India emerges as a roadblock in China’s march to Persian Gulf - III
by Ramtanu Maitra on 22 May 2021 3 Comments

Why Pakistan Welcomes a Chinese Presence on Its Soil


Pakistan has two basic interests in giving China a free hand to lay down the CPEC and to  maintain a permanent presence inside the country. First, the Pakistani military has welcomed China in because it is paranoid that in the future India might make an effort to break up Pakistan further. The Pakistani military is convinced that the presence of a large number of Chinese citizens in the country, many of whom could be PLA personnel, will deter India from making any serious move.


Second, China plans to set up a major Chinese colony within Gwadar to ensure sea-based security to the Pakistani coast. In 2018 Newsweek magazine reported that Chinese military officials had told the South China Morning Post that a naval base would be located at Gwadar because the current port, which caters mostly to merchant ships, is unable to supply the services and logistical support Chinese warships need. China is also reportedly building a military base on Pakistan’s Jiwani peninsula, which is near Gwadar and close to the border with Iran (Why Is China Building a Military Base in Pakistan, America's Newest Enemy? Cristina Maza: Newsweek: Jan 15 2018).


The establishment of a large China-run port with a Chinese naval base would secure the coastal areas of Pakistan and would tie down China permanently with the responsibility of providing protection and security to Pakistan against India. The Pakistani military believes the development of Gwadar port and a naval base, and the China’s permanent presence will prevent the Pakistani Navy from getting bottled up, as happened during the 1971 wars with India. In other words, Gwadar port and a sizable Chinese presence will give strategic depth to Pakistan’s meagre marine assets.


Gwadar offers China some other, related benefits. For instance, a Chinese naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz would put a damper on US-India domination of Indian Ocean, a prospect Beijing fears. Gwadar port will provide the Chinese with a listening post from which to observe US naval activities in the Persian Gulf 460 km further west of Karachi.


Pakistan further advanced its nexus with China when, at Beijing’s behest it invited Sri Lanka to join the CPEC. This would involve the Sri Lanka, a South Asian nation and ally of India, in Pakistan under the control of the main investor, China. This development surfaced during Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s two-day visit to Colombo in late February, where he urged Colombo to participate in the CPEC’s projects involving railways, power plants and the Indian Ocean port of Gwadar (Pakistan’s belt and road offer to Sri Lanka stokes India’s China concerns: SCMP: Pranay Sharma: 3 Mar, 2021).


China’s Interest in Pakistan Is Not New


China’s interest in Pakistan is huge and has been long-standing, particularly since 1971 and the dismemberment of Pakistan’s eastern wing with the formation of a new nation, Bangladesh. It is then that the decisions were made in Beijing to check what was viewed as India’s “ambition to control” South Asia. Pakistan became a natural ally of China as both countries shared a common theme: serious discomfort in seeing India emerge as a great power.


During the past years of bonhomie (“friendship higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Indian Ocean, and sweeter than honey,” in the words of Chinese President Hu Jintao), China has handed Pakistan a steady supply of arms to serve its own needs, the needs of its Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, as well as the present needs of the Pakistan-controlled Taliban. China has also doled out technological and military assistance and intelligence cooperation to Pakistan, all meant to counter and stymie India’s influence in the region.


Those arms supplied by China also helped to arm the Pakistan-controlled terrorists operating in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Yet the actual relationship between the two has not always been smooth. Pakistan’s inherent security and political instability and its aiding and abetting of the Uyghur militants years ago has made China uncomfortable from time to time.


The Sino-Pakistani bilateral relationship was put on an altogether different footing in 2016 when Xi Jinping, with a grand scheme to expand China’s physical presence and economic dominance in Western Asia, laid out the massive Belt and Road Initiative. Pakistan was one of the key elements in Xi’s planned westward march to South, Central and West Asia. 


CPEC connectivity is very important for China for another reason, and that is Afghanistan. China’s interest in Afghanistan stems from its desire to secure access to Afghanistan’s vast mineral reserves. An unstated plank of the CPEC is Pakistan’s assurance to China to help extend the CPEC into Afghanistan. Here, the India factor shows up again in a not-so-subtle way.


It is widely acknowledged that Pakistan wants the Afghan Taliban, who are determined to set up an Islamic Emirate with Sharia laws, to take control of Kabul. That would not only keep Pakistan in the driver’s seat; it would also minimize India’s future presence in Afghanistan. China endorses this objective of Pakistan wholeheartedly. In fact, Beijing has maintained direct communication channels with the Taliban since the 1990s when the group was in power in Afghanistan. In recent years, Beijing has hosted the group for talks on more than one occasion. Despite such efforts, China does not have the kind of leverage over the Taliban that Pakistan does; hence, the reliance on Islamabad.


Why Ladakh Now?


One could argue that China saw red in August 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi abrogated Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and made Ladakh a Union Territory. Pakistan screamed, and Imran Khan sent out emissaries to the United Nations, China and the grouping of Islamic countries (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) to up the ante against India. China promptly responded, expressing its opposition to “any unilateral change to the status quo” in Jammu and Kashmir. The OIC rejected Pakistan’s screaming, stating that it considers the matter India’s internal affair.


China may also have reacted to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s declaration in the Lok Sabha on Aug. 6 that the abrogation of Article 370 is not a political move but that India is sending a straightforward message: “Kashmir is an integral part of India. I want to make it absolutely clear that every single time we say Jammu and Kashmir, it includes Pak-Occupied Kashmir (including Gilgit-Baltistan) as well as Aksai Chin.” Gilgit-Baltistan, the Pakistan-controlled part of Jammu and Kashmir is where China’s CPEC enters Pakistan. Did this statement rattle the Beijing mandarins?


From Beijing’s perspective, any Indian attempt to take over PoK or Gilgit-Baltistan would put a monkey-wrench into the CPEC, which is unacceptable because President Xi has staked his personal prestige and future legacy on the initiative. Pakistan reacted publicly to Amit Shah’s statement, and it is anyone’s guess what role Islamabad played in convincing Beijing that Modi’s abrogation was part of an Indian plan to cut-off the CPEC.


(To be concluded…)

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