This year Pakistan has held three joint military training exercises with China. Two of them were in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, but the one this month was a new development. A brigade-level exercise was conducted in Pakistan’s portion of the Rajasthan desert, barely 25 kilometres from the border near the Indian town of Jaisalmer, where the Indian lines of communication to the south are very vulnerable.
Predictably, the exercise caused considerable concern in New Delhi.
It follows a pattern of China’s extended influence in the area. Last year during a trip to Kabul, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani suggested to Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai that he should start looking to Beijing rather than Washington for the future.
Since then, US-Pakistan relations have seriously soured and increasingly Pakistan is looking to China for th
e military support being denied by the United States. Islamabad’s friendship with Beijing has been a constant for decades, unlike its turbulent relations with Washington, including joint ventures in military technology.
The most surprising recent development was China’s warning to the United States following the May 2 incursion by US troops to execute Osama bin Laden. Later that month Beijing stated that "an attack on Pakistan will be construed as an attack on China". So what explains this aggressive stance by a country that has been known for a cautious foreign policy?
There can be little doubt that China is projecting power farther abroad than it has in recent decades. In South Asia, a key component of that strategy is the commercial corridor from western China to Gwadar Port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. As the recent military exercises show, there also has been a deepening Chinese-Pakistani military relationship.
This is in response to a changing regional security situation. In recent years, the most serious threats confronting Pakistan’s military have been internal, including domestic terrorism and civil strife such as the recent violence in Karachi. There is virtually no apprehension of a military threat from India in the immediate future.
But both Islamabad and Beijing are conscious that the Indian military force structure is, and is likely to remain, Pakistan-specific for many years to come. In Rajasthan there are mutual vulnerabilities. If Indian lines of control are exposed at Jaisalmer, Pakistan is more vulnerable at the district capital of Rahim Yar Khan. The joint exercise was intended to send a message that, conscious of its own vulnerability, Pakistan could exploit a similar weakness in India’s lines of communication.
Although Chinese participation was limited to an engineering regiment, the first known joint manoeuvre near the Indian border demonstrated Beijing’s role in this balance of power. This was the first show of joint operational readiness inside Pakistan, but there are already Chinese soldiers in Gilgit in the north, working on the Karakorum Highway. Economic and development cooperation has a long track record.
Gwadar Port is a good reflection of how that collaboration fits into recent geo-strategic developments. Most trade will probably flow north to south, but a new commercial corridor also opens important energy options, not least of all by connecting Iranian energy resources to China.
From China’s eastern ports, access to the Indian Ocean from the Pacific is a lengthy route via the straits of Malacca and the entire route is peppered with US naval bases. On the other hand, there is no US threat on the road to Gwadar.
By some accounts, Beijing contributed 80 per cent of the funding to develop Gwadar’s port and city, although there have been questions recently about direct Chinese control of operations. If in the not-so-distant future China establishes a naval presence there, it could project power over Gulf oil trade routes and provide multiple avenues of military influence.
No wonder that Pakistan has become an indispensable strategic partner for China, even to the extent of the warning to the United States about a mutual defence policy. And because Gwadar is situated in Balochistan, where several foreign forces are stoking unrest, the relationship is likely to continue to include a security component. However, it is also important to note that instability in Balochistan is fundamentally caused by the ineptitude, corruption and callousness of Pakistan’s political elite, which remain indifferent to the concerns of the Baloch people. After all, unrest can only be stoked if it already exists.
But for all of its other challenges, Pakistan’s strategic location in this new geo-strategic balance will probably benefit it in the long term. The challenge is to stem the internal bleeding in the interim.