The new role of China in the US-Pakistan relation

The year 2018 started probably in the worst possible way for the history of relations between the United States and Pakistan, with president Trump tweeting against the Asian country just after New Year’s Eve celebrations. Rephrasing what has already been expressed in other occasions, the president has given credit to the widespread belief (partly supported by evidence) that the Pakistani rulers are still in an ambiguous position in their fight against terrorism. With his usual emphasis on money spent by the American taxpayers to support allies around the world, the president has claimed the US has wasted more than 33 billion dollars in aid to Pakistan in exchange for “lies & deceit” from a country that “gives safe haven to terrorists from Afghanistan”. Although a tougher stance on Pakistan was expected, especially after the formulation of the new administration’s policy on Afghanistan in August, the tweet has caught off guard State Department officials, whose statement issued 4 days later was still not capable of assessing the actual amount of financial aid to be frozen. The estimate was in the range of 2 billion dollars, divided in security assistance and reimbursement for counter-terrorism operations. The Pakistani reply, on the other hand, came very swiftly and in the same highly undiplomatic tone of the provocation, underscoring how Pakistan offered the US its air space, the use of its military bases and intelligence support in a struggle that “decimated Al-Qaeda” in exchange for “invective & mistrust” and at the cost of many Pakistani lives.

Both statements reflect the parties desire to change the relationship in their own favour, after 16 years of cooperation that has not defeated the Taliban and has not granted Pakistan internal stability and a satisfying economic growth (while GDP has grown the country remains very poor and the distribution of wealth is highly uneven). From the side of the US, an interesting point is the one succinctly expressed by Khawaja Asif, Pakistan’s foreign minister, that openly accused Trump of blaming Pakistan for “US defeat” in Afghanistan. Going back to the election campaign, the president has indeed long used Obama administration’s failure in that country to undermine his role as a leader and has repeatedly pledged to definitively defeat the Taliban and put an end to the longest war in American history. Once in office, however, facing a dilemma between openly giving in to the Taliban and remaining in the country, the president has increased the number of troops assigned to the Resolute Support operation while a full withdrawal from the country has been postponed (once again). Despite this increased support to the Kabul government (coming also from other countries such as China), the situation is deteriorating and the defeat of the insurgents (that now include ISIS-affiliated groups) looks increasingly unlikely. As a recent BBC report has highlighted, after almost 17 years of uninterrupted war, the Taliban still hold a tight grip on the country, with many provinces under full control and an insurgency that has kept gaining steam in the recent years. Specifically, half the population lives in areas directly controlled by the Taliban or where the insurgents are openly present and regularly attack the security forces or civilian targets. In this context, the thesis of Asif, of targeting Pakistan as a scapegoat for what is likely to the biggest US defeat after Vietnam, is probably a big reason prompting Trump to criticize Pakistan so harshly.

However, while the 45th President of the US has little personal responsibility for the situation he inherited from Obama (who in turn found himself stuck in a war declared by his predecessor) his country carries heavy responsibilities on the genesis of the Taliban, the ISIS and more in general the spread of Islamic extremism in the area. A quick look at the history of the relations between the US and Pakistan clearly shows how intertwined these countries have been and how deeply American foreign policy has shaped the current attitude of Pakistanis towards religion and extremism. When General Zia-ul-Haq became president in 1978 after a coup the world imposed sanctions on the regime but the US soon started a congenial relationship with the dictator: the intelligence agencies of both countries actively created and armed the Islamic students now known as Taliban to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In doing this, the US implicitly endorsed the promotion of a radical form of Islam promoted by General Zia as a means to strengthen his control on the population with the help of the clerics that gained an increased status in the society. But when in 1990 Pakistan lost its strategical importance sanctions were again imposed and the country ironically labelled as a sponsor of terrorism and left at its own fate. And when in 2001 America declared its war on terror, the regime of the new dictator General Musharraf was forced to pledge help to the Americans that had threatened “bombing it into the stone age”. By then, however, the population had grown angry against the Americans and the support for Islamic militants was high and actively promoted by most of the clerics.

The ambiguousness of Pakistan’s fight against Islamic extremism was then intrinsic in the alliance since its inception. While many Pakistani citizens are truly concerned about terrorism and an increasing instability in the country, most of them share the same religious strictness of the militants, as clearly visible in the death sentence for blasphemy of a Christian woman (for allegedly insulting the Prophet) largely supported by the population. But the security forces themselves are in an ambiguous position and at least bits of the intelligence are openly siding with terrorism, as many realized when Osama Bin Laden was found in a compound in Abbottabad less than a mile from a military academy (where he had been living for 6 years). In summary, the relationship of Pakistan with Islamic extremism is just a product of its recent history and no matter how much money international donors may offer or how harsh consequences the US may threaten, important sectors of the society will always support it and their leaders will act accordingly.

The role of China

Another key player in the Pakistan reality is China, which is trying to fill the void left, economically speaking, by the USA. China-Pakistan relations under the tenure of Chinese President Xi Jinping are widely seen as having strengthened considerably in recent years. More than anything, Xi’s concerns seem focused on trade and development. That is why, in 2014, China initiated a fundamental economic development project called One Belt One Road. This initiative involves China spending over $3 trillion during the next decades on infrastructure investments in 68 countries to recreate the old Silk Road. When the initiative will be completed it will link China to Europe and Africa using roads, railways, airports, fiber-optic connections, and seaports with a parallel improvement of several major fields such as industrial, agriculture, and energy centers in the participating countries. One of the most important countries in this project is Pakistan, with the acronym CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), and the seaport of Gwadar, in the province of Baluchistan on the Indian Ocean, seen as a key element in China’s project. Its plan is to spend at least $60 billion on infrastructure developments in the country, whose political leaders are sponsoring the project and have argued that it will “produce equal opportunities for all regions of Pakistan”, highlighting how CPEC will “improve current economic development and create new business and job opportunities.” CPEC will no doubt bring money to Pakistan, but it is not clear that it will impact the standard of the common people because all these projects will be built according to Chinese plans, with Chinese labor, and connected to Chinese businesses. There will soon be over 15,000 Chinese workers in Pakistan.

In addition, it is doubtful that this investment will create jobs in the country. The Chinese will likely take most of the skilled and management positions as they did in other projects in Africa, or even in Afghanistan. Given Pakistan’s level of corruption and a rigid class system in which most of the nation’s wealth goes to a very small upper class it is very likely CPEC will benefit the rich ones who will rent or sell land and services to the project. It is also likely that the project will create class anger and antagonism in Pakistan.  Despite the presence of two very large cities (Karachi and Lahore), the country is largely a rural society in which 66 percent of the population lives in small villages on large agricultural estates. This rural population is unlikely to receive many benefits from CPEC since most of the investments are directed to the cities or to the wealthier areas. For example, the Baluchistan province, which is scheduled to play an important role, is the largest province and has many natural resources. But the local Baloch people deeply resent the plan because it will change the demography of the area. Before the expansion of Gwadar, the population of the area was 70,000. If the project comes to full fruition the population would be closer to 2 million — most of whom would be non-Baloch and many poor Baloch have already been displaced from the area. Because of this, some militant separatist groups have formed and have been causing trouble in the area of Gwadar, where on May 13th 2017 some gunmen killed 10 laborers working on the CPEC project.  The attack was carried out by the Baluch Liberations Army, BLA.  “This conspiratorial plan, CPEC, is not acceptable to the Baluch people under any circumstances”, a spokesperson for the groups reported. As for China, Pakistan’s ambassador Masood Khalid is confident on the question of the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan. “The state of Pakistan is providing security to Chinese nationals, and they are satisfied with that.” But despite his words, attacks on Chinese citizens have already taken place and will continue. Due to the attacks, China officials claim that the CPEC project will also include many initiatives in Pakistan that are not only of an economic nature, one of them is called “The Safe Cities initiative”. It has been designed to safeguard Chinese workers from Pakistani terrorists, but it will also transform many of Pakistan’s cities since new safer buildings in urban centers are expected to be built. Moreover, Chinese personnel will train local police and military on anti-terrorist and bomb detection techniques. The project has already begun in Islamabad, but the city of greater concern is Peshawar that is the center of the Taliban insurgency. While this project will no doubt create safer cities, many are concerned that much of the traditional areas of some of these historic cities will be destroyed. Another important issue is that Pakistani citizens have no way to know what CPEC will cost them. Neither government has been clear about what projects are part of the plan and therefore costing has been completely opaque. China sets the price, contracts the work out to Chinese companies and if the project is even partially executed, Pakistan would be indebted to China as never before.

The Chinese initiative to invest billions of dollars will certainly create wealth and it will enrich some Pakistanis. However, the country has many problems that will challenge the success of the CPEC project, including regional and ethnic tensions and rivalries, and the increasing activities of Islamic militant groups. However, China has done this before in other parts of the world, although not on this scale, and has worked with governments more corrupt than Pakistan’s.  This project’s success may depend on the ability of China to convince the Pakistani people through their actions that they are not a superpower looking to exploit the resources of a third-world country.  If the project can truly create jobs and wealth for the average Pakistani, CPEC will be a great success.


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