Sino-Pak relations: strengths and pitfalls

Last Updated: Wed, Jul 10, 2013 04:54 hrs

Washington: Pakistan's China policy is one of its few success stories in the foreign policy arena. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif underscored the importance of Sino-Pak relations by choosing China for his first foreign visit after assuming office.

The oft-heard poetic flourishes indulged in by the officials of these Asian neighbors to describe their friendship were duly repeated during the five-day visit that concluded on Monday. Relations between China and Pakistan were built on the foundation of their shared hostility towards India, but evolved with the changing regional and global dynamics.

India has risen to be an economic giant and successfully sold itself as the largest democracy in the world. Both China and Pakistan are keen to normalize relations with India. This has shifted the focus of their energies to realizing the economic potential of their strategic partnership. Even their defense cooperation, such as joint building of JF-17 aircraft and transfer of technology, sometimes has an economic dimension.

Pakistan could make profits by manufacturing and selling this light aircraft to meet smaller countries' defense needs. China is interested in developing Pakistan's mineral resources-mainly concentrated in Balochistan province and developing alternative routes for its trade and energy imports through Pakistan. Islamabad, for its part, is keen to avail this opportunity to become a regional trade corridor, linking China to Central Asia and to the Arabian Sea.

Pakistan's deep sea Gwadar Port is located near the strategic Strait of Hormuz through which 35 percent of world's petroleum sea trade emanating from the Persian Gulf passes. Rail and road links between Gwadar and Xinjang province of China that borders Pakistan could offer a far shorter route to Chinese trade and energy imports.

Currently, China's oil imports have to undertake a 12,000 km journey from the Middle East through shipping lanes guarded by the U.S. and its allies to reach seaports in eastern China. These imports have to make an additional inland journey to reach western provinces, which can be easily reached through Pakistan by developing the necessary infrastructure. Likewise, manufactured goods from China's interior first travel east to port cities and then make an onward journey through air or sea.

In addition to significantly cutting costs and reducing shipping time, inland route through a trusted neighbor provides a strategic advantage of avoiding a sea route through the Indian Ocean that is vulnerable to interruption by others, including India and the U.S. Gwadar has been viewed with suspicion in India for its potential to provide deep water berthing facilities to the Chinese navy. However, experts have dismissed this concern because any ship lodged at Gwadar would be vulnerable to attack by the Indian Air Force in the event of a conflict.

Pakistan awarded the contract for developing Gwadar Port to a Chinese firm in 2002, which started its operation in 2008. In February this year, the control of the port was transferred to the state-owned China Overseas Ports Holding Company Ltd, boosting prospects of increase in trade through Pakistan.

All is not hunky-dory, however. Balochistan province, on whose coastline Gwadar Port is located and through which the proposed trade route will pass, is undergoing an insurgency. The Baloch youth took up arms in the mid-2000s to protest decades of marginalization and expropriation of their resources. Their presence threatens any new projects in Balochistan.

In addition, Pakistan's massive energy crisis and fragile internal security situation do not augur well for expanded investment. Chinese personnel working on different projects have been attacked throughout Pakistan. The most recent loss was the killing of a Chinese tourist along nine other foreigners and their Pakistani guide at the base camp of Nanga Parbatin Pakistan's Northern Areas.In these circumstances, it seems, all grand plans would have to wait until Pakistan sorts out its internal problems.

Unrest among the Uighur Muslim minority largely based in western Xinjiang province is also a cause of deep concern for China. During his visit to China, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was urged by the Chinese officials to crack down on Uighur insurgents who are believed to be hiding in Pakistan's northwest.

Earlier this year, media reports suggested that militants belonging to East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which wants to create a Muslim state out of Xinjiang, were being trained in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal agency.

It is a sign of the strength of their relation that China and Pakistan have been able to reconcile their differing interests and not allow the issues of concern to create rifts. Chinese officials have always chosen to discuss thorny issues behind closed doors and not embarrass Pakistan publicly for its many failings, quite unlike the U.S., whose officials are not averse to public bashing of Pakistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan would need to contribute meaningfully to maintain this longtime friendship. In his final address before leaving China, Nawaz Sharif recognized that Pakistan needs to take care of its energy crisis and curb militancy before any grand economic plan could take off.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Ishrat Saleem. The writer is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at By Ishrat Saleem(ANI)

More from Sify: