China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-building economic ties

April 28, 2011

During a visit to Beijing in late 2009, President Barack Obama asked China to help stabilise Pakistan and Afghanistan. The logic was obvious. China is a long-standing ally of Pakistan with growing investments there and in Afghanistan; it has the money to pay for the economic development and trade both countries need; and with its own worries about its Uighur minority, it is suspicious of militant Islamists.  The challenge was in achieving this without angering India, which fought a border war with China in 1962 and is wary of its alliance with Pakistan.

A year-and-a-half on, efforts to forge that economic cooperation between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in full swing – though perhaps not entirely in the way Obama envisaged. The Wall Street quoted Afghan officials as saying that Pakistan was lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the United States, urging him instead to look to Pakistan and China for help.

“The pitch was made at an April 16 meeting in Kabul by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who bluntly told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the Americans had failed them both, according to Afghans familiar with the meeting,” the newspaper said. “Mr. Karzai should forget about allowing a long-term U.S. military presence in his country, Mr. Gilani said, according to the Afghans. Pakistan’s bid to cut the U.S. out of Afghanistan’s future is the clearest sign to date that, as the nearly 10-year war’s endgame begins, tensions between Washington and Islamabad threaten to scuttle America’s prospects of ending the conflict on its own terms.”

The Pakistan government has denied it made this suggestion, as did a spokesman for Karzai quoted by the newspaper.  Neither country is in a position to turn its back on the United States, still the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power. But there is at least a kernel of truth in there, buried under a lot of spin which the Wall Street Journal itself said was probably an attempt by Afghan officials to influence talks on the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops withdraw in 2014.

Indeed a lot of what is included in the Wall Street Journal story has been said in public by Pakistan itself, albeit without the same spin. 

 Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani told a news conference in Kabul that he and Karzai had agreed there was no military solution for Afghanistan. And they had agreed to work together to build economic and trade ties to seek stability through economic development.

“It has become imperative that we join our efforts and take ownership of our affairs so that we can overcome the pressing challenges. We believe that given the enormous resources – both human and natural – of our two countries, our collective economic potential is phenomenal,” he said.

“We have, today, agreed to give high priority and to work together the development track. This means optimally utilizing our natural economic complementarities and that of the region as a whole, for socio-economic development and prosperity. Several important mega projects, including trans-regional projects, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline; building of electricity transmission lines; enhancing physical connectivity by building or upgrading requisite infrastructure, including road and rail transportation and communication links as well as expediting the implementation mechanisms for the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement etc. need to be fast-tracked.”

Any talk of building up trade, oil pipelines and roads, at least from a Pakistan point of view, invariably involves China with its large and growing market. China has several thousand labourers in Pakistan working on infrastructure and building, repairing or expanding roads, which would open up trade routes and also link up with Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port of Gwadar, giving it access to Gulf oil supplies.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has always said it regards China as an “all weather” friend. Its top officials, including Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, have visited Beijing regularly.  (the Foreign Secretary will be Beijing for talks on April 28-29). And it has never made any secret of its concern that the United States, which abandoned the region after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989, might do so again. That concern is growing as the United States becomes mired in the Middle East and faces mounting economic difficulties, exacerbated by rising oil prices.

So logically, it would make sense for Pakistan to forge economic partnerships with Afghanistan and China. The question is whether this automatically means a loss for the United States. Arguably, better economic conditions would make it easier to stabilise Afghanistan while also providing jobs to Afghan and Pakistani youths who might otherwise be drawn into Islamist militancy.

Indeed there is even a certain amount of strategic convergence between what Pakistan and the United States say they want in seeking stability in Afghanistan – something of an irony given the current tensions in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Washington has been pushing for years for improved relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, including an increase in transit trade.

In an article at Foreign Policy, Steve Levine argues there would be nothing wrong with China playing a much bigger role in Afghanistan.  ”… China has a record of actually building what it says it’s going to build, and not waiting for bankers to see a dime to be earned on the interest, or necessarily for a civil war to wind down,” he writes.  “Pakistan’s notion of a favorable outcome would be an Afghanistan open to the return of the Taliban. That should not miff the United States, which did not attack Afghanistan to dethrone the Taliban, but al Qaeda.”

“As for China, the only matter about which it’s more obsessive than its political agnosticism in search of resource riches is its obsessive suppression of anything Uighur, the Turkic Muslim people native to Xinjiang Province. Beijing is absolutely certain that Uighurs are intent on destroying Han Chinese dominance in Xinjiang (they are probably right), and have pursued exile Uighurs throughout Central Asia, and into Afghanistan and Pakistan. China has made it a quid pro quo with these neighbors — suppress local Uighurs, and obtain Chinese goodies. Therefore, a strong China would probably not encourage the revival of dangerous local militancy in Afghanistan. That is the paramount American goal — ensuring that a new big terrorist threat doesn’t emerge there.”

The challenge for Washington is not whether a greater Chinese role would be potentially in its interests — after all Obama asked for it – but whether it can actually manage delicate coordination with Beijing while also juggling a highly charged relationship with Pakistan (and worrying about the Middle East and economic problems at home.)

In testimony to a U.S. commission this week, Andrew Small, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, argued that Washington is indeed getting a measure of how to manage its relationship with China – albeit with many caveats.

“China’s ‘assertiveness’ has become the tagline for international anxiety about Chinese foreign policy behavior, but it is not assertiveness per se that is the
real concern. After all, the United States and other countries have spent many years encouraging China to take a more active leadership role on the
international stage. The disquiet has rather resulted from Beijing’s narrow, nationalistic conception of interests,” he said.

“The upside is that after some initial missteps, the U.S. policy response has been increasingly effective, both regionally and globally, and China has had to
recalibrate its approach accordingly. Moreover, in concert with its friends and allies, the United States has the means to ensure that an unconstructive
approach remains costly for Beijing to pursue. The open question, however, is whether the Chinese leadership is willing, or even fully able, to go through a deeper process of revisiting its strategy as a result. If not, competition and confrontation are likely to become ever more central features in U.S.-China relations, and in Asia more broadly, in the years to come.”

Meanwhile as far as India is concerned, opinion is divided on whether to fear a rising China or work with it and share in its growing economy and increasing global clout. India has managed to build trade ties with China even without resolving its dispute over the two countries’ long Himalayan border.  Going right back to the time of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, it argued for the need for an opening of the ancient trade routes into Central Asia — abruptly shut by the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. 

 This week India is holding its first trade negotiations with Pakistan since the November 2008 attack on Mumbai as part of a gradual thaw in ties between New Delhi and Islamabad. Its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is firmly in the camp of those who focus on economic development rather than strategic rivalry. That leaves him in tune with the Chinese argument that its greater involvement in the region is potentially a win-win, rather than the zero sum game which tends to dominate thinking on Afghanistan.

And we had an indication this month of how the current Indian government is likely to respond to increasing Chinese involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was probably quite  significant in showing which way the cards will fall in the debate between strategic rivalry versus economic development. It had to do with building roads, which can either be seen as a military threat (useful for invading armies) or an economic gain (helpful for trade).

A senior Indian commander was quoted by Indian newspapers as saying that the Chinese “are actually stationed and present” on the Line of Control, the ceasefire line dividing the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir. That sort of development would normally set alarm bells ringing so loudly in Delhi that they would explode or short-circuit. Yet the Indian foreign ministry comment on the subject was relatively muted, arguing for vigilance rather than alarm. 

The government, it said, “closely and regularly monitors all developments along our borders, which can have a bearing on our security. We continuously review and take all measures necessary to ensure the safety and security of our people, as well as, territorial integrity of the nation.”  (It is perhaps no coincidence that India’s top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, has played a major role in managing peace talks with Pakistan and is also a former ambassador to China.)

As mentioned above, the Chinese are heavily involved in road-building, and the road to Skardu, opposite Kargil on the Line of Control,  is currently being expanded. India is also building roads on its side. And before the Mumbai attacks soured relations, Prime Minister Singh had talked about opening the road between Skardu and Kargil – the scene of a bitter border war fought between India and Pakistan in 1999 – to improve trade routes to Central Asia and China. 

Roads, and even pipelines, are far less likely to gain media attention than spy rows — and the very public spat between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the CIA triggered by the arrest in Lahore of CIA contractor Raymond Davis has dominated the narrative for months.  Yet economic development is arguably the one that governments care about — in democracies, it is what helps get them re-elected.  Washington has also repeatedly stressed the need for economic development in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.   Seen through that prism, the talk of increasing economic cooperation between Pakistan, Afghanistan and China looks somewhat different.

And after all, if Pakistan’s prime minister can stand up at a press conference in Kabul and talk about electricity transmission lines, maybe the rest of us should pay attention. In the debate between economic development and strategic rivalry, the former – for now – is winning out.

146 comments

Comments are closed.