Can China help stabilise Pakistan?

December 11, 2009

forbidden cityWhen President Barack Obama suggested in Beijing last month that China and the United States could cooperate on bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and indeed to “all of South Asia”, much of the attention was diverted to India, where the media saw it as inviting unwarranted Chinese interference in the region.

But what about asking a different question? Can China help stabilise the region?

As I wrote in this analysis, China — Islamabad’s most loyal partner — is an obvious country for the United States to turn to for help in working out how to deal with Pakistan.

It already has substantial economic stakes in the region, including in the Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan and Gwadar port in Pakistan. Its economy would be the first to gain from any peace settlement which opened up trade routes and improved its access to oil, gas and mineral resources in Central Asia and beyond. It also shares some of Washington’s concerns about Islamist militancy, particularly if this were to spread unrest in its Muslim Xinjiang region.

There is virtually no chance of Beijing sending military forces to Pakistan or Afghanistan. But Chinese support could come in the form of pressure on Pakistan, help for its economy, and at least tacit backing for U.S. actions and demands.

It already indicated a willingness to take a more nuanced approach to Pakistan when it supported a U.N. ban on the Jamaat ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, after last year’s attack on Mumbai. It is also looking for ways to help bolster Pakistan’s economy –a Pakistani finance ministry official said this week that Pakistan was in talks with China on a currency-swap deal with the aim of conserving its foreign exchange reserves.

But Chinese antipathy to interference in other countries’ affairs, a divergence of views on exactly what needs to happen in Pakistan, and China-India rivalry all limit how far Beijing can be roped into helping on Pakistan.

You can see the rest of the analysis here, or read this very detailed report (pdf) by the German Marshall Fund of the United States on the possibilities for greater Chinese involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For now the jury is still out on how far China and the United States can work together on Afghanistan and Pakistan, at least in the short term. In the longer term, the path is fraught with difficulties, not least because of tensions between China and India dating back to their 1962 border war.

Historically, rivalry between India and China has had a major impact on Pakistan. At its most obvious level, India developed nuclear bombs in response to the perceived threat from China; Pakistan developed nuclear bombs — with help from China — in response to the perceived threat from India.

torchlightBut Sino-Indian rivalry has also played out in less predictable ways. India, Pakistan and China all hold parts of Jammu and Kashmir, the former kingdom which has been the cause of much of the tension in South Asia since partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

The 1962 war was triggered by what India saw as Chinese encroachment in the Aksai Chin on the remote fringes of the former kingdom. Years later, when India began sending military expeditions to explore the Siachen glacier — a move that escalated into open conflict with Pakistan in 1984 — its interest was underpinned by concerns about China’s presence in the region. Even today, India is wary about Chinese investment in dams on the side of the former kingdom under Pakistani control.

If you consider the China-Indian border then stretches from the Kashmir for 3,500 kms to the east — where the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is itself a source of tension with China — you have a minefield for a U.S. administration which would like China’s help in stabilising the region. And all that is while trying to encourage Pakistan and India to reduce their own tensions as part of its efforts to reverse a stalemate in Afghanistan.

(Photos: President Barack Obama visits the Forbidden City in Beijing; torchlight protest in Kashmir)

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