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Benefactors of Pakistan

Benefactors of Pakistan

Author: Zorawar Daulet Singh
Publication: The Tribune
Date: January 30, 2009
URL: http://www.tribuneindia.com/2009/20090130/edit.htm#4

Similarities between US, China policies

Post-Mumbai South Asian diplomacy has exposed New Delhi's lack of leverage on Pakistani behaviour. Rather, Pakistan's traditional benefactors, specially the United States and China, continue to hold sway when it comes to influencing their protégé's external behaviour. It is only apt then to reflect on this persistent external intervention into the subcontinent's affairs.

The inglorious China-Pakistan nexus has been a recurring theme in Indian security discourse. The consensus view holds that China has played a crucial role in shaping the balance of power on the subcontinent via Beijing's transfer of nuclear and missile-related weaponry to Islamabad. Such a perspective is empirically justified and the ramifications of Beijing's contribution to horizontal proliferation to India's arch rival have been truly profound. For instance, aside from the palpable lack of resolve of the Central government, the one decisive factor that weighs against the Indian use of force in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror strikes is the deterrence value of Pakistani nuclear weapons.

It is also a fact that Washington has hardly been a passive actor in the Pakistani nuclear bazaar. As recent revelations by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark have made abundantly clear, the US intelligence community has always been aware of the covert arrangement between Beijing and Islamabad, and it can be conjectured that given the extent of US-Pakistani and US-Chinese strategic cooperation during the last decade of the Cold War, the US implicit acquiescence must surely have been a factor in Beijing's strategic arms transfers to an American ally. Even through the 1990s and the early 2000s, Washington made no sustained effort to impose any costs on Beijing for its proliferation activities. In sum, Washington has been an accessory to the nuclear proliferation to Pakistan.

Thus, during much of the Cold War, on the issue of constraining India, there was little disagreement among Washington, Beijing and Islamabad.

After a short interlude in the 1990s, during which South Asia was left largely to its own dynamic, the US resumed its regional interest in the aftermath of South Asia going nuclear. It was not, however, until the onset of military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the subsequent re-activation of the Cold War alliance with Islamabad that Washington signalled a long-term strategic involvement in the region. Since then the Pakistani military-industrial complex has been sustained and nurtured by Washington and its allies who have transferred sophisticated conventional capabilities unnecessary for the prosecution of the Afghan campaign.

China's traditional strategy for Indian containment via buttressing Pakistan's security has undergone subtle changes since the resumption of US aid to Pakistan eight years ago. John Garver, a leading China scholar, has suggested that American presence in Afghanistan and its attendant logic for an elevated relationship between the US and Pakistani militaries freed Beijing from the diplomatically formidable and resource-consuming task of shoring up the stability of the Pakistani state. It also enabled Beijing to pursue a diplomatically balanced posture in its South Asia policy by focusing on the rapprochement process with India.

Hu Jintao's 2006 visit was perhaps Beijing's first serious attempt to signal a more balanced and equidistant posture to India and Pakistan. During that trip, Hu stated China's unwillingness to seek "selfish gains" in South Asia, an attempt to signal to both India and Pakistan that Beijing's hitherto zero-sum approach to the region was no longer a relevant guide to Chinese policy. In the context of post-Mumbai diplomacy, India's Foreign Secretary recently described China's diplomatic posture as seeking to strike a balance between "its strategic partner (India)" and "a close and very important friend (Pakistan)".

Thus, while it might be popular to exaggerate Beijing's influence over Islamabad in the present phase of South Asian geopolitics, the 2000s have demonstrated that Washington is by far the final arbiter for Pakistani affairs. Beijing's influence in Islamabad has been subordinated to US priorities. And a vital contributing factor to Beijing's sensitivity and reluctance to play a spoiler to Washington's South Asia policies has been the rising trajectory of US-China relations. In fact, there are compelling geoeconomic and geostrategic variables for even more robust US-China ties in the coming decade. And given the premium Beijing places on its "complex interdependence" with Washington, it would be more amenable to coordinating its Pakistan policy with the US.

In the coming years, China's policy for Pakistan will be driven by multiple factors. First, while the anti-India hedge in Beijing's Pakistan policy has receded, it has by no means disappeared. Beijing's role in the Indo-Pakistani equation could once again come to the fore in the (unlikely) scenario of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, the security of south-western China, specifically for stabilising Beijing's tenuous hold over Tibet and Xinjiang makes Pakistan an important neighbour. Third, as part of Beijing's plans to rejuvenate western China, Pakistan's geography offers a potential, albeit unstable, geoeconomic corridor with West Asia and Africa.

In fact, there are striking similarities between Washington's South Asia policy and Beijing's South Asia policy. While seeking to improve relations with New Delhi, both have refused to abandon their traditional policies of sustaining Pakistan as a militarily relevant state and legitimating the rule of its feudal elites. Clearly, abandonment of Pakistan runs contrary to both countries' strategic template for South Asia. This is as much a reflection of New Delhi's inability to reorient the foreign policies of Washington and Beijing as it is to the latter two powers' refusal to endorse India's regional power position beyond mere rhetoric.

Ironically, it is New Delhi that has made the adjustments and compromises in its foreign policy to seek an accommodation with its irredentist western neighbour in order to sustain its prized bilateral partnerships with the latter's benefactors. New Delhi's post-Mumbai diplomatic offensive is nothing but a half-serious attempt to "isolate" Pakistan without invoking even basic political countermeasures (i.e. suspend bilateral diplomatic relations, imposition of sanctions) for that might complicate the US regional policy and hence the ensuing course of Indo-US relations.

Given that, for the foreseeable future India's influence over the political choices that are made in Pakistan will remain perfunctory, Indian strategists ought to systematically and dispassionately monitor the evolving objectives and policies of Pakistan's benefactors. (For example, it is baffling how the transfer of JF-17 Chinese fighters to Pakistan invites instant condemnation by Indian analysts, while the transfer of F-16s by the US is somehow condonable.)

Pakistan's utility as a state deserving great power attention emanates almost entirely from its geopolitical location - useful to any power interested in West and Central Asia, and simultaneously key to shaping the South Asian balance of power or, to put it more bluntly, constraining Indian power. Pakistani security elites have repeatedly played the role of a "frontline" state in order to receive the wherewithal to balance India and sustain their irredentist aspirations. That such a policy has unleashed centrifugal forces with adverse consequences for the stability and even survival of the Pakistani state is a theme that will captivate analysts in the months and years to come.

In the final analysis, India's diplomatic status has been adversely impacted since the terror strikes in Mumbai. New Delhi's complete inability or reluctance to impose any meaningful countermeasure to a one-sided proxy war has left it red-faced. What is equally disconcerting is that the enhancement of India's bilateral relations with Washington and Beijing has yielded little tangible gains for Indian security to cheer about

- The writer is an international relations analyst based in New Delhi.

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