Pakistan in China’s Long-Term Scheme of Things – I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 12 Aug 2008 0 Comment

One of many imponderables in Indian strategic analysts’ portfolios is the Sino-Pakistani relationship: how is it to be understood and evaluated? The subject becomes particularly hazy in light of the fact that the Pakistani Army, key to Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policymaking apparatus for decades, has been historically close to the United States. In fact, though it buys some crucial military hardware from China and depends very heavily on its nuclear power and weapons delivery program, the Pakistani military establishment remains beholden to Washington.


It has also been noticed, although not fully acknowledged, in New Delhi that Pakistan’s arms and weaponry purchases from China have been conducted with meticulous care so that they do not create any serious problem for Islamabad’s friendly-at-the-highest-levels relationship with the US. Because New Delhi is now actively making efforts to build up closer economic and strategic relations with the United States, Indian analysts remain puzzled over how Washington could allow Beijing to cast its long shadow over Islamabad. To understand the China-Pakistan relationship it is first necessary to dispense with two common views that, though prevalent, have little to do with reality.


The first is the Indo-centric view. Predominant among Indian analysts, this view holds that China’s Pakistan gambit is intended essentially to undermine India militarily. In other words, for these analysts, the Sino-Pakistani relationship is not the manifestation of an overall Chinese policy designed to optimize benefits from the region and beyond; rather, it is wholly anchored in both Pakistan’s and China’s common anti-India strategy. What flows from such a premise is that China’s closeness to Pakistan is simply part of Beijing’s balance of power policy for its immediate neighborhood, to ensure that Pakistan remains a strong adversary to India, and Islamabad does not get politically and strategically compromised by New Delhi’s economic and military might, which is expected to grow multifold in the coming decades.


Another species of analysis belonging to a Russian and western genre, covered with moulting colonial and Cold War feathers. It can be called “variations on the ‘Great Game’” and holds that the entirety of China’s westward development, including strengthening of its economic, military and security relations with Pakistan, is a continuation of that quaint and abstract sport. In this analysis, China is the new player in the “Great Game” and Pakistan one of the facilitators working on behalf of China in the region.


The game began in the early 19th century when British and Russian imperial powers were looking over the Hindukush mountain range, paranoid of each other’s geo-strategic moves, and continued throughout the first-half of the 20th century, when the British Raj was in India and the Bolsheviks were getting firmly established in Russia. British colonialists did not consider China a potential threat to their empire in India. Now that China has become a power to reckon with — and surely China is much more of an all-round power than either Britain, or even Russia — China’s development of its western part is seized upon by these analysts as its formal  entry into the abstract ”Great Game” chessboard that they believe determines the geo-strategy of the region.


Their argument hinges on the potential tussle among the major nations in the years to come to gain control of the massive oil and gas reserves of Central Asia, located in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. These theorists claim that China, which has the most rapidly growing economy at the time of writing, and thus a growing need for future oil and gas reserves, is making moves to have a presence in the area. These analysts also predict a political, economic and military competition developing between China, Russia and the United States for control over Central Asia's energy resources. To my knowledge, most of these analysts have not subsumed the Sino-Pakistan relationship in their quaint calculus and have thus failed to explain China’s growing presence in Pakistan.


What they instead cite as evidence that China has joined the “Great Game” is the growing Chinese interest in Central Asian oil fields, accessible to China through its western proximities that run into Kazakhstan. For instance, in 1997, Beijing outbid US oil-exploring companies Amoco, Texaco and Unocal, to get exploration rights in the Uzen oilfield, Kazakhstan's second-largest oil reserve after the huge Tengiz fields managed by a US-Russian-European consortium. China also won Kazakhstan's Aktyubinsk oilfield and acquired an interest in the Kursangi and Karabagli oilfields in Azerbaijan.


According to a 2003 article penned by modern-day “Great Game” theorist Thomas Woodward of Jamestown Foundation, USA, Beijing has reached an agreement with Kazakhstan to build a pipeline that would extend 3,000 kilometers from the Chinese-controlled Kazakh oilfields to northwestern China. Woodward takes a huge forward leap, saying: “Beijing hopes that this pipeline will also be used to supply Korea and Japan, bypassing the sea routes controlled by the US and Indian navies. Kazakhstan is currently transferring 95,000 barrels a day to the Chinese border by rail through a state-of-the-art Chinese-built rail transfer facility.”


Though many such studies originating in the West continue to use the term “Great Game,” it only obfuscates the current complex relations between such important nations as Russia, China and the US and their respective interests in the resource-rich, but politically unstable, Central Asian region.


Unfortunately, believers in this “Great Game” hoax within India interpret the western paranoid analysis of Sino-Pakistan relations as confirmation of their belief that China and Pakistan have got closer to “gang up” on India. While there is no doubt that Pakistan’s close economic, trade, nuclear and military relations — if and when they fully prosper – with China could make Pakistan a powerful nation in certain areas, this could in fact be a great boon to India. A strong and stable Pakistan is not only better for Pakistan, it is also better for India and the South Asian region.


China’s “Go West” Policy


One of China’s weakest flanks is its western region. Thinly populated and jutting into an area dominated by people Muslim by religion and products of an entirely different culture than the Chinese of eastern China, western China remains culturally, politically and militarily highly vulnerable. It became evident to Chinese policymakers during the 1980s that to emerge as a global superpower, the country must first work toward reducing the territorial vulnerability of the western region. With the erstwhile Soviet Union in its death throes at that time, Chinese leaders in Beijing had to ensure China’s territorial integrity in the west and southwest were not violated by new forces emerging in the region. (Source: China’s Emerging Energy Nexus with Central Asia:  Stephen Blank)


The “Go West” strategy was announced at the 16th Party Congress, as Interfax news agency reported in 2005. The policy objective is often simplistically depicted as China’s interest to pursue both Russian and Central Asian energy sources, but is more complex. It is to ensure population settlement in the West, and thus reduce territorial vulnerability of western China, and build up a long-term base for a productive workforce — a prerequisite for making significant inroads into the region’s oil and gas fields and exploring its many natural resources. 


China’s western region includes 11 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities under the direct administration of the central government - Shaanxi, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Tibet and Chongqing. The region covers 5.4 million square kilometers, 57 percent of the country's land area, and has a population of 285 million people — 23 percent of the national population. More than half of the country's identified natural resources are in the western region, reports indicate.


Broadly, China projected three infrastructural requirements in its process of strengthening western China and integrating it with the region. First is the Karakoram Highway (KKH), built to link China to Pakistan; second, the Gwadar port, to link China-Pakistan to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia; and third, a road across the Kulma Pass, constructed to link southwest Xinjiang with the old Soviet trans-Pamir military highway. The first two projects were elaborated and pursued in the context of China’s Pakistan policy. Linking up Tajikistan and China by road through the Kulma Pass is an important Chinese initiative in its own right.  


The border between China and Tajikistan, a part of the Soviet Union, was sealed tightly for almost a century during the Soviet era. But now trade is growing and the opening of the Kulma Pass brings real possibilities to a remote and undeveloped region. The Kulma Pass must be one of the highest trading routes on earth, set among the towering peaks of the Pamir, more than 4,000 meters high. The effect of opening the Kulma Pass in 2004 was visible almost immediately: within days the bazaars of Tajikistan were full of Chinese-made clothes, shoes and household goods. Before the pass was opened, these wares had to be trucked into Tajikistan via neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.


Opening the road through the Kulma Pass provides a shorter route, lower transport costs and the possibility of trading onward to other parts of Central Asia. Over a longer period of time, Tajiks hope to use the road to import machinery and technology from China, or elsewhere, that they badly need to modernize their country. The pass also opens up the opportunity to the Tajiks to reach the Karakorum highway that winds down to Pakistan, and to the ports its southern coast.


The success of Beijing’s plan to develop the western part of the country is evident now. The Russians have concluded that western China is now a place worthy of investment; oil-giant Gazprom announced in 2007 that it would begin planning for two oil and gas pipelines to western China. In addition, China has begun looking at the Caspian basin area for procuring supplementary energy supplies.


In December 2005, the Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China was opened. The first pipeline of its kind, its completion increased the leverage of both Kazakhstan and China, vis-à-vis Russia. The Russian oil company Rosneft took advantage of this opening and declared its intention to ship 1.2 million tons of oil through the pipeline by the end of 2006. Russian interests in dominating Kazakhstan’s role as an energy provider, combined with the completion of the pipeline and China’s growing demand for oil and gas, almost ensures that the amount of oil flowing through the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline will only increase over time (Source: Interfax, October 12, 2005)


But, piping oil and gas from the Caspian Sea area, and Central Asia as a whole, is only one aspect of China’s western strategy. Central Asia allegedly possesses considerable mineral reserves. Besides gold, uranium and silver, reserves of such important minerals as aluminum, copper, zinc and lead are reported. It has small reserves of rare minerals like tungsten and molybdenum. All these are crucial for China’s fast-developing industrial sector, which also includes its military hardware.


Negotiating the Cultural Divide


Before Chinese leaders announced their “Go West” strategy, they had clearly taken into account the fact that Central Asian nations had had little exposure to the Chinese people, their culture and traditions. (By contrast, all nations in the vicinity of mainland China’s eastern seaboard, such as the Indochinese nations, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore et al, have for centuries been exposed to Chinese customs and traditions.) Beijing understood that in order to have a strong presence in Central Asia, a steady growth of ethnic Chinese population in western China would be necessary. This could be done through migration and, at the same time, carrying out mutually-beneficial business with Central Asian nations. The development of western China demanded that Beijing play a role in regional integration.


In 1993, only two years after separating from the collapsing Soviet Union, these states began to deviate from their initial course, which was aimed at preserving close ties with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).  Formed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, CIS consisted of 11 former Soviet Republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.  Turkmenistan discontinued permanent membership as of August 26, 2005, and is now an associate member. Although these nations had much in common, they did not have the capability to gel into a regional group. (Even ASEAN, a stable and economically-powerful regional grouping, needed Japan’s firm hand at the early stages to become an effective regional group.)


Chinese leaders could not afford to ignore the Russia factor in dealing with Central Asian nations. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was in dire straits and was ravaged by self-seeking political and business leaders. There were indications that, in the short term, the country would not be able to play a major role in the region. Yet the Russians had long-lasting ties with the newly independent nations of Central Asia. Unlike US leaders, who show a tendency to move into a vacuum without really evaluating the long-term complications of such a forced move, Chinese leaders were careful in bringing together a regional integration which would not be anti-China. The objective was  not only to help the Central Asian nations – particularly those in the immediate vicinity of western China – to become part of  a grouping , but also to include Russia, who not only continued to have a strong influence over these newly independent nations, but is recognized as the historical power in that area.


This was the core concept behind the Chinese push for establishing and strengthening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — an organization that has become increasingly relevant in the regional context during the last few years.


SCO: Key to Developing China’s West


Putting together the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was part of Beijing’s grand plan to develop, populate and strengthen western China while creating a stable environment for that part of the Eurasian landmass. SCO is an inter-governmental international organization founded in Shanghai on June 15, 2001, by six countries: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its member states cover an area of more than 30 million sq. km., or about three-fifths of Eurasia, with a population of 1.455 billion, about a quarter of the world's total. Its working languages are Chinese and Russian. (Source:


SCO's predecessor, the “Shanghai Five” mechanism, originated and grew from an endeavour by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to strengthen confidence-building and disarmament in the border regions. In June 2001, Uzbekistan was admitted as a member and the group issued the Declaration on the Establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The document announced that for the purpose of upgrading the level of cooperation to more effectively seize opportunities and deal with new challenges and threats, the six states had decided to establish a Shanghai Cooperation Organization on the basis of the Shanghai Five mechanism. In June 2002, the heads of SCO member states met in St. Petersburg in Russia and signed the SCO Charter, which clearly expounded the organization’s purposes and principles, organizational structure, form of operation, cooperation, orientation and external relations, marking the actual establishment of this new organization in terms of international law. (Source:


Establishment of the SCO and the annual meetings of the heads of state of its member nations have created a favourable environment for China in Central Asia. Since the formation of “Shanghai Five,” China has become economically stronger and is making investments in the region, and elsewhere, to assure procurement of natural resources and enable trade for the region as a whole.


Investment Initiatives


The official Chinese government plan announced in 1999  to establish a "new western China'' by the middle of the 21st century, is very much at work. China’s trade surplus has zoomed since 1999 and Beijing has begun to speed up extensive infrastructure projects in the western region. Water conservation, energy, telecommunications and urban facilities have been placed at the top of the government's ‘Western Region Development Strategy’ agenda.


In January 2005, the Chinese government offered neighbouring Kyrgyzstan an investment of several hundred million dollars as part of an “investments for natural resources” scheme. The terms of the offer were that Beijing would buy gold, tungsten and tin in exchange for the construction of a section of railway linking Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and China; investments in the hydroelectric stations of Eastern Tian-Shan; and construction of two metallurgic complexes.


In June 2006, China made a new offer: to form a joint Sino-Kyrgyz venture that would be responsible for extracting Kyrgyz gold deposits, between 10 and 20 tonnes of which would be held at the Chinese Development Bank as a guarantee.


Another SCO member-nation, Tajikistan, is in a similar situation. Without foreign investment, it has been unable to fully exploit its natural resource such as its hydropwer. From 2004 to 2005, the country experienced an 11 percent drop in exportation of precious minerals, yielding authorities the meager sum of US$18 million. To develop the sector, a meeting with businessmen from Xinjiang was organized in Dushanbe in November 2005. Subsequently, in 2006 alone China invested more than 650 million US dollars in laying two electricity transmission lines, reconstructing a highway and digging two highway tunnels in Tajikistan. Bilateral trade reached 261 million US dollars in 2006. In January 2007, during Tajik President Emomali Rakhmanov’s visit to Beijing, it was announced that the Chinese company Sinohydro Corporation was awarded a contract to build a large hydroelectric plant in Pendjikent district, northern Tajikistan. The project will reportedly be funded through a $200 million low-interest Chinese loan. It is almost a certainty that large sums of Chinese investment will soon start flowing into Tajikistan.


In the years to come, Chinese firms are expected to offer Central Asian states advantageous financial conditions, as well.  It is expected that low-interest loans will be made available to Central Asian nations through China’s Development Bank, the State Bank, and the Import-Export Bank of China.  The proposal made by Beijing in June 2004 to grant US$900 million in credit to the five Central Asian states to finance projects that involve Chinese companies, has already facilitated the start of several large projects.  Reports indicate China is staking out an increasingly stronger position for itself within strategic sectors like ferrous and nonferrous minerals, hydroelectric power, railways and roads, and telecommunications.


The Security Angle


Another important ingredient in China’s policies toward Central Asia, under the aegis of SCO, is ensuring security. Beijing is in the process of building a prosperous neighbourhood in western China and is paying attention to the need to protect the wider area from internal and foreign threats; SCO is useful. The treaty allows China to formally pledge to commit forces beyond its borders to the other signatories of the treaty should they request assistance against terrorists and/or separatists.


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was involved in several joint exercises with Kyrgyzstan in 2002 and 2003, and with all members of the SCO in 2003 and 2004.  The 2003 manoeuvres were explicitly described as an anti-terrorist operation, highlighting the threats China and other member nations anticipate likely to occur in, or from, Central Asia. China and Russia kicked off Peace Mission 2005 with a ceremony in Vladivostok, just 30 miles from the North Korean border. The war games involved nearly 10,000 troops (including 1,800 Russian military personnel); scores of advanced air­craft (including Russian TU-95 and TU-22 heavy bombers, which can carry cruise missiles); and army, navy, air force, marine, airborne and logistics units from both countries.


As some analysts point out, SCO’s security agenda is ambitious. The organization has been compared to the Warsaw Pact and referred to as the “NATO of the East.” Its agenda reflects Chinese and Russian suspicion of US designs in Eurasia and a desire to reduce US influence in Central Asia. This was reflected in both a 2001 SCO declaration and a 2005 bilateral Russo–Chinese declaration regarding “World Order in the 21st Century,” in which the two great powers emphasized the principles of “mutual respect of sovereignty, territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression and non-interference.”


Beyond joint military exercises, reports indicate China is keen to expand its military influence in Central Asia.  Beijing has contacted Kyrgyz officials to explore the possibility of Chinese military bases in Kyrgyzstan. Increasing regional militarization and power rivalries in Central Asia raise the possibility that military means could be used in addressing regional issues, especially religious radicalism, terrorism and narcotics trafficking. Separatist movements in Xinjiang, led by the Uighur Muslim minority, concern Beijing. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing successfully worked out an agreement with several of Central Asian states not to support, protect or train Xinjiang rebels. Since then, China and the Central Asian states have signed agreements on combating separatism and terrorism, launching military and security cooperation in the border regions and beyond — under the aegis of SCO.


China’s long-term relationship with Pakistan is centered on this development of western China.  Part of Beijing’s “Go West” policy is to go west-southwest via Pakistan, developing a transportation network in particular with Central Asia. Pakistan’s terrain is essential for the success of China’s policy because it is through Pakistan, and Pakistan alone, that China will eventually have access to the oil and gas fields of Arabia and Iran. That access will allow China to have a formal presence in what is arguably one of the world’s most vital strategic areas. The Persian Gulf area will not only provide most of China’s oil and gas in the mid- to long-term future, but most of the world’s. It is too early to assess what kind of security arrangement China will look for to ensure long-term success in its foray into the Persian Gulf through Pakistan.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc. 

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