Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
from Afghan Journal:
First, China helped develop Pakistan's Gwadar port from scratch on the Baluchistan coast to take the pressure off the country's main port of Karachi, a few hundred miles to the east. Now Pakistan's defence minister has said that it would like its long-time ally to build a naval base at Gwadar, which sits on the doorstep of Gulf shipping lanes, less than 200 kms from the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz.
China, which provided more than 80 percent of the port's $248 million development cost, has moved quickly to distance itself from Pakistani Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar's remarks about a naval base in Gwadar. The foreign ministry said China was not aware of any such proposal.
While China has stood by Pakistan in its hour of embarrassment following the discovery of Osama bin Laden living in relative comfort in a garrison town, it might be squirming a bit at its ally's rather aggressive portrayal of their ties. The last thing it needs is to trigger off another round of alarm bells in the region about its big power objectives in the Indian Ocean, especially when it is not ready yet.
As Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times this week (behind a paywall) the Chinese may be wincing at the appearance of the story about building a military base on the Pakistani coast in the Western press "because it will heighten the perception that China is overplaying its hand in the Pacific; an idea that has helped America to strengthen its military alliances across the region."
Just over a year ago, President Barack Obama suggested during a visit to Beijing that China and the United States could cooperate on bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As I wrote at the time, China — Islamabad’s most loyal partner — was an obvious country to turn to for help in working out how to deal with Pakistan. Its economy would be the first to gain from greater regional stability which opened up trade routes and improved its access to energy supplies. And it also shared some of Washington’s concerns about Islamist militancy, particularly if this were to spread unrest in its Muslim Xinjiang region.
The big question was whether the suggestion would fall foul of the zero sum game thinking which has bedevilled relations between India, Pakistan and China for nearly 50 years. India was defeated by China in a border war in 1962 and since then has regarded it as its main military threat. Pakistan has built close ties with China to offset what it sees as its own main military threat from its much larger neighbour India. China in turn has been able to use its relationship with Pakistan to clip India’s wings and curb any ambitions it has at regional hegemony.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is making the first visit to Saudi Arabia by an Indian leader since 1982, seeking to build economic ties and to enlist the kingdom’s help in improving regional security. While much of the focus is likely to be on securing oil supplies for India’s growing economy, the visit is also part of the complex manoeuvres by regional players jostling for position on Afghanistan and beyond.
Singh told Saudi journalists ahead of the visit that he would discuss with Saudi King Abdullah how to promote greater stability and security in the region. “Both King Abdullah and I reject the notion that any cause justifies wanton violence against innocent people. We are strong allies against the scourge of extremism and terrorism that affects global peace and security,” he said.
The Real News had an interview last week with former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who talks about how U.S. policy is playing out across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China. The second part of the interview covers his support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, but here is what he has to say about Pakistan and the regional dynamics:
“We are in Afghanistan because we have been there for 8 years, now getting out is easy to say, but by now if we get out, quickly, the question arises, what follows? Is there going to be again a very sort of militant regime in Afghanistan which might tolerate al Qaeda’s presence and beyond that is now a new issue, namely the conflict in Afghanistan has come to be connected with the conflict in Pakistan. Pakistan is an important country of 170 million people which has nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons, and delivery systems, delivery systems to the entire region around so we have to think much more responsibly on how to deal with this problem … ”
When 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?
While attention has almost entirely been focused on America’s difficult relationship with Pakistan – a writer in Foreign Policy magazine called it the world’s most dysfunctional relationship – India and the United States have quietly gone ahead and completed the largest military exercise ever undertaken by New Delhi with a foreign army.
The exercise named Yudh Abyhas 2009 (or practice for war) and conducted in northern India involved tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and helicopter-borne infantry. The U.S. army deployed 17 Strykers, its eight-wheeled armoured vehicle, in the largest deployment of the newest vehicle outside of Iraq and Afghanistan for Pacific Rim forces, the military said.
Back in 2008, even before Barack Obama was elected, Washington pundits were urging him to adopt a new regional approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan involving Russia, India, China, Saudi Arabia and even Iran. The basic argument was that more troops alone would not solve the problems, and that the new U.S administration needed to subsume other foreign policy goals to the interests of winning a regional consensus on stabilising Afghanistan.
It would be simplistic to suggest that the Obama administration’s decision to cancel plans to build a missile-shield in eastern Europe was motivated purely — or even primarily — by a need to seek Russian help in Afghanistan. But it certainly serves as a powerful reminder about how far that need to seek a “grand bargain” on Afghanistan may be reshaping and influencing policy decisions around the world.
Power play in South Asia is always a delicate dance and anything that happens between India and China will likely play itself out across the region, not the least in Pakistan, Beijing’s all weather friend.
And things are starting to move on the India-China front. We carried a report this weekabout India’s plan to increase troop levels and build more airstrips in the remote state of Arunachal Pradesh, a territory disputed by China. New Delhi planned to deploy two army divisions, the report quoted Arunachal governor J.J. Singh as saying.
When President Barack Obama unveiled his plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, he promised to involve other countries with a stake in the region, including the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China. But a major sticking point in enlisting regional support has been distrust over the United States’ long-term intentions for Afghanistan. Washington has never been able to shake off suspicions that it is using its battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda to establish a permanent military presence in the region.
In that context, Obama’s statement during his speech in Cairo that the United States is not seeking to set up permanent military bases in Afghanistan is rather interesting:
India has been fretting for months that it could be pushed into the background by the United States’ economic dependence on China and by the renewed focus on Pakistan by President Barack Obama’s administration. That anxiety appears to have increased lately – perhaps because the end of the country’s lengthy election campaign has opened up space to think more about the external environment — and is focusing on China.
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Indian Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major said China posed a greater threat than Pakistan. “China is a totally different ballgame compared to Pakistan,” he was quoted as saying. “We know very little about the actual capabilities of China, their combat edge or how professional their military is … they are certainly a greater threat.”