Hu Jintao, the former president of the People’s Republic of China, once said that China would never, under any circumstances, give up its friendship with Pakistan. Jintao’s successor Xi Jinping went a step further in this friendship by establishing the flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with the aim of connecting Xinjiang to the north Arabian Sea.
With regard to CPEC, the Gwadar Port provides China with a unique — and short — route for trade and commerce. Besides the array of huge infrastructure projects across Pakistan, Beijing has set higher goals. China seems well on its course to achieving its dream of becoming a powerful country — shang shan ruo shui, which means “highest good like water,” water being a symbol of benevolent power in the Chinese language — by 2050. This also gives an indication how Chinese ambitions under Xi Jinping.
The idiom “xin ping qi he,” which means calmly and without stress, depicted peacefulness as the finest characteristic of the Chinese nation to Bertrand Russel. As much as Beijing has tried to avoid full-scale wars or occupations, relying on resolving disputes through diplomacy, the compulsions of geoeconomics and geopolitics require certain adjustments. These adjustments also require a certain amount of finesse so that the host countries do not see the partnerships are invasions.
For any aspiring global superpower, the safety of shipping lanes is a matter of national security. With increasing US interference in Southeast Asia, and Indian aspirants to do Washington’s bidding, China cannot afford to wait and see what happens. In the past decade, rival navies in the Pacific and the Indian oceans have been expanding and modernizing at an unusually high pace; with Japan using helicopter carriers and India using nuclear powered submarines in the Ocean.
In similar vein, Beijing has so far added two aircraft carriers to an assortment of offensive and defensive military craft. When its ships sail to the Makran coast, the vessels need freedom of navigation, especially when India operates a nearby port, Chahbahar, in Iran. Beijing’s ability to conduct trade and ensure the safety of its maritime lanes is increasingly worrying for its rivals. Was the Gwadar port deal and CPEC worth the headache? A simple and straightforward is yes; mainly because historical evidence backs this notion.
Both Pakistan and China have stood shoulder-to-shoulder since the former’s independence. Soon after addressing boundary-demarcation issues, the Indo-Sino war of 1962 and the Pakistan-India war of 1965 reiterated the mutual need for stronger defense ties. After bagging the honor of becoming the first non-communist airline to fly to China, Pakistan International Airlines pulled off another coup when it carried US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Peking in July 1971. This gloght helped in normalising US China relationship, and therefore Pakistan played a major role in that.
To make matters complicated for Pakistan, India has cemented multifaceted ties with Iran, following up on a security pact signed in January 2003 and revised and upgraded last month, having the US on its side. Even though Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javed Zarif downplayed the Chinese accord with Pakistan, it was impossible to hide the elephant in the room. Last week, a Chinese official uncharacteristically confirmed to The South China Morning Post (SCMP) the sale by Beijing to Pakistan of a “highly sophisticated large-scale optical tracking and measurement system” that not only guides missile defense system but also enhances the performance of ballistic missiles. This sale came as another evidence of why China is trying its best to consolidate its ties with Pakistan, with Islamabad also reciprocating.
According to the SCMP, “It (the system) usually comes with a pair of high-performance telescopes equipped with a laser ranger, high-speed camera, infrared detector and a centralized computer system that automatically captures and follows moving targets. The device records high-resolution images of a missile’s departure from its launcher, stage separation, tail flame and, after the missile re-enters the atmosphere, the trajectory of the warheads it releases.” Now again,technology transfers between the two countries have a deep and long history. During the mid-1980s, the US reportedly complained to Pakistan about the sharing with China of vital technological details of F-16 jets. Islamabad denied the allegation, deflecting the blame toward Israel. China sees cooperation of the Pakistan Air Force as of real value to its warfare tactics and technology development.
Even though denied on an official level, academics and physicists believe Pakistan’s know-how in uranium enrichment might also have helped China significantly. Understandably, their strategic ties are shrouded in secrecy, thus becoming more susceptible to conjecture. Thanks to the failed US Operation Infinite Reach in August 2008, Pakistan and China were able to get their hands on intact Tomahawk cruise missiles in Kharan and Khost, respectively. The know-how gained from them helped the allies refine their own missile programs. Ironically, the US UAV’s, or drones, which were crashed in both Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas could also be of technological importance for both the countries.
Even after Osama Bin Laden’s death by US Seals on May 2, 2011, there was a precious prize for Pakistan: The crash of a secretly developed stealth helicopter, a highly modified H-60 Blackhawk sharing some features with the non-export V-22s Osprey aircraft. Though Islamabad handed over the wreckage to Washington, it first gathered invaluable information from the parts, including the radar-evasion system. No legal rules prevent one country from sharing information with others about a military asset that intrudes on it its land. As much as it is plausible that Indian submarines and other naval assets will be present around the southern Iranian coastline, it shouldn’t surprise many if China also initiate joint military drills in Pakistan’s waters.
With greater issues in South China Sea, there is a greater likelihood of turbulence in north Arabian Sea as well. By 2025, Gwadar port will be operating at full capacity for cargo containers as well as oil tankers. Just a few nautical miles from the Iranian border, and in close proximity to the India-run Chahbahar port in Iran, there is an air and naval base in Jiwani from which China will keep watch, alongside Pakistan’s armed forces. Refreshingly, President Xi’s recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un points to China’s adherence to “xin ping qi he” that so impressed Russell back in the day. This could also be indication that we might finally be entering an era of the new World Order.
— Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. Besides other honours, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010.