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Does opportunity knock for China in Pakistan?

News Agencies | Updated on: 16 January 2018, 9:55 IST
Does opportunity knock for China in Pakistan?

Both the US State Department and the Pakistan government were caught unawares when President Donald Trump tweeted on 1 January that Pakistan had provided only "lies and deceit" whilst giving safe haven to terrorists. Within three days, a scrambling State Department announced the USA was suspending military aid to Islamabad.

The said security assistance is estimated to be worth some USD1.9 billion annually. IHS Jane's quoted a StateDepartment official as saying, "The United States will not deliver grant-funded military equipment or transfer security-related funds to Pakistan unless required by law. Exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis if they are determined to be vital to national security interests."

It is known that the financial suspension includes USD1 billion in funds under the Foreign Military Financingprogram and the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund. About USD900 million under the Coalition Support Funds is also affected.

It is important to note that this funding has not been cancelled, just suspended. The official informed IHS Jane's, "This suspension is not a permanent cut at this time. Security assistance funding and pending deliveries will be frozen but not cancelled as we work to ensure Pakistan takes decisive action against terrorist and militant groups. We do not intend to re-programme any funds at this time."

It is important to note that the USA is only the second-largest provider of military equipment to Pakistan. China tops that list already. Therefore, the freezing of American military aid does not alter the status quo order.

Is there a possibility of China stepping in to make up for this loss of funds and military hardware? To answer that question we must consider the type of equipment that each country supplies. For example, China supplies more strategic-type and combat assets.

Examples of assets sold by China from 2010-16 include MBT-2000-based main battle tanks, Type 041submarines, CH-3 and Wing Loong unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), JF-17 fighters, K-8 trainer jets, Z-10 and Z-9C helicopters, F-22P frigates, Azmat-class missile patrol boats,1,500-tonne and 600-tonne patrol boats, HJ-8 anti-tank missiles, QW-1 man-portable surface-to-air missiles (SAM), A-100 rocket launchers, C-802 and CM-400AKG anti-ship missiles, HQ-7 and LY-80 SAMs, PL-12 and PL-5E air-to-air missiles, various guided bombs, ZDK-03 airborne early warning aircraft, Type 90 antiaircraft guns, and Yu-3 and Yu-4 torpedoes.

In contrast, a lot of US equipment sold to Pakistan isassets useful for combating terrorists and insurgentsrather than warships or offensive armored vehicles. A lot is second-hand too. From 2010-16, the USA supplied M109A5 self-propelled howitzers, P-3C Orion patrol aircraft, various missiles and bombs, F-16C fighters, King Air 350, Cessna 208 and Cessna U206 aircraft, Cougar and MaxxPro protected vehicles, M113 armored personnel carriers and ScanEagle UAVs.

One deal likely to be frozen is the sale of twelve Bell AH-1Z attack helicopters. However, Pakistan has already expressed interest in the T129 Atak platform from Turkey, which could just as easily fill this gap.

IHS Jane's predicted, ".The move by the United States to halt defence supplies and military aid to Pakistan is likely to prompt Islamabad to move closer to China, which increasingly views itself as a provider of counterinsurgency equipment and would welcome the move as an opportunity to further strengthen its influence in South Asia."

So, yes, China will likely garner new sales in Pakistan for the type of counterinsurgency equipment that the USA previously provided. Regardless, this will simply come on top of the full-blown combat weaponry that Pakistan has already, and will continue, buying from Beijing. Thus, Pakistani dependence on Chinese equipment will deepen a trend already occurring.

It must be remembered that Islamabad was already wary of US-supplied equipment because it has previously endured a US-imposed embargo. That experience made Pakistan realize that it had to diversify its supplier base because, to reply solely on the USA, meant its military equipment would soon end up unserviceable. Indeed, this was one reason Pakistan has been courting China for many years. Additionally, China has been more willing to transfer technology and assist with local production, something American companies are loath to do in Pakistan.

Chinese officials and media have been remarkably silent on what impact the US sanctions against Pakistan will have, but the leadership must surely be rubbing their hands with glee. While this game of brinkmanship could prompt Islamabad to redouble its counterinsurgency efforts, there is consensus among many commentators that the South Asian country will be pushed even more firmly into China's embrace as its support base narrows.This will not all be positive, however, as Pakistan will be forced to accept Chinese terms that are unlikely to be more generous than the USA's.

The US-Pakistan relationship has always been rocky. Pakistan has always relied upon overseas funding, and the war in Afghanistan has been a boon for Pakistani coffers. While it might threaten to cozy up to China, thiswill not heal deep-seated difficulties within the country. Simply transferring to a different money tree will not solve internal-security problems, whilst overreliance on China will limit Islamabad's future foreign policy avenues.

Furthermore, terrorist attacks in China, any suspected links with insurgent organizations in Pakistan, or violent attacks against Chinese interests in the Muslim country will attract Chinese ire. While it is positive that Pakistan enjoyed a peaceful transition to a civil government in 2013, foreign support must sustain governance and strengthen the economy. Will China, an authoritarian regime that fears democratic institutions and human rights, do so? It seems unlikely.

China talks glibly of "win-win cooperation" as it pushesits One Belt, One Road initiative, but the fact is that China possesses hardnosed business ethics that produce only one winner. This hard-driving attitude is actuallyrebounding in some cases. A high-profile example is the USD14 billion Diamer-Bhasha Dam, where China was allegedly asking for ownership stakes, something unacceptable to Pakistan.

The dam was supposed to be part of the much-vaunted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the latter being a business venture with strategic overtones. One thing it is not is aid. Projects are negotiated atcommercial rates and, since Beijing is bankrolling the scheme, it typically uses Chinese companies and technology.

A recent report in The Jamestown Foundation entitled "CPEC: Iron Brothers, Unequal Partners" and written by Sudha Ramachandran, noted that "serious differences have come to the fore between China and Pakistan over the $60-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor".

It continued, ".The Sino-Pakistani relationship in CPEC is an unequal one. Not only will CPEC benefit China more than Pakistan, Beijing also calls the shots. It is even cracking the whip to ensure Islamabad concedes its demands on contentious issues. Islamabad's vulnerability to Chinese pressure can be expected to increase, especially after the US decision to suspend security aid..."

Ramachandran warned, "CPEC's scope is breathtaking. In addition to opening up Pakistan's domestic economy to Chinese participation on an unprecedented level, itwill result in China's deep penetration of Pakistan's security, society and culture."

For instance, while the world knows a lot about CPEC's highway, railway and energy projects, little has been made public about the agricultural arena where swathes of land will be leased to China for "demonstration projects". China could well be using Pakistan to strengthen its own food security. Furthermore, a fiber-optic cable for internet and television will be routed through China, which will doubtlessly bring Chinese culture directly into Pakistani living rooms.

Suspiciously, there has been little public release of details of projects such as terms, conditions and schedules. The benefits will obviously be far greater forChina than Pakistan, including special economic zones where companies will not have to pay taxes. Chinese will also gain visa-free access to Pakistan, but not vice versa. "It could turn Pakistan into a Chinese colony," the report suggested.

The Jamestown Foundation warned, "The most important is the looming debt trap. Economists have highlighted the estimated $90 billion in debt that Pakistan will have to repay China over 30 years. The consequences if Pakistan is unable to repay are unclear, though it is possible it would meet the fate of Tajikistan and Sri Lanka, which ended up ceding territory to China in lieu of unpaid debts."

The report predicted that Pakistan's defiance of China on the Diamer-Bhasha project will likely be short-livedsince its "economy and military are far too dependent on China for Islamabad to resist Beijing's pressure for long".

Indicative of Pakistan's snowballing vassal-like status, Ramachandran noted that "the Pakistani government reacted to the US announcement by allowing the renminbi to be used for bilateral trade and investment activities, reversing an earlier decision in November barring the use of renminbi on the grounds that it would undermine Pakistan's economic sovereignty. China's grip over Pakistan in CPEC has tightened."

Yes, there are differences between Beijing and Islamabad over CPEC and some of its projects. However, the initiative will not be derailed, especially as the latter increasingly comes under Chinese influence - for better or for worse.

-ANI

First published: 16 January 2018, 9:55 IST
 
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