CPEC and geo political realities
Dr Shabir Choudhry 20 May 2018
Pakistan claims their friendship with China is higher than Himalayas, deeper than sea and sweeter than honey. I have never heard of a friendship like this between the countries in the world.
What they claim defies the principles of international relations, which clearly says, countries do not have permanent friends or enemies. Relationship between the countries are based on shared values and national interests.
Countries and their leaders protect and enhance national interests. However, these interests, visions and alliances can change with the change of leadership and ideologies.
Apart from that, if we accept that countries only look after their interests, it means two friendly countries can have a clash of interests while preserving self-interest. Most, if not all, countries have imperialist or expansionist ideas to enrich and empower themselves; this is how small powers became major powers and built empires.
Although empire building has stopped in one sense; but still all countries want to enrich and empower themselves. Countries still need new markets for their products; and cheap raw materials and energy sources; and that results in disputes, apprehensions, conflicts and wars. Gun boat diplomacy is not relevant in 21st century to control markets, although some countries still use force to advance their political and economic agenda.
National interests determine foreign relations
As pointed out above national interests of countries determine international relations, and not personal likes and dislikes. It is possible that leaders can make mistakes in deciding and prioritising their national interests, hence change of friends and allies. Furthermore, national interests can change with time; and in fast changing geo political situation.
Pakistan perceived Soviet Russia unfriendly country, and rejected the hand of friendship from Moscow. Instead, they bent their back to win friendship of the United States of America. In order to oppose and harm Soviet Russia, Pakistan joined American led military alliances. It was with Pakistan’s help that Russia was defeated in Afghanistan. Pakistan thought it was in their national interest to oppose Russian advance in Afghanistan, although it brought havoc to Pakistan.
Now situation has changed. Pakistan is becoming closer to Russia and relationship with America is not as friendly as it was a decade ago. The American new strategy about Afghanistan and Pakistan has resulted in Pakistan desperately mending its fences with Moscow.
The American policy makers believe; and not wrongly, that Pakistan has been playing a double game. Pakistan was receiving huge funds from America, including military aid; and was an ally in a war against terrorism. Pakistan took all the help with both hands, but did not stop complaining and providing help to the Taliban and other militants fighting the Americans. Washington believes that many American lives were lost due to Pakistan’s covert and overt help to America’s enemies.
Pakistan’s military planners, on the other hand, believed that the policies they pursued were in the country's "national interest". The civilian leadership was not on the same page with the army on this; but in Fort of Islam, generals decide what is right and who is a patriot. They would not change their definition of ‘national interest’ until a disaster takes place; and even then, they will a civilian scapegoat to blame.
One commentator under title of ‘Reluctant romance: Would Pakistan finally embrace Russia’? wrote:
‘The two countries seem to have buried their past differences and are looking to cement their ties economic, political, and defence ties’.
It was clear that in view of estranged relationship with Washington, alarm bells rang both in Islamabad and in Rawalpindi; and attempts were made to seek help from Beijing and Moscow.
As expected, China wasted no time express their clear support to Pakistan. What amazed many was the response of Moscow, which acknowledged Islamabad’s ‘pivotal role’ in a fight against terrorism. Russia also appreciated Pakistan’s role in promotion of regional peace and stability. This was extraordinary initiative, especially when viewed in the light of decades of antagonistic relations between Pakistan and Russia.
It is believed that some background work was already done before this statement. In fact, Pakistan started to woo Moscow when relations with the United States started getting tensed after incidents like Abbottabad, where Osama Bin Ladin was killed; Salala, where 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed, and CIA contractor Raymond Davis who killed civilians in Lahore.
New strategic realities
President Trump’s new Afghan policy and likely reprisals for Pakistan was expected; and the Pakistani diplomats work hard to counterbalance that. As soon as President Trump’s policy was announced, the Pakistani diplomats were in contact with Moscow; and urged them to come out to support Pakistan in this hour of need. Russia, against predictions of many, and by forgetting the wounds of the past, did not disappoint Pakistan.
Russia exhibited a clear message that Pakistan should not be intimidated, and made a scapegoat for failure of their wrong policies. Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said, Pakistan was “a key regional player”, and unnecessary “pressure on Pakistan may seriously destabilise the region-wide security situation and result in negative consequences for Afghanistan.” 1
The American diplomats also contemplated Pakistani options to ‘offset’ pressure or possible attack from Washington. Diplomatic circles agreed that the changed scenario will test Pakistani patience and will force Pakistan to acquire ‘deeper and enhanced cooperation’ with China and Russia. One Pakistani diplomat said:
“If the US does not consider our legitimate concerns and just toe India’s line, then we will certainly move closer to China and Russia.” 2
The American policy makers understand importance of Pakistan in bringing peace in Afghanistan. However, they feel if your ally deliberately hurt your interests, then ‘it will certainly create misgivings’, said one American official, when asked the wisdom of the US decision. American policy makers believe “Washington is being ripped off by Islamabad”.
Because of the changing scenario, relations between old adversaries continued to improve; and in 2016, both Russia and Pakistan agreed to conduct joint military exercises. India, and to some extent America was not happy with this new development. Before the planned military exercises, Indian military base was attacked by militants apparently sent by Pakistan, in which 21 Indian soldiers were killed. India was furious over this and urged Russia to cancel the joint military exercise.
Despite friendship spread over many decades, Russia paid no attention to the Indian request. So, one can see, alliances and interests do change with the changed geo political situation.
Being a novice to international relations, Pakistan committed a blunder by jumping on the bandwagon of the American led military alliances against Soviet Russia in 1950s. Pakistan suffered immensely because of this mistake and India benefited. It is believed that Pakistan has learnt a lot over the years, and they will try to maintain friendly relations with all big political players like America, China and Russia.
In view of paradigm shift in relations, Russia has lifted arms embargo against Pakistan in 2015. In June 2016, Moscow and Islamabad concluded $153 million helicopter deal, and Russia has delivered Mi-35 advanced assault helicopters to Pakistan.
Pakistan has great strategic location; and they have been making use of that to accrue benefits and plan their foreign policy accordingly. It is debatable for how long they will be able to effectively take benefit of the geographical location. However, Russian can use Pakistan to send their goods to Middle East and to other markets.
Russia has also expressed keen interest to use the CPEC, which will enable them to realise their goal of having access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Russia also wants to invest in various sectors like agriculture, telecom, oil and gas development.
After purchasing Mobilink, Russian telecom giant, Vimpelcom has also obtained Warid. This 1-billion-dollar investment gives Russian telecom giant a strong base in the telecom industry in Pakistan. Russia has expressed interest in purchasing banks and laying down railway lines.
Pakistani writer and research Fellow at Centre for Research and Security Studies, Sadam Hussain wrote:
‘With Russia’s growing interests in different sectors of Pakistan’s economy and tapping into the potential areas where it can either invest or capture the market for Russian goods, it seems that after Chinese adventurism of CPEC, Russia Pakistan Economic Corridor (RPEC) is also in the making. The thought of it may be ahead of time, but if Pakistan plays balanced chess moves on the board of international and regional politics in particular, it can become hotbed of intersecting world economies.’ 3
Realising growing friendship between Russia and Pakistan, New Delhi placed a large order of 5.5 billion Us dollars in 2016, on condition that certain types of weapons will not be sold to Pakistan, which include S-400 surface to air missiles.
An expert associated with the renowned British think tank, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) feels Russia may change its position if India continues to purchase military equipment from the West, especially America.
However, another defence expert, James Hackett, associated with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, feels because Russia still has many large defence orders with India; it is likely that Moscow may not ‘significantly deepen defence ties with Pakistan.’ 4
In this context, it is imperative to mention that due to Russian and Chinese pressure both India and Pakistan resumed their backchannel talks. Beijing and Moscow emphasised that problems of Asia should be resolved by Asian leaders without and interference from outside. Pakistani side was opined that for peace and stability of South Asia and for the success of the CPEC it was essential that there was peace in the region; and that both India and Pakistan should resume their talks to resolve all outstanding disputes.
The Indian and Pakistani experts had meetings in Islamabad between 28 April 2018 and 30 April. According to reliable sources both sides “discussed all aspects of bilateral relations and agreed that all issues between the two countries should be resolved through talks.” 5
Despite this, for some reason, Mohammed Faisal from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs felt appropriate to say:
“India should walk the talk and refrain from provocative statements. Our armed forces practice restraint but have the capacity and are ever vigilant to give a befitting response to any threat to the motherland.” 6
American concerns and strategy
Another interesting twist was noticed in international relations and alliance building exercise, when the American President Trump, known for his undiplomatic, but daring statements asserted that he ‘too believes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through a disputed territory.’ It must be remembered that India’s opposition to the CPEC was based on this plea that the territory of Gilgit Baltistan belonged to New Delhi; and that China and Pakistan had not right to continue with these mega projects in a disputed territory.
The American Defence Secretary James Mattis, while speaking in the Senate Armed Services Committee said:
“The One Belt, One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate.” 7
He further said in a globalised world there are many ‘belts’ and ‘many roads’, and ‘no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating One Belt, One Road’. He also ‘opposed’ the CPEC because it was ‘going through a disputed territory.’ 8
This new development can further deteriorate the tensed relations between Pakistan and America. Also, it can encourage other players to take positions in changing political, strategic and economic situation in South Asia and beyond.
Tension between American and Pakistan has many dimensions. Their relations have seen many ups and down in the past. Both governments know strengths and vulnerabilities of each other. Their love and hate relationship is likely to continue. Both countries need each other for different reasons. One American policy analyst expressed, rather bitterly, that:
‘After reading scores of incriminating intelligence reports and experiencing first-hand the frustrations of dealing with Pakistani counterparts, many concluded that Pakistan’s military and intelligence forces guilty of a cruel, immoral and deceptive strategy that helped Afghan Taliban insurgents kill hundreds of US troops and made another major terrorist attack against Americans and their allies more likely.’ 9
Many American experts believe that Washington and Islamabad have clearly worked against each other with different and opposing strategies. These experts strongly believe that American officials are:
‘fully convinced that Pakistan employ’s some terrorist groups as proxy fighters in Afghanistan and India. These groups have American blood on their hands.’ 10
Despite this strong observation made many years ago, more or less same relationship continued between Islamabad and Washington until President Trump came on the scene with tough actions. They were friends and allies; but they were suspicious of each other’s objectives and strategies.
Another American said, ‘Islamabad is addictive to US assistance dollars’. Pakistan needs dollars either in the form of military aid, development aid, grants or loans. In return, America also want many things from Pakistan and expect honest dealing.
The American narrative aside, some analysts, especially Pakistanis believe that America doesn’t want to see politically and economically stable Pakistan. They believe the CPEC can bring economic stability; and that is why America is opposing the CPEC. Economically strong Pakistan with a large army and nuclear arsenal can help Pakistan to withstand the American pressure of ‘do more’.
Apart from that, America thinks the CPEC is an important component of the Belt and Road Initiative; and success of the CPEC will give China a strategic and economic edge over America in this region. Furthermore, India is America’s new defence and strategic partner; and both partners perceive the CPEC as a future threat. The Pakistani policy planners think, because of these reasons, America has to oppose the CPEC.
Pakistan’s denial to provide access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian markets forced New Delhi to think of alternative strategies. One such strategy was to start air cargo between India and Afghanistan, which is up and running. The other strategy was to develop Iranian port of Chabhar, which could be used to ship Indian goods to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asian countries. For this purpose, India committed more than 500 million; and also, constructed roads to transport goods to Kabul.
If Chabhar route becomes viable and attracts customers, who don’t want to be victims of instability of Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan, and Pakistani policies, then it can take away a considerable business away from the CPEC.
In this context, President Donal Trump has also urged New Delhi to speed up the development of Chabhar port and the road links, which will ultimately help development of Afghanistan. This route will also provide access to goods from the Central Asian countries and Afghanistan to the Indian markets and beyond.
Where does Iran stands in this equation?
Relations between Iran and America have not been cordial for many decades. The American led policies against Iran, by and large, alienated Iran, and hurt them considerably. The optimism after the nuclear deal is also dashed by President Trumps unilateral withdrawal from the deal. Even though countries like Britain, France and Germany are not with America on this vital point, but question arises what will be response of these countries should there be armed hostility either between Iran and America or with their proxies in the region.
Some analysts believe the CPEC has hidden strategic and military agenda. China and Pakistan, for obvious reasons deny this. On the other hand, Pakistani strategic policy planners view development of Chabhar and India’s ‘acquisition’ of Duqm port from Oman with suspicion.
These critics see it as an Indian strategic planning to counter any misadventure emanating from Gwadar port. They see all this in the context of Indo – Iran Defence Pact of 2003, which provides certain military cooperation to India.
In a case of war like situation with India, these Pakistanis think, Iran may allow Chabhar port to be used against Pakistani coastal areas. They feel
India may convert Chabhar into a ‘multipurpose military base for intelligence gathering, radar and communication stations, naval, submarine, missile, logistics and/or air force assets.’ 11
These critics go as far as saying that India may be developing these ports and new trade corridor for Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics for ‘deeper sinister strategic designs?’ In a war like situation, India may even ‘place some of their nukes/missiles in Chabahar, Duqm or any of the other military bases they are desperately acquiring all over the IOR to retain their second- strike capability?’ 12
There is not much merit in this argument. Perhaps, the writer is not fully aware of Indian capacity and ability. Indian policy makers claim they want to avoid war with any country because they want to concentrate on economic development. They know war, be it with Pakistan or China, will destroy much of the economic achievements, and hold back development plans for many years.
However, Indian defence analysts claim, if war is thrusted upon them, then they have the ability to defend their borders and teach Pakistan a lesson. Before we make any serious comments on military position of India and Pakistan, and possible threats to India, one needs to see the world Military Strength Ranking 2018.
‘The complete Global Firepower list for 2018 puts the military powers of the world into full perspective. It takes over 55 individual factors to determine given nation’s power index’.
In this ranking India is 4th most powerful military in the world. Pakistan is at no 17. Are we suggesting that the country which is at no 17, in the world military ranking has power and ability to militarily defeat the country which is at no 4 in the world power ranking? 13
Apart from that Iranians are not fools to allow India to station their nuclear weapons on their territory and endanger peace, security and lives of the Iranian people. Furthermore, people need to know that Iran have their own issues with Pakistan and cause for resentment.
Iran is clearly unhappy with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan close military cooperation and strategic alliance. Pakistan is not only providing training and military weapons to Saudi Arabia, but has also sent more army there on top of the troops already stationed there. Tehran thinks this military assistance and sending of more troops will boost the Saudi Arabia’s ‘ambitions to dominate’ the region. Also, Iranian government is suspicious that Pakistani troops and weapons can be used in Yemen to hurt Iranian interests.
In view of some Iranian policy makers, presence of Pakistani troops and so called Muslim army commanded by former army Chief of Pakistan General Raheel Sharif in Saudi Arabia pose a serious threat to Iran and can further destabilise the region.
These critics who link development of Chabhar port with some military agenda, overlook the bitter facts that apart from the above, Iran is annoyed with Pakistan because Pakistan did not fulfil their part of the contract with regard to the Iran Pakistan Gas Pipeline. Furthermore, Iran is cagey about Pakistan’s attempts to get LNG from Qatar and gas through the TAPI Gas Pipeline.
Additionally, Iran is unhappy because Russia is building 2 billion-dollar North - South Gas Pipeline from Lahore to Karachi to supply LNG to Pakistan. Iranian are not fools; they understand that despite the contract with Iran, Pakistan has made alternative arrangements and have ‘cheated’ them.
To make matters worse, Iran believes that Saudi supported Wahabi groups are attacking Shias in Pakistan. Also, they think Pakistan has allowed anti Shia groups like the ‘Jaesh-e-Adl, which reportedly operates cross border from Pakistan.’
So, one can see Iran had many outstanding issues with Islamabad many years before the idea of CPEC was even conceived. Even if the CPEC projects collapse, the disagreements which Iran has with Pakistan will continue to exist; and trouble both governments because they have religious and ideological dimension.
Relationship of India and China
India and China have many relations. They are neighbours, competitors, enemies and good business partners. They fought each other in 1962. They continue to have military skirmishes on disputed borders. Good thing is that their diplomacy has matured, and they have decided to resolve their difference by a process of dialogue. They have also decided to continue improving their trade despite outstanding disputes and hurdles.
Despite claims of Pakistan and China that the CPEC is an ‘economic project’, Indian strategic planners do not accept this, as they see hidden military and strategic aspect to it; and is concerned about its defence and national interests. Apart from that, India claims Gilgit Baltistan, the CPEC gateway to Pakistan as its territory, which is illegally occupied by Pakistan.
China has not only tried to satisfy the Indian fear with regard to the CPEC, but has also continued to improve economic relations with New Delhi. China also invited India to become part of the CPEC.
In this context, many discussion between officials of two countries have taken place. One can say the most import is the meeting that took place in Wuhan, China, between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping on 27 April 2018. The Indian government requested this meeting, a kind of summit; and objective of this was to iron out differences on geo political issues in and around the region.
It is believed that the Chinese ‘drift’ towards India has alarmed many in Islamabad, even though they spend more time fighting each other than focussing on issue that have serious implications for the future of Pakistan. Analysts in Islamabad feel that Modi has been successful in explaining to Jinping that they can continue to improve their trade relations, despite New Delhi’s geo strategic partnership with Washington.
Both Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping agree that they must focus to de-escalate tension in the region in order to enhance trade and economic relations. For Modi, this meeting is good for local politics as well, as he can present himself as a statesman with ability to promote peace and understanding with neighbouring countries. Economic achievements and building bridges of peace in the region can help him in the general elections taking place next year.
It must also be noted that under the banner of SCO, India, Pakistan and China are meeting in Russia in September 2018, to discuss various issues related to terrorism. It is believed that in the Modi – Jinping meeting, they could have also discussed and agreed on certain aspects of this multi-nation counter-terror exercise.
The emerging role of SCO in the South Asia and Central Asia must not be underestimated; and importance of SCO countries is growing with time for the success of the CPEC and Belt and Road Initiative. Countries need to learn to concentrate on economic development rather than arms race and military conquests, which only add to problems of the suffering people. There are hundreds of millions of people in South Asia and in Central Asia living below the poverty line; and efforts should be made to alleviate this suffering.
It is important to note that America and India worked together in a conference of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in February 2018, at Paris to include Pakistan’s name in the grey listing because of Pakistan’s unsatisfactory record related to combating terrorism. India and China met in Wuhan, China, in April 2018 to work on projects of mutual interest to both countries. This again proves the point, that countries only care about their national and strategic interests, friendship and principles are only used as sweeteners.
The CPEC is a big bail out for Pakistan. It will help Pakistan to build infrastructure and meet energy requirements. However, people need to understand that mega projects bring with them mega responsibilities, which many experts believe Pakistan is not in a position to accomplish. As a result of Pakistan’s failure to fulfil their responsibilities, the country will run in to deep problems.
The Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, in the context of Modi – Jinping expressed his view like this:
‘From the global perspective, China and India are largely relevant to the evolving international structure of “rise of the east and decline of the west” and against the headwinds of anti-globalisation and protectionism. From the respective developments, we should share the developmental strategies and experiences as our combined population and GDP account for 40 percent and 20 percent of the world’s total.’ 14
He further says that both countries have to look at perspective of each other, and coexist. The focus, he says, must be development; and that we can seek guidance to formulate policies from our leaders. The Chinese Ambassador further said:
“Equally important is to implement the consensus, transmit personal friendship between the two leaders down to the common people, and take more concrete actions. Wuhan Summit is not a talk shop and we have a lot of work to do in the future such as trade deficit mitigation, acceleration of BCIM process, cooperation in Afghanistan and establishment of high-level people-to-people exchange mechanism.” 15
Many more aspects of geo political alliances and interests can be discussed and analysed. However, I shall do this under another topic. No doubt, the CPEC is important; but more important are geo political realities of this region, and it is imperative that we look in to future and see what can happen and what should happen.
Kamran Yousaf, http://pk.shafaqna.com/EN/61261
3. Is a Russia Pakistan corridor in the making? Saddam Hussein, Published in Daily Times, April 29th 2018.
4. ‘India upset at improvement in Pak-Russia defence ties’, http://pk.shafaqna.com/EN/61240
7. Reservations on CPEC: Finally the US cat is out of bag http://pk.shafaqna.com/EN/52015
9. No exit from Pakistan, Daniel S Markey, page 4
10. Ibid, page 8
14. Xi-Modi meeting: a cause for concern, Imtiaz Gul
Daily Times, May 9th 2018.