The Sino-Pak axis has matured. The decades old ‘Cheen-Pak Bhai Bhai’ narrative is fast moving beyond pan-Karakoram fraternal rhetoric complemented by scenically exotic highways, shared rocket designs and muted nuclear deals to morph into optically sound, fundamentally critical, even mutually loud and proud policy, infrastructure and defense initiatives on the ground. China – and not just its submarines – is coming to Pakistan, and Pakistan is getting ready to receive the People’s Republic. The ‘Bhai’ in Beijing, as the mood in Islamabad indicates, is now a BFF – Best Friend Forever – even a Friend With Benefits.
The comprehensive Chinese assistance package – hinged on the 3000 kilometer-long China-Pak Economic Corridor, an aggressive energy build-up and military modernization – is the largest planned foreign investment program for any country, ever, touching almost crossing over $100 billion in the next decade and a half, and is being seen as the next, and perhaps the last, big thing that war-weary Pakistan must grab on to, at any cost.
The Peking Promise
The plan is simple: The deep-sea port of Gwadar is going to drive Chinese imports, largely oil and gas, into western China, which is relatively underdeveloped versus the rest of the PRC and prone to militancy. The levies, infrastructure and traffic will tone up the CPEC network to create jobs, roads and even entire towns along the way from Pakistani Balochistan, through all of the Islamic Republic’s other provinces, to Chinese Kashgar in Xinjiang. Add the potential of Chinese naval presence in Gwadar that will let it over see Hormuz and neighboring ports and the reality of Pakistan’s newly formed and purpose-built 34th Infantry Division to protect Chinese assets and personnel, and there is a single-minded confidence that the corridor must be secured and will be secured. After all, the Pakistanis have given their word to Beijing.
“China is Pakistan’s only strategic friend…not even the Saudis get to have that privilege any longer” said a senior intelligence officer last month when China’s deputy intelligence chief, Dong Haizhou was promised “no hurdles for CPEC” by army chief General Raheel Sharif during a visit to GHQ, according to the military spokesperson’s office.
So, fuelled by the blank political cheque presented to the civilian and military security apparatus by popular support after the terrible Peshawar Army Public School massacre last December – which has granted the military, police and federal investigators unprecedented constitutional powers to clean house – whoever gets in the way of a CPEC-oriented Pakistan must move aside, or be pushed out. The purge is here, and the reasoning is to satisfy China.
But this isn’t just the regular arrests and assassinations purge, the type that Pakistanis are used to. It’s more of a wide-ranging political rethink, a housekeeping exercise that runs from the south to the north, just like the corridor it is meant to pave. In Karachi and Sindh, the drive against ‘corrupt’ political parties like former president Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party has begun, which has forced him to take some respite and exit the country; also, that’s where the ‘violent’ wings of Karachi’s all-powerful Muttahida Qaumi Movement are being clipped, with some help from the BBC (which claims that India’s Research and Analysis Wing funded and trained the party’s militants) and British authorities (who are investigating the MQM’s leadership in London for murder and money laundering). Karachi, too violent and complicated to tackle alone, needed a pincer move to control it, and the Pakistanis have managed to find a partner here in the UK.
So even though the second and fourth largest political parties of the land are under fire from the military, police and investigators, the optical support that Nawaz Sharif’s Raiwind and Raheel Sharif’s GHQ have gleaned for clearing up Sindh rely on the much needed ethos of good governance. Thus, almost everybody, besides the targets, is playing ball, especially as crime is down and Karachi, that revenue-generating workhorse of Pakistan, recovers economically while its entrepreneurs smell the opportunity that China is offering.
Further up and west, the counter-insurgent operations in Balochistan – an area that China is most worried about as it has big plans for Gwadar, the province’s deep sea port, and onwards for CPEC – have now moved into an all out offensive mode against separatists, sectarian militants and even the Pakistani Taliban (who have tried to set up shop in the northern Pashtun-belt of that province).
To protect the political flanks of the corridor, the coalition government of Balochistan is being propped up by an unusual ally – the military – to give credence to the stabilization drive there, coupled by a general amnesty scheme for separatist Baloch insurgents. “It’s a carrot and stick game that relies on respecting tribal rules, initiating peace overtures, having no political favorites and executing creative kinetic prong offensives,” said Lt. General Nasser Khan Janjua, who leads the Quetta-based Southern Command. “And guess what? It’s working.”
It is working. Balochistan, too big to govern well, still has its pop-up problems, and even though the optical glare of the ‘kill and dump’ and ‘missing persons’ regimes thwarts the trust between the population and military there, the province is gradually stabilizing. After the announcement of CPEC, a more complex insurgent threat is expected from groups that the security services believe are aided from across the border by Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security (NDS) and, yes, even R&AW, but there is a weariness among military officials posted in the province that too much kinetic force could offset the strategic gains achieved by recently projected soft power in the province. In securing Balochistan, nuance is key.
Follow the yellow brick of CPEC further up north, and the notoriously unruly tribal areas are being cleared, hard and fast without much nuance, as Operation Zarb-e-Azb [‘Strike of the Prophet’s Sword], with its tangential Operations Khyber 1 and Kyber 2 – dubbed as the “largest counter-insurgent military operation in the region’s history” by the military’s spokesperson’s office, have reached their final stages after more than a year. Complex attacks are down nationwide, and though the army continues to take casualties, even regular attacks and bombings in the mainland have decreased, along with the ‘drone debate’, which has reached a ‘necessary evil’ consensus in most relevant circles in Pakistan, thanks to the military’s tacit support. The next steps in Zarb-e-Azb, already initiated for some areas, are the repatriation and rehabilitation of the almost one million tribal residents displaced by the military operation by late summer, which shows the army’s confidence.
The Civ-Mil-China Love Triangle
Thus, as the upper north is further inducted into the mainstream – with recent elections in Gilgit Baltistan, also a part of the CPEC route, having gone mostly well and in favour of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif – it is the strengthening bond between the civil-military combine of the Punjab-dominated center, or Fortress Punjab, as some in the GHQ call it and Raiwind imagine it, where Pakistan’s incumbent Sharif [Nawaz, the premier] and its empowered Sharif [Raheel, the general] finally feel that the incentive of Chinese investment and involvement is a good enough reason to join forces and clean house in this once-and-for-all moment that is presenting itself. Pakistan’s infamously fractured civ-mil dynamic hasn’t been firmer in years, perhaps decades.
And so the civilians and the brass are climbing out of their defensive and distrustful crouches and taking the war of reform to the areas that need order, including their own domains. As the Interior Ministry defies international pressure and investigates foreign INGOs and even its own federal police, the ISI reorganizes into more streamlined commands while the Army is making its position clear on the possible investigation of the allegedly corrupt practices of former army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s brothers that have now reached the country’s anti-corruption investigator: it won’t intervene, but will expect other (civilian big wigs) corruption cases to be fairly investigated, too. For now, the purge may be cutting close to home, but is seen as worth it, again due to the China connection.
The strategic setting is critical. The post-US/NATO withdrawal vacuum created in Afghanistan cannot be filled by Pakistan alone. And Pakistan won’t let India fill it, either. That’s where China has been invited by Pakistan, authorities claim, to underwrite the Taliban peace process, the latest installment of which saw talks restart in Islamabad between Taliban and Afghan government officials this week, with Beijing and Washington providing the background music.
For Beijing, the incentive is to protect its investments in Afghanistan, which Pakistan claims it will chaperone to maturity. For the US, top diplomats admit that the ambit of regional stability has been ‘outsourced’ to a regional stakeholder that all parties can talk to: Beijing. As for Pakistan, China’s involvement lets it gain a legitimate, not default, position in the morphing geo-strategy of the region as well as a backer that commands global respect and Islamabad’s trust.
And yes, that’s also where Pakistan gets to push India out of its neck of the woods: The northern Arabian Sea and Afghanistan. That’s why the Chinese subs are coming to town. That’s why warship construction deals are being announced by Chinese, not Pakistani media. That’s why Beijing just scuttled India’s plans for sanctioning Pakistan for abetting militants at the UN. That’s why the PM’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, wants to introduce Chinese in public schools. And that’s why restaurants in Islamabad have started carrying menus in Mandarin.
“Pakistan is China’s Israel,” once quipped General Xiong Guangkai, the Chinese spy chief, and almost everybody south of the Karakoram believes him, still. But Beijing’s approach is more nuanced, as always. Ensuring that India and Pakistan join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this week is a part of China’s win-win ploy, among other investments and engagements with New Delhi. There is a school of thought that believes that inevitability of Indo-Pak conflict may only be turned around by a friendly neighbourhood yet clearly dominant China. Pakistan is buying that approach. Is India?
Wajahat S. Khan is the Pakistan correspondent for NBC News and national security editor for Dunya News
Courtesy: India Today
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