Bonhomie between India and Pakistan is in the air yet again. Somewhat unexpectedly, the rhetoric emanating from Islamabad is subdued, moderate and even statesmanlike. Many believe that American pressure is finally paying off and that Pakistan is, at last, beginning to fall in line to the dictates of the Bush administration. But could there be other pressures on General Musharraf as well' Evidence is accumulating that China too has, in its own way, told Pakistan “enough in enough”, that it should crack down on its sponsorship of export-oriented terrorist outfits and that it should open a dialogue with India. A few days back, based on high-level background briefings in all three countries, The Asian Wall Street Journal highlighted the Chinese role in the new opening between Islamabad and New Delhi. The following quote, from the article of December 8, is significant.
“‘Chinese leaders advised President Musharraf to be forward-looking and to respond positively’ to India’s latest overture, says a Pakistani official who made the trip. This official says the Chinese were visibly irritated when Mr Musharraf raised the issue of China’s growing business ties with India. ‘We had decided some 25 years ago to concentrate on economic development,’ one Chinese official told Mr Musharraf, according to the Pakistani official, implying that Pakistan should do the same.”
Why have the Chinese changed' It is true that in both the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, China’s support to Pakistan consisted largely of rhetoric. But China played an important role in building up Pakistan’s nuclear and missile capability particularly in the Eighties. China and Pakistan share a warm relationship with the Chinese, never having forgotten the pivotal role played by Pakistan in re-establishing Sino-US ties in 1969-72. For a while, in the Eighties, as it was re-emerging on the world scene, China also used Pakistan as a bridgehead to the oil-rich Middle East, especially to Saudi Arabia and Iran. But in spite of the close friendship, things have begun to change.
The first evidence for this was provided on December 2, 1996, when President Jiang Zemin addressed the Pakistani senate and said “if certain issues cannot be resolved for the time being, they may be shelved temporarily so that they will not affect the normal state-to-state relations”. The reference to Kashmir was unmistakeable. The Chinese president’s spokesman later elaborated on China’s position on Jammu and Kashmir even more directly and explicitly thus: “China’s consistent policy is that the issue should be solved through peaceful consultations. It should be settled by these two countries (that is, India and Pakistan). Our position remains unchanged and the issue (that is, of Kashmir) should be settled through peaceful means. It is a problem left over from history. Pakistan and India have some differences. Kashmir is a very complicated and sensitive issue”.
Thereafter, during the Kargil War of 1999, in many ways a defining moment in Sino-Pak ties, the Chinese were very subdued and refrained from making any public statements in support of Pakistan. This was in spite of India’s ill-considered remarks on China as the cause of its going overtly nuclear in May 1998. Echoing Jiang Zemin, the Chinese premier, Zhu Rong- ji told his visiting Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in June 1999 that the Kashmir problem is “an issue left over from history concerning territory, ethnic nationalities and religion”. Hence, the “rebuke with Chinese characteristics” that General Musharraf received is part of an emerging pattern. Chinese scholars and diplomats, like Cheng Ruisheng, writing in Chinese publications repeatedly invoke the “Deng” formula to stabilize Indo-Pak relations. This was the formula suggested by Deng Xiaoping to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in February 1979 and to Rajiv Gandhi in December 1988 to bring India and China closer together — set intractable issues aside, keep negotiating on them in good faith, but simultaneously concentrate on trade and investment. The Chinese are at great pains to appear even-handed in the sub-continent. The unprecedented joint Sino-Indian naval exercises last month off Shanghai, for instance, were preceded by a similar Sino-Pak manoeuvre.
Why are the Chinese changing' Three main reasons. First, they are being hurt considerably by Islamic terrorism in Xinjiang, where Uighur separatists, trained by the taliban and by Pakistan-based outfits, are very active. Xinjiang is important to China not just geographically as a gateway to central Asia, but also economically, since it is rich in natural resources like oil and gas. The three evils as the Chinese call it — extremism, separatism and terrorism — are linked closely to Pakistan. Second, India itself looms large on China’s radar screen. Already, the volume of Sino-Indian trade is over three and a half times the volume of Sino-Pak trade. But much more than growing trade and investment, the Chinese have new-found respect for India because of our success in software and high-tech. The Chinese would not like to sabotage a promising arena of economic cooperation, even if there is competition. Third, changing Sino-Pak ties symbolize a new Chinese approach to regional and global diplomacy, an approach that seeks to make up for its historical commitment to narco-militarist states like Pakistan, North Korea and Myanmar, and to assuage “fears” of its galloping economic might.
China is not about to abandon Pakistan after having helped it build up a comprehensive strategic capability through the Eighties, that included supply of heavy water, assistance for research reactors, plutonium reprocessing and uranium, and transfer of missile production technology as well as supply of missiles themselves. Whatever China’s protestations may be now, the evidence for its support to Pakistan in nuclear and missile technology is incontrovertible. This support has ended, strategic links remain. Just last month, an agreement was signed for a second 300 megawatt nuclear reactor at Chashma, southwest of Islamabad. Plans for building a deep-water port at Gwadar, off the coast of Baluchistan, are still active, although, with the palpable American influence over Pakistan now, how the plans actually fructify remains to be seen.
China’s foreign policy is in great flux. It is all part of a single-minded focus on economic development, oriented to making China an economic superpower in every respect (except, perhaps per capita income) in the next two decades. China realizes that peace in its region — east Asia, south Asia and central Asia — is essential for sustaining such a unidirectional effort. It is all part of the new PRC syndrome — not the old People’s Republic of China, but a new Peaceful Rise of China. The Chinese establishment’s mantra is heping jueqi — peaceful ascendancy. The new PRC will not be facilitated if it is seen to be extending support to forces ostracized by the international community. What the Chinese will do when they achieve overwhelming economic dominance is a separate issue. But for now, the substance is economics, the language is peace and stability, the style is constructive diplomacy. Economic clout and military muscle notwithstanding, or perhaps precisely because of that, the Chinese want to be seen as good neighbours and sober citizens of the world. But there are two big question marks. Economic success is breeding an aggressive nationalism, that could easily run amok. And Taiwan’s politics can still get the Chinese into apoplectic fits, as recent events have demonstrated, and this, in turn, fuels global fears of China.