by Air Commodore (Retired) Tariq Mahmud Ashraf
Pakistan Air Force
Pursuing a strong and stable relationship with Pakistan will continue to be one of America's most important foreign policy objectives for several years to come.1
Beijing has major stakes in the war against terrorism. It has clearly enunciated that Pakistan is as central to its national security interests as Israel is to Washington.2
In strategic terms, the infusion of American presence in to Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan has seriously upset China's security calculus on which its West-bound strategy is predicated.3
China also worries about the likely expansion of a U.S. military presence closer to China's doorstep4.
While the US-Pakistan defence ties date back to 1954, Pakistan and China have had strategic ties since the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict where the US rushed to support India. These relations crystallized after Pakistan’s disillusionment with the US for its lack of support during the 1965 war. Ever since, Pakistan’s relationship with the US has seen several ups and downs while its ties with China have been steady, consistent and expanding. China has been Pakistan's largest defense supplier with the Chinese viewing Pakistan as a useful counterweight to Indian power and influence in the region5.
Two major consequences of the U.S.- led War on Terrorism have been the positioning of sizeable US military in proximity of China’s south western frontier and the involvement of Pakistan – China’s time-tested South Asian ally in the US sponsored War on Terrorism. These developments served to not only checkmate the spread of Chinese influence and precipitate a roll-back of the Chinese moves at strategic expansion in the region but also tilted the regional balance of power decisively in Washington’s favor virtually overnight6.
With America intending to maintain a military presence at the bases provided to it by Pakistan in proximity of the Gwadar port project, it is clear that Washington does not intend to withdraw its forces without achieving its objectives. As such, it can be expected that a conflict of interests develops between the pro-US and pro-China elements within the Pakistani military establishment.7 China could fuel this dissension in its efforts to regain the ground that she ostensibly lost after Pakistan’s adoption of an overtly pro-US stance in the War on Terrorism.
These developments are taking place in an environment that sees China's relations with the United States as somewhat unstable, but currently basically positive. Both countries want success in the war against terrorism but have different policies and interests in some areas, such as the war in Iraq and China's call for Taiwan reunification8.
In the wake of the global wave of horror that swept the world after 9/11, both China and Pakistan expressed their support for the US differently and with varying motives and reasons. While China needed time to formulate its policy afresh, Pakistan probably had no way out but to acquiesce and join the US bandwagon. There is no denying the fact that the presence of US forces on Pakistani soil contributed to the de-escalation after the 2002 Indo-Pak military stand-off and generated strategic dividends for Pakistan.
While the US sponsored War on Terrorism continues unabated, recent internal developments in Pakistan have raised fresh questions regarding Pakistan’s continuing support for this War. With the pro-Musharraf forces having been routed, the new democratically elected government is bound to have a fresh look at its foreign policy, especially in the context of Pakistan – US and Pakistan – China relations.
Interestingly, Pakistan’s unstinting support to the War of Terrorism does not seem to have impinged negatively on its relationship with China. In fact, Pakistan and China have been co-operating in parallel on their own counter-terrorism efforts. In this context, the moves of the Pakistan government in recent years to clamp down on Uighur settlements and on religious schools used as training grounds for militant Islamists, and the Red Mosque incident are relevant. When tensions over Islamic extremism developed between China and Pakistan after Islamic vigilantes kidnapped several Chinese citizens, Musharraf responded quickly and very strongly. Many believe that his decision to use military force against the extremists at the Red Mosque stemmed largely from the incident with the Chinese citizens, which had greatly embarrassed his regime9.
Additionally, Pakistan has been very helpful to China in controlling the separatist movement in Xinjiang. Not only did the Pakistan military kill Hasan Mahsum – the leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in October 2003 but in August 2004, Pakistani and Chinese armies conducted a joint anti-terrorism exercise in the province. The conduct of this military exercise clearly indicated the Pakistan government’s acceptance of China's desire to stamp out separatism in Xinjiang, even though the Uighurs are fellow Muslims, and its agreement with China's protestations that these separatists are terrorists. More importantly, even ‘if the Pakistanis are in doubt about this, they are not letting it get in the way of military cooperation with China’10.
A visualization of the future events brings three vital questions to the fore: Would Pakistan’s new government move away from its support for the War on Terror and tilt towards China?; Could the Pakistan armed forces expect to get the desired military weapons and equipment from China that they can obtain from the US; and What role would the Pakistan Army’s leadership and the ISI play during this policy review? In the subsequent text, I will endeavour to answer these three questions.
Firstly, even though the newly elected government has been described by most as ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’, it is going to find it difficult to distance itself from Islam because of the underlying strength of religious feeling among the masses and the widespread anti-American sentiment that is prevailing. On the other hand, its economic woes and security predicaments preclude its distancing itself from the sole super-power. As such, the new government, in my opinion, will adopt a middle of the road path designed to keep both, the Americans as well as the masses appeased. Walking this tight-rope is not going to be easy, however, and would require skilful manipulation. On the external front, Pakistan trusts China much more than the United States since the US is perceived to have left it in the lurch once too often while China has been steadfast in her commitments. Once again, however, the imperative of staying in the US camp will play a major role in the formulation of the foreign policy but this will be done with the tacit approval of the Chinese whom no Pakistani government can afford to alienate even in the slightest.
Secondly, notwithstanding the enormous economic strides that China is making, its military weapons technology is nowhere near what the US and the West are able to field. Since a budget constrained Pakistan would be limited in what it can afford to purchase, the best option for it would be to procure limited amounts of quality equipment from the US and the West with the quantity factor being made up by purchasing the cheaper, although less modern Chinese weaponry in greater number. As with the foreign policy option discussed earlier, Pakistan’s defence procurement is also expected to be two-pronged without either the US or China being relegated in importance.
Thirdly, a lot is being said about the role of the Pakistan military in the future foreign and defence policies of Pakistan with some analysts conjecturing that the Pakistan Army is likely to be split into the pro-US and the Pro-China camps. This possibility appears farfetched because of a multitude of reasons: firstly, since the Pakistan-US military ties date back several decades, most of the senior leadership have all been trained in the US and have a soft corner for the West; secondly, a very limited number of Pakistani military personnel have been trained in China and most of these are still at the middle leadership level; thirdly, with the election of the new government, it can be expected that legislation would be put in place to obviate the chances of the military assuming power again in Pakistan; and fourthly, the fact that most soldiers, airmen and sailors realize that even the best weapons that China can provide do not technologically compare with what can be obtained from the US and the West.
While there exists no doubt that the Pakistan-China and Pakistan-US relations are at critical junctures and any change in either is bound to impact the other, an objective analysis of the prevailing situation and the ground realities leads one to the following conclusions:
Pakistan’s new democratically elected government would continue to support the US in the War on Terror. It would simultaneously strive to ensure that the Uighur separatists from Xinjiang are neither afforded any help nor safe havens on Pakistani soil.
Pakistan would adopt a middle-of-the-road foreign policy aimed at accommodating the needs and requirements of both, China and the United States. Under the present circumstances, Pakistan cannot afford to distance itself from either.
Since financial constraints dictate that Pakistan resort to a suitable quality-quantity mix in its military weapons, it would continue to rely on the US for quality while depending on China for quantity.
With the foundations of democratic order having been laid in Pakistan, one could surmise that the role of the military in affairs of state would gradually reduce. As regards the ISI, since it is a military-operated institution, one could expect its role on the international scene also reducing correspondingly with an element of civilian control over its activities.
1 Lisa Curtis, ‘Security Challenges Involving Pakistan and Policy Implications for the Department of Defense’. Testimony delivered, before the Armed Services Committee, US House of Representatives on October 10, 2007. Available on the internet at http://www.heritage.org/Research/MiddleEast/tst101107a.cfm
2 Vijai K. Nair, America’s War on Terrorism and Chinese Strategy’, Published in China Brief, Volume 2, Issue 5, February 28, 2002 by the Jamestown Foundation. Available on the internet at http://www.jamestown.org/china_brief/article.php?articleid=2373034.
4 Jing-dong Yuan, ‘The War on Terrorism: China’s Opportunities and Dilemmas’, Published by the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, September 25, 2001. Available on the internet at http://cns.miis.edu/research/wtc01/china.htm
5 Lisa Curtis, op cit.
6 Mohan Malik, ‘Dragon on Terrorism: China’s Tactical Gains and Strategic Losses Post September-11’, Report published by Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA, October 2002. Available on the internet at http://www.comw.org/rma/fulltext/0210malik.pdf.
9 Lisa Curtis, op cit.
10 Colin Mackerras, op cit.