By Muhammad Amir Rana
China cannot afford a neighbourhood in chaos because that would greatly affect its geo-economic engagements and priorities in the region. China is also worried that if any of its neighbours is caught in turmoil, it could become China’s strategic, political and economic liability.
Apparently, this is a major factor behind China’s growing involvement in Afghanistan’s reconciliation process. This is also linked to China’s geo-economic approach. Conflicts always invite international attention, and in some cases international interventions, which slow down the pace of economic development.
The global and regional situation is changing rapidly and requires an honest and frank review of bilateral relations between Pakistan and China. China sees Pakistan as an important player in the resolution of regional issues. Both are partners in the process of political reconciliation in Afghanistan.
China and Pakistan share a common geopolitical and strategic vision, which provides ground for mutual cooperation in regional and international affairs. However, there are few divergences which hinder them from maximising their strategic, geopolitical and diplomatic gains.
In the Chinese perspective, there are four areas that need review. First is regional peace. The Chinese see Pakistan as holding the key to peace in the region. They believe that the soaring geopolitical temperatures in South Asia cannot lead towards stability in the region, mainly in Afghanistan. Therefore, they think Pakistan can focus on its internal security and economic stability without compromising on its position on disputes with India.
Second, China wants to expand security cooperation with Pakistan. Both countries already have established extensive defence and security ties, but a review is needed of the emerging global and regional dynamics. Pakistan’s internal security matrix has been improving since the launch of military operations against militants in the tribal areas. But the war against terrorism is still on and security threats are changing shape. For instance, the militant Islamic State group has transformed the militant landscape both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Understanding the emerging threat is important and both sides can enhance cooperation in this regard.
The security of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Chinese nationals working in Pakistan is another area of review. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently assured Prime Minister Li Keqiang at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit that Pakistan will not compromise on the security of Chinese nationals inside Pakistan. He also briefed him about the initiatives Pakistan has taken thus far to achieve this.
The third area is related to the economic and development cooperation between the two countries. China sees that the Pakistani vision of becoming an ‘Asian Tiger’ is compatible with its ‘one road, one belt’ dream. CPEC is an apt example of that compatibility. However, bureaucratic hurdles and the lack of political consensus delaying the implementation of CPEC-linked projects, are worrying China. For China, this is a flagship project and it wants to see rapid development on that front. It is also viewed in China that a strong and economically vibrant Pakistan would be in a better position to contribute in regional and global stability to secure its strategic interests.
The fourth aspect is the importance of people-to-people contacts, which can, for instance, enhance mutual sociocultural understanding. Also, there is plenty of room for mutual cooperation in science, culture, and economic fields where China can help Pakistan build human capital. China is ready to help Pakistan become economically viable and self-reliant. The current exchanges between China and Pakistan are mainly confined to government officials, public and military institutions, which should be expanded to include representatives of the media and civil society because these two segments can largely contribute towards enhancing mutual understanding.
Apparently, a review of the basics of bilateral engagements of the two countries does not seem a hard task, but when one tries to put it in a functional framework certain divergences appear. The major irritant is the conceptual approaches applied by the two countries to resolve certain issues. For instance, from a regional perspective, the Chinese framework of engagement is structured around geo-economics where it wants to evolve economic cooperation without compromising on its position on regional disputes. However, Pakistan’s approach is to ‘resolve’ disputes before evolving cooperation in non-disputed areas. Pakistan may have legitimate and moral reasons, but this view is hindering it from becoming fully engaged in the emerging regional geo-economics.
Both sides also realise that terrorism is a major challenge to internal and regional security and stability, but here, too, they do not have largely convergent threat perceptions. China is concerned about newly emerging terrorist groups, mainly IS, but Pakistan is in a state of denial about the presence of IS on its soil. For China, the reconciliation process in Afghanistan is important to provide a conducive environment for regional cooperation in economic and trade projects, but Pakistan prioritises its strategic interest in Afghanistan and wants a friendly regime on its western border.
These are a few examples of the divergent views held by China and Pakistan. This is not unusual, and countries do have the right to construct and follow their own frameworks of engagement. Certainly, it is different historical and cultural perspectives which have made the Chinese regional view geo-economic and Pakistan’s geo-strategic in orientation.
Pakistani officials and scholars are very fond of using the term ‘strategic’ and try to see strategic implications in any local or regional development. An overemphasis on this term can make one blind to other perspectives or prove misleading. However, that does not mean that both sides cannot address those divergent tendencies. Treating China as a partner may provide the common ground for that. So far, Pakistan’s view of China is quite simplistic; it sees China’s friendship in the light of achieving a strategic balance in the region. The economic advantages are considered a by-product of bilateral relations with China.
Regional instability is a nightmare for China. It can play a role in collaborative efforts. The challenge is for Pakistan to make collaborative efforts more productive.
Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst. He is the Director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Islamabad, Pakistan.