Cementing a strategic partnership
29 December, 2010
By Dr Maleeha Lodhi
The contrast could not have been more telling. China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, praised Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism, against the backdrop of unremitting Western and Indian criticism that Pakistan had not done enough to address the threat.
In a speech to the joint session of parliament at the conclusion of his three-day visit to Islamabad, the Chinese premier declared: “Pakistan has given great sacrifices and made great efforts in the fight against terrorism.” “This is a well-known fact,” he said, and pointedly urged the international community to respect and “support Pakistan’s efforts.”
The political unanimity demonstrated in parliament and the unprecedented reception accorded to Wen Jiabao reflected the firm national consensus that undergirds Sino-Pakistani relations. The strategic quality of the relationship derives from the support it enjoys from the people of the two countries. This sets it in sharp relief to Islamabad’s ties with other big powers, which are valued more by the leadership than by the public.
The significance of Prime Minister Wen’s remarks to parliament should be seen in the background of escalating US demands on Pakistan to help NATO’s faltering war effort in Afghanistan. The expression of political solidarity by the Chinese leader was aimed at bolstering Pakistan’s position in the face of these pressures, and signal that Beijing, for one, would stand firmly by Pakistan through what Premier Wen described as “tough times.”
The joint communique contained a meaningful reference to the “respect” of the Chinese leader for the “Counter-terrorism strategy constituted and implemented by Pakistan in [the] light of its own national conditions.” For the Pakistani public Wen’s repeatedly voiced commitment to “stand together” with Pakistan was a reassuring sign that Islamabad had options in its foreign policy despite the US-centric approach pursued in recent years.
The Pakistani leadership, for its part, chose its words carefully to match Chinese gestures and exchange statements of mutual appreciation. “China,” said Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, was Pakistan’s “most trusted and reliable friend.” Opposition leader Chaudhri Nisar Ali Khan expressed similar sentiments.
Prime Minister Wen’s visit did more than provide much-needed diplomatic support for an ally under pressure that served to raise the nation’s morale. It sought to elevate the partnership by the promise of greater coordination at the global level. This is what was meant by the emphasis placed by the Chinese visitor in his public statements about the Sino-Pakistani relationship having evolved from the bilateral to the regional and global plane.
The seven-page joint statement referred to the fact that “China-Pakistan relations have gone beyond bilateral dimensions and acquired broader regional and international ramifications.” It also contained the agreement to establish a leadership level annual consultation mechanism. This reflected the priority Beijing attaches to Pakistan in its global agenda and suggested that consultations will take place across the board on issues of mutual concern.
This affirmation of a global partnership has added significance in the context of the shifting international balance of power marked by China’s growing economic and political clout. For Islamabad this holds out the prospect of coordinating more strategically with a diplomatically assertive Beijing at multilateral forums to advance mutual goals, including UN Security Council reform, on which the two countries have “common interests,” as Wen acknowledged in his speech.
The visit also aimed at diversifying the bilateral relationship from the traditional focus on defence and military cooperation towards greater economic, trade and investment ties, including help for Pakistan’s critical infrastructure needs.
The message to Islamabad – both in private and public – was that China would help Pakistan develop its inherent economic strength while stressing the need for it to chart its own development path rather than rely on “outside” prescriptions.
The Chinese offer to help in the energy sector was recognition of Pakistan’s pressing priority. An energy cooperation mechanism is to be established to advance cooperation in conventional, renewable and civil nuclear energy. This will include Chinese assistance to upgrade Pakistan’s national electricity grid and undertake large hydroelectric projects, as well as continue collaboration on the Chashma III and IV civilian nuclear projects.
Agreements and MOUs covering other projects and deals worth an estimated $30 billion were signed during the visit. They included $10 billion of trade deals. Current bilateral trade remains modest at $7 billion but is expected to more than double in five years due to robust annual growth and plans to further liberalise and expand trade under existing Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) on goods, investment and services. Beijing’s assent to give Pakistan unilateral concessions on 286 products is designed to provide market access to boost Pakistani exports.
The emphasis in future trade and infrastructure cooperation on promoting development in border areas and establishing trans-border economic zones reflected the common strategic vision of the two countries to link China’s western region to Pakistan’s southern coast and to commercially bind Pakistan more closely to China’s expanding economy. Indeed, with the signing of the new agreements, Pakistan emerged as the top destination for Chinese investment in South Asia.
In the military realm, greater collaboration is envisaged on a number of projects to help enhance Pakistan’s own defence capabilities, as well as increase cooperation in joint production and Research and Development. While the joint communique is deliberately silent on ongoing and future projects, cooperation involving all three armed services will continue as the Pakistan military comes to increasingly count on Chinese equipment and defence technology.
The emphasis in the joint communique on maritime security is expected to chart a new area of cooperation. Expanded cooperation will also include high-tech areas as well as space sciences and technology, for which a framework agreement is already in place.
The elaborate roadmap of enhanced cooperation should help to give an already robust relationship a new strategic direction in the context of regional and global transformations underway. They include realignments being driven by the intensifying strategic power play among the world’s big powers, amid growing indications of an evolving US strategy to contain China’s rise.
President Barack Obama’s recent tour of Asia served to confirm that Washington was now embarked on implementing this strategy. The nature of this tour – to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan – and policy pronouncements, such as the US offer to “mediate” ocean border disputes in South-east Asia, its stance on the turbulence in North-east Asia and on the currency dispute with Beijing, are all signs of a more overt policy to contain China.
Obama’s visit to India indicated a renewed US strategic tilt towards Delhi as part of the effort to build India as a counterweight to China. Not only did the American president endorse India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, he also pledged to support India’s membership of four multilateral export-control regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group and ease controls on high-tech exports to India. Islamabad saw each of these moves as further enlarging the inequality of US treatment of India and Pakistan on the nuclear issue.
Together with other developments these have been viewed by Pakistan as impacting negatively on its national interests. These perceptions shaped deliberations at the recent meeting of the National Command Authority chaired by the prime minister. A statement issued at its conclusion reiterated Pakistan’s concern over policies and trends of “selectivity and discrimination in strategic export control regimes” and signal opposition to any effort to undermine its “strategic deterrence” capability.
From this perspective, the rejection by Prime Minister Wen in private discussions and in his parliament speech of “double standards” in international relations was perceived by Islamabad to enhance prospects of evolving a joint position with Beijing on such issues in key multilateral forums.
In sum, Premier Wen’s visit not only cemented strategic ties but drew the two countries even closer together to manage common challenges and the ramifications of great-power manoeuvres to adjust to a world of shifting global power.