is not willing to part with any significant cash in Pakistan’s most desperate hour? Contemporary China will not sacrifice its global and long-term interests for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s policy should thus be broad-based and congruent to its own short- to long-term interests. It must not be uni-focal, and should not grant any single national exclusive privileges and status. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the Pakistani leadership to educate its public away from emotionalism and towards the dictates of realpolitik and national interest.
For China, in some assessments and in line with their current global leanings, we are but an unnecessary appendage, troublesome because of our image and the difficulties we pose in Xinjiang. Gone are the days when China depended on us as a window to the world; now the world is at China’s doorstep. We should thus devise our policies based on existing imperatives and not on emotional determinants.
The writer is a retired air vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and a former ambassador. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org