Irk the Dragon, Jerk Xinjiang

Beef noodle soup is divine, now isn’t it? And few could deny that the China-Pakistan relationship has been marked by a high degree of trust and mutual cooperation on the economic, security, and political fronts. The robustness of the relationship can be gauged by the fact that it has weathered an alarming course of events that includes military coups in Pakistan and blowbacks of the U.S.-led War on Terror. To be blunt, this is an unbreakable marriage which boils down to the convergence of interests between China, with its regional interests and global aspirations, and strategically and militarily powerful Pakistan, which serves as a pivot to expand Chinese influence. Flip the coin, and a Chinese umbrella also provides Pakistan with the ability to confide in a neighbor that is viewed as less transactional and more benevolent than the United States.

The goodwill dates back to 1950, when Pakistan became one of the first countries to end ties with the Republic of China (modern-day Taiwan) and adopt the One China Policy. But to believe that this relationship cannot be tested in the turbulent waters of the Yangtze, with Pakistan’s internal security throes acting as potential pollutants, would be going a tad overboard. Optimism and faith maybe good, but mindless euphoria is not. Red carpets for the Red Dragon in Pakistan should not detract from the fact that China’s interests drive Xi Jinping’s benevolent disposition towards Pakistan.

Modern China has continuously striven for more global clout given its rise as an economic power rivaling the United States. China’s aspirations are very much evident if one examines its String of Pearls strategy. Chinese investment in ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Chittagong in Bangladesh are making Delhi huff and puff along with India’s air pollution woes. Militarily, China is embroiled in a regional rivalry in the South China Sea, where quarrels with Japan over the Senkaku Islands serve as an example. Yet to Beijing’s credit, it has also pursued a policy of “non-interference” as far as conflicts (such as in Syria and Yemen) are concerned or in key disputes such as over the Iranian nuclear program.

It would thus be useful to view this robust and amiable relationship through the Realist paradigm if one wishes to assess whether such a relationship could potentially be strained by Pakistan’s internal security challenges. Terrorism is an operational technique with the prime objective of delivering a message to a wider audience through the use of violence or the threat of using violence. This seemingly resolute relationship could definitely be put to the test and here is why:

As per the Realist theory of international relations, relationships are defined by vested interests. China is no different, with its benevolence and generosity inextricably linked to national economic interests. As far as security is concerned, however, China’s internal challenges are also inextricably linked to the Xinjiang region. It is in this region that the East Turkestan Movement or the ETIM, continues to exploit the sentiment of the population who have borne the brunt of what is viewed as Beijing’s discriminatory policies. ETIM is also present in Pakistan’s restive North Waziristan region.  Given the salience of the North Waziristan factor, it would be a shame if China-Pakistan relations became subject to conditions where investment and bilateral cooperation were linked to Pakistan’s taking action on its own territory to allay China’s security concerns. This is a factor that euphoric Pakistanis need to understand whenever Chinese dignitaries visit Islamabad or vice versa.

At the same time, it would be naive to believe that internal security issues could hijack the relationship completely. This relationship is unique, has not been marred by suspicion, and has been devoid of Cold War geopolitics in the region. The shared concerns over terrorism could open up avenues for cooperation between China and Pakistan, given that other states, such as India, Afghanistan, and the United States, have harbored suspicions over Pakistan’s ability to counter such groups, with allegations ranging from neglect to complicity. To be completely satirical, construing the internal threat of militancy as a force which could jeopardize the China-Pakistan relationship is synonymous with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement being a peaceful party in Karachi and Altaf Hussain being a saint! It does not and should not gel.

At the same time, it is essential to understand the seriousness of Pakistan’s internal security challenges and to consider them in light of emerging regional dynamics in South and Southeast Asia. Increasing emphasis on economic cooperation, but also on neutralizing potential threats, are priorities for China. For Beijing, threats to internal stability may result in wistful head shakes. For a relationship which has blossomed on every front, that would not bode well.

In short, the divinity of the beef noodle soup should be considered sacrosanct, for those who consume it.



Image 1 : Kevin Frayer-Getty Images News, Getty

Image 2: Dana Lipnickas, CNN Money, CNN

Posted in , China, Cooperation, Economy, Internal Security, Pakistan, Security, Trade

Hamzah Rifaat

Hamzah Rifaat is an anchor for Policy Beats, a current affairs and policy oriented web talk show series. He has over four years of broadcasting experience. He is a gold medalist with a Master of Philosophy degree in the discipline of peace and conflict studies from the National Defense University in Islamabad. He holds a diploma in World Affairs and Professional Diplomacy from the Bandaranaike Diplomatic Training Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was a freelance writer and blogger for the Friday Times and received a CRDF scholarship to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where he studied nonproliferation and terrorism studies at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He was also a Graduate Editorial Assistant for Women's International Perspective, a global source for women's perspectives, based in Monterey. He has also represented Pakistan as a member of the CTBTO Youth Initiative 2016. His writings encompass political and internal security issues in Pakistan and he regularly contributes for The Diplomat Magazine. Hamzah is a former SAV Visiting Fellow (January 2016).

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2 thoughts on “Irk the Dragon, Jerk Xinjiang

  1. Hamzah:
    I agree with you that China-Pakistan relations will remain sound for the long haul.
    But hopes have been raised in Pakistan to an unprecedented degree by President Xi’s last visit and Chinese investment pledges. My sense is that it will be hard to meet these expectations.

  2. Hello Michael,

    While it may be true that expectations are a tad overboard, the contribution towards eradicating the menace of terror as well as measures to curb extremism which could range from banning hate speech by bigoted Mullahs at a local mosque to the executions which took place in the aftermath of the APS attack in Peshawar, certainly gives out positive vibes to Beijing. China’s decision to block India’s move against Zaki Ur Rahman Lakhvi at the UN ( although controversial), shows the level of unconditional support to Pakistan and the trust factor which China harbors for our country is unparalleled.

    However, China is a different country with Xi Jinping in power and my argument is that the $ 46 billion investment in infrastructure is to serve China’s influence in the Middle East and counter balance, India’s economic rise although with the ‘ String of Pearls’, which Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong. There is nothing benevolent about this investment to Pakistan and such investment should be viewed in light of the realist theory of international relations where China continues to serve its interest. Hence, the relationship could be tested if unrest in Xinjiang is linked to Pakistan’s restive North Waziristan area, and while it might not hijack the relationship completely, many in Pakistan are naive to believe that this relationship can sustain the best of blows. China as any player, is a rational actor and should be viewed as such, which sadly, most people and scholars here in Pakistan fail to understand.

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