Sugar Daddy Xi Jinping is effectively reducing Pakistan to a vassal state
The Chinese plan to invest a massive $46 billion in Pakistan may be aimed against India, but it is also an effort to keep Pakistan in one piece and prevent Islamist jihadis from threatening China's own backyard
It is difficult for India to not be seriously concerned by the massive $46 billion investment that China plans to make in Pakistan. The agreements being signed during the ongoing visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan will bring much-needed investment in roads and power plants. A 3,000-km economic corridor will link China to the Chinese-built port of Gwadar, enabling more trade with West Asia.
The security implications for India are clear. First, it could economically strengthen Pakistan and bring the Chinese army closer to our western borders. Second, US influence on Pakistan will reduce, as Pakistan gets into a closer embrace with China. And third, Chinese access to Gwadar port makes it a potential economic and political player in Afghanistan and Iran too.
Clearly, India has to think through its responses to the Chinese moves and produce an effective counter.
However, there is no reason for paranoia. For what the Chinese embrace does is make Pakistan effectively a semi-vassal state. With the world unwilling to trust Pakistan, the latter has no other option but to kowtow to the Chinese, however much the relationship is mythologised in the Pakistani media as “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans and sweeter than honey”. From the Pakistani point of view, China has been an eternal friend due to its standoff with India; from the Chinese viewpoint, the Pakistanis, given their congenital hatred of India, are "useful idiots" to have on their side. But the nature of the dependency is clearly one-way. China has no need for Pakistan; the latter will be a reduced to a global pariah without Chinese backing.
However, the Chinese economic incursion into Pakistan will have implications similar to what the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s had in stoking jihadi terrorism. This time such terrorism could target China, whose Muslim-majority province of Xinjing borders Pakistan on the north.
Make no mistake, China may be using Pakistan to keep India on edge, but it has also bought itself a new source of jihadi trouble. The 3,000-km economic corridor will pass substantially through Balochistan, where separatists are fighting the Pakistani army. Large parts of the corridor will also pass through areas that the Taliban now consider their ingress routes to Afghanistan. The creation of the corridor, and the population movements required to build it, will attract hostility to the Chinese in those areas. The Chinese will now face the same Islamist anger that the US-led Nato forces did earlier.
To take the project forward, the Chinese will effectively need either Pakistani army's protection, or will have to bring in their own troops to protect their engineers and construction workers. Just 10 days ago, 20 labourers working on a dam site at Turbat in the south-west of Balochistan were killed by terrorists aligned to the Balochistan Liberation Front. Turbat is not far from Gwadar port. The workers targeted were mostly people from outside Balochistan, including Punjabis. A few years back, Baloch terrorists directly targeted the Chinese, killing three engineers.
Economically, the Chinese investment makes sense for both countries. Pakistan needs the money and infrastructure, and China needs those construction projects to revive its own slowing economy. The bulk of the money invested will flow back to China in the form of construction contracts.
But an equally important reason why China may be interested in developing the economic corridor is internal security. China wants to get a better handle on the infiltration routes used by its own Uighur Muslim militants, who draw inspiration from various jihadi groups based in Pakistan, including North Waziristan, where the Pakistani army does not have full control. Last year’s Uighur violence in Xinjing saw more than 100 Uighur protesters being killed by the Chinese Han army,
Unlike India, the Chinese – like the Russians under Vladimir Putin - do not believe in handling separatists with kid gloves. Just as Russia, by coming down heavily on Muslim Chechen rebels, radicalised them, China’s violent suppression of the Uighur movement may end up radicalising them. Most of this radicalisation is happening through contacts with Pakistan’s jihadi groups.
According to this analysis in The Diplomat, the most important Uighur militant group is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, whose sub-group, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), is based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan. The analyst writes: “The Chinese military is engaged in halting the flow of terrorists from Pakistan up the Karakorum Highway and through the Khunjerab Pass into Xinjiang. China would like Pakistan stem the tide of Uighur militants into China. The failure of Pakistan’s military to do so has led to suspicions in China that some mid-level members of Pakistan’s army are sympathetic to the Uighur militants and that the problem is not due to Pakistan’s incapacity to eliminate militants in Waziristan.”
The Chinese economic foray is bang in the middle of the Afghan, Baloch and Uighur radical movements, and so it is unlikely that the China-Pak economic corridor is purely about building infrastructure. Make no mistake: this is also about China taking a proactive role in blocking the Islamists entering Xinjiang.
Given this reality, and given Pakistan’s own rapid descent into regular jihadi violence due to the rise of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Chinese involvement is likely to have a strong security dimension not dissimilar to the Soviet role in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The motivation for the China-Pakistan bonhomie and cooperation may be anti-India, but such alliances have their own side-effects. The Chinese are probably investing money in a failing state in order to tame it.
We have to be ever watchful, and take suitable counter-measures, including giving the Balochs covert support in their liberation struggle. But there is no getting away from the reality that China has now taken on itself the role of keeping Pakistan together to protect its own flanks, and it is willing to pay a military and economic price for it.
Russia, despite its superpower status, could not ultimately hold Afghanistan. China is unlikely to do it in Pakistan either. Like the Americans, who found that giving Pakistan money did not improve its behaviour, the Chinese will also discover the same truth after a while. The jihadi movement will strengthen, as it did in Afghanistan. However, China does not have the American luxury of just packing up and going if things go wrong, as Pakistan is China's backyard.
China has opened a new can of worms which it is likely to ultimately regret. It is probably on the cusp of creating a new rogue state like North Korea in Pakistan.
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