Washington, April 8: China has moved swiftly to carry out a request from British foreign secretary Jack Straw to play a role in avoiding a crisis between India and Pakistan while Britian and the US are pre-occupied with the war in Iraq.
In a decision which has rattled Pakistan and surprised the rest of the world, the Chinese foreign ministry decided during the weekend to withdraw a facility which allowed Pakistanis to enter Hong Kong without a visa for 14 days.
Announcing the decision in Beijing, a spokesman of China’s foreign ministry held out the olive branch that the facility may be restored in what he called “a proper time”.
At the same time, it has sent a high-level team to Islamabad to discuss the second phase of developing the deep-sea strategic port of Gwadar, the first phase of which is being developed with Chinese assistance at a cost of $250 million.
The view here is that by withdrawing the visa facility and reiterating help for Gwadar port at the same time, Beijing is following a carrot and stick approach with Islamabad.
The irony of restricting Pakistani access to Hong Kong is that it comes at a time when much of the world is shunning the former British colony in view of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
But the message implicit in the decision will not be lost in Islamabad because it has come from the Chinese who never tire of proclaiming their all-weather friendship with Pakistan.
During the India-Pakistan crisis after the December 13 attack on Parliament in 2001, too, China was asked to use its influence on General Pervez Musharraf, that time by the US. But that was part of a global effort to dissuade both India and Pakistan from allowing their bilateral relations from deteriorating out of control.
This time, however, neither the Americans nor the British have much time for the sub-continent although they are both worried over hints which have led them to believe that Delhi may be contemplating a pre-emtpive strike on militant camps across the Line of Control.
China, on the other hand, is relishing its new regional role in ensuring peace in South Asia and would very much like to perpetuate that role, which Beijing believes, is its due.
The only problem with this is that the Chinese have no influence to speak of with India, but this is more than compensated by its clout in Pakistan.
The facility which allowed Pakistanis to arrive in Hong Kong without a visa and get permission at the airport to remain there for a fortnight was part of the “one country, two systems” regime in the former British colony which applies to all Commonwealth citizens.
By withdrawing it now, the Chinese are believed to telling the Pakistanis that there would be a price to pay if Musharraf reneged on his promise to the international community to end cross-border terrorism and then stepped up infilitration across the LoC in summer.
But by sending the team to discuss Gwadar further, it is also sending a message that there would be rewards for good behaviour.