Wednesday, 4 May 2011


May 4, 2011
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry on May 3 addressed Pakistan's role in the death of Osama bin Laden and praised Pakistan's counterterrorism efforts. The comments are meant to counter criticisms of Pakistan's apparent lack of commitment and willingness to share intelligence, and exemplify the growing closeness between Beijing and Islamabad. China will depend more on Pakistan to counter militancy on China's western border and provide access to the Indian Ocean, while Pakistan will look to China to increase its financial and military support as U.S. assistance wanes. The countries will also increasingly depend on each other to counterbalance India.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu spoke on May 3 about Pakistan's role in the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces. Jiang affirmed Pakistan's effectiveness in contributing to the international fight against terrorism. He noted that Pakistan has pledged not to allow safe havens in its territory and emphasized that China would continue to support Pakistan on counterterrorism while also cooperating with the United States and even India.
Jiang's message was consistent with China's initial response to news of bin Laden's death. Chinese leaders and the official press, like the Pakistanis, have called the death a "milestone" in the international effort to fight terrorism, emphasizing that China is also a victim of terrorism and calling for greater international cooperation in fighting it. Chinese Internet discussions show the public is less inclined to cheer for the United States than Beijing appears to be, but the Chinese state maintains its official line both because it has legitimate concerns about Islamist militancy infiltrating its western borders and because it serves as broader justification for heavy domestic and foreign security responses to political, religious or ethnic militancy of any sort.
China's statements aimed to refute growing claims that Pakistan did not share intelligence, or fully commit to the fight against terrorism. Americans have criticized Pakistan because bin Laden's compound was located in Abbottabad, in the heart of Pakistan, near a prominent military academy and not far from the capital, Islamabad. He reportedly had lived there for several years. The United States' unilateral strike targeting bin Laden on Pakistani soil illustrated the growing lack of trust between Washington and Islamabad. Beijing's response to this violation of Pakistan's sovereignty was not as sharp as usual in such situations, probably because bin Laden is widely viewed as an exceptional case. But it did contain the message that China would help Pakistan fight terrorism based on the conditions of its "own domestic situation" and in accordance with international law. Beijing and Islamabad are old allies and recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of their partnership by, among other things, renewing their commitment to cooperate on various fronts after a strategic dialogue that ended April 29.
Yet China has benefited from U.S. actions against militants in Pakistan. The U.S. strike against Abdul Haq al-Turkestani enabled Pakistan to claim it had "broken the back" of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement that threatens China's Xinjiang region. Beijing needs Pakistan to maintain pressure on militants in the region. China's role for the past 10 years in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been to support Pakistan's actions against militants, while helping international efforts in the region just enough to be seen as cooperating with the United States. China supported Pakistan when it withdrew assistance to the Taliban in 2001; helped stabilize Pakistan's financial situation and relations with India after the Mumbai attacks threatened to lead to war; and gave Pakistan flood-recovery assistance. China continues to conduct counterterrorism training with Pakistan and supports the country through trade, investment and infrastructure construction.
China's Concerns About an Early U.S. Withdrawal
China has provided minimal assistance to the United States and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Beijing represents its substantial monetary investments in Pakistan and Afghanistan as supporting civilian rule and stability, but in reality these follow China's strategic interests (counterterrorism, economic growth, access to the Indian Ocean, counterbalancing India) more than they align with internationally-coordinated efforts. Beijing has not participated in fighting, nor has it opened its territory for staging attacks, and its civilian and training assistance has been limited. The Chinese strategy is to stay out of heavy fighting or military-support roles that could provoke retaliation from militant groups, while keeping the United States and its allies busy fighting groups that could threaten China. Moreover, with the United States increasingly dependent on Pakistan for assistance in Afghanistan over the past decade, Washington has encountered difficulties in the otherwise burgeoning U.S.-Indian strategic relationship that Beijing fears.
But bin Laden's death brings about the prospect of an American public ready for a faster departure from Afghanistan, regardless of whether conditions for withdrawal are satisfactory. Obama's timetable already called for withdrawal to begin in August, and China has prepared for years for the United States to leave. But the possibility of an accelerated U.S. exit heightens Beijing's concerns that a freed-up U.S. military and foreign policy will soon allow Washington to more aggressively challenge Beijing in other areas.
The withdrawal will still take a few years. The United States is committed to beginning the drawdown this summer and concluding by 2014-2015, but reiterates that the timing depends on conditions on the ground. During this time, the United States will continue to rely on Pakistan for intelligence assistance to create optimal withdrawal conditions. Washington will also continue to support Pakistan, which will assume far greater responsibility in managing the aftermath. Masses of battle-hardened Afghan and Pakistani militants will be emboldened. The United States will encourage Pakistan to maintain pressure on the militants, but Pakistan's appetite for waging an internally destabilizing conflict could give way to accommodation and the creation of a sphere of influence in Afghanistan. Washington's accumulated resentments and budgetary concerns could result in diminishing assistance.
Greater Interdependence Between China and Pakistan
If U.S.-Pakistani relations weaken, Pakistan will need more financial and military assistance from China, which in turn will need greater assurances from Pakistan that the latter can suppress militancy in its frontier provinces and in Afghanistan. Though Pakistan has no illusions that China can replace the United States, it has no other available, powerful patron and hopes to at least gain ample financial support. Meanwhile, China cannot afford to abandon Pakistan. Beijing needs help in stabilizing Pakistan's domestic and regional security environment. It also aims to expand economic interests in the Indus Valley and develop infrastructure connections that can serve as a land bridge to the Indian Ocean.
Greater dependency between Beijing and Islamabad will bring greater tensions into the relationship. The two are old allies, but when Pakistan's border problems become more threatening, as they did in 1997 and 2003, or when Islamabad requires greater attention to counterbalance India -- such as during the tense standoff in 1999 -- Pakistan becomes more of a liability than an asset to the Chinese. Beijing cannot tolerate South Asian militancy interfering with its pursuit of vital interests elsewhere. The Pakistanis will seek to leverage their importance to draw as much aid and investment as possible, but militant attacks on Chinese citizens and business interests have troubled the relationship before. Meanwhile, Beijing wants cooperation to focus on counterterrorism, border control, naval and military ties, trade, investment, infrastructure development (such as railway and hydropower construction) and energy transit (such as the proposed Iran-Pakistan-China natural gas pipeline). Beijing does not want Pakistan to entangle it in conflicts with India.
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Despite the likelihood of rising tensions as interdependence grows, Pakistan and China have no choice but to manage and sustain their relationship. Neither can afford to abandon the other. Pakistan still views India as its primary strategic threat, and China still views Pakistan as an essential foothold in the region. China will need Pakistan to become a maritime partner and to maintain pressure on India, especially with Chinese expectations that India will become a more problematic neighbor due to its growing ties with the United States, Japan and Australia and its involvement in Tibet and Southeast Asia. Appeasing China (like appeasing the United States) will require Pakistan to show efforts to combat militant training camps, financial activities and movements that China views as a threat, while maintaining militant proxies for use against India (Beijing will have to trust that these proxies do not pose a threat to China). China does not want to fight regional insurgencies or attract hostile attention, so Islamabad will have the advantage of managing militant networks to its own benefit.
Overall, U.S. intervention in the region has benefited China by focusing militant efforts on fighting the ISAF and away from potential Chinese targets. It has also left the United States responsible for keeping Pakistan from collapse and managing the balance of power between India and Pakistan. As the U.S. presence diminishes (though it will not disappear), China will face the prospect of a power vacuum on its restive western border that a surplus of militant forces are willing and able to fill. Simultaneously, China will have to more actively influence the Pakistani-Indian balance of power, in order to increase its economic presence and access to the Indian Ocean, without igniting a conflict that backfires on Beijing. And even as its concerns in South Asia begin to mount, the biggest threat to China is the possibility that the United States will use its regained capability and focus to try to prevent China from disrupting U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. After the jihadist war passes, the United States' greatest challenge will probably be to manage China's rise.
Bin Laden's death does not affect the tactical or military situation in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But it provides the American public with the psychological closure that helps to seal off the 2001-2011 saga and hasten its armed forces' removal from a long and increasingly unpopular war. The United States' allies in Afghanistan will also press this justification for hurrying the exit, and some, like Australia, will encourage the United States to refocus its strategic priorities on China. The result leaves China more heavily burdened in managing its interests in South Asia and more anxious in relation to the release of energies that Washington can bring to bear elsewhere as it deems necessary.
Copyright 2011 STRATFOR.

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