Changing Realities of Asia

VIEW: The Asian age —Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Daily Times, November 27, 2006

In India, Hu spoke about Beijing’s desire to befriend India and find an amicable solution to resolve their bilateral disputes. Hu also offered India bilateral cooperation in the field of civil nuclear energy, which is a major step in reducing the overall tension between the two countries

It is after ages that Islamabad was decorated with such fervor to receive a foreign dignitary. The main roads were lit up at night and the garbage cleaned, all to welcome the Chinese President, Hu Jintao. The gracious welcome signified the importance of China’s friendship for Pakistan.

Islamabad’s relationship with Beijing has remained reasonably steady since the early 1960s, especially in terms of the supply of conventional and non-conventional military technology. In the past seven years, Islamabad has also generously welcomed Chinese investment in Pakistan and made room for Chinese companies to exploit Pakistan’s real estate, agricultural, industrial and other resources. The guarantees given to the Chinese government and companies — for investing in underdeveloped areas such as Gwadar, and in the agricultural and corporate sectors — have often come at the cost of leaving the local entrepreneurs and the landless peasants vulnerable. Neither sector is happy with Chinese goods being dumped in Pakistan’s markets or with the concept of corporate farming.

Islamabad has resisted local pressure because it feels that it has to provide a market to keep China attracted to Pakistan. Since money makes the mare go, Beijing would not ignore a potential market for its goods and services. Economic progress is a top priority for Beijing, especially after the fundamental change in its policy in 1979. Pakistan and China are also significant partners in the defence sector and the Pakistani military has been a major recipient of Chinese weapons and production technology.

Even during President Hu’s visit to Pakistan, both countries have signed various agreements to boost trade and to carry out joint development and production of weapon systems. An additional benefit to China of partnering Pakistan in the defence sector is that Islamabad has generously shared its technical experience and know-how to help China improve its weapons designs. The JF-17 Thunder project, which was gradually built on the old F-7 aircraft design, is one of the many examples of cooperation between the two.

However, President Hu’s visit is significant in more than what it puts on Pakistan’s table. This is a trip which essentially defines the new parameters of Asian geo-politics. This new paradigm allows the two giants of Asia, India and China, to re-structure their relations and base it on mutual economic considerations. The underlying motivation is to allow economic realities to determine the course of geo-politics rather than the other way around. This is fundamentally different from the historical US-USSR Cold War framework in which political-ideological orientation determined economic and social realities.

Prior to his visit to Pakistan, Hu was in India and spoke about Beijing’s desire to befriend New Delhi and find amicable means to resolve their bilateral disputes. Hu also offered India bilateral cooperation in the field of civil nuclear energy, which is a major step in reducing the overall tension between the two countries. For China the over-riding reality is economics. Since New Delhi is planning to embark upon an ambitious plan to develop its civil nuclear sector through building a large number of reactors, this creates a market too important for China to ignore.

There are other mutual benefits as well, such as the possibility of a South-South transfer of technology in the future and fewer problems for India in getting approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) once the case of India-US civil-nuclear agreement is put on the table. Since China cannot endlessly delay the India-US nuclear deal, it makes sense for it to benefit politically by reducing the tension between itself and India. The Chinese offer would certainly take the wind out of the idea that by offering technology to New Delhi, Washington would be able to build India as a strategic partner against China. The relations can be redefined in China’s favour. If the relations between the two bigger Asian neighbours improve, there is always the possibility of Beijing benefiting from India’s technological prowess in constructing larger civilian nuclear reactors.

In offering India cooperation in the nuclear field, Beijing seems to have recognised future developments in the region. A number of Western countries including the US and European states are seeking out India as a potential hub of technological and economic development. Partnering with India is considered beneficial for national economies. For Instance, the nuclear cooperation between India and the US would not only strengthen India technologically, but will also provide a market for the almost dead civil nuclear industry in the US which has not constructed new reactors in years. China, of course, sees itself benefiting from the windfall of India’s development. Besides the nuclear programme, Chinese companies are also competing for contracts for developing numerous new seaports in India.

A possible cooperation between India and China will also change the dynamics of Asian politics, or even global politics. While the two Asian neighbours will compete with each other in claiming their share of politico-military prowess in Asia, there will be lesser chances of conflict. Perhaps, war will become redundant but not necessarily military and economic competition.

The development in India-China relations does not make Pakistan insignificant. In fact, the Hu Jintao’s visit to Pakistan and a commitment to increase trade and sign other agreements is an indicator that Beijing wants to have Islamabad on board in terms of re-defining Asian geo-politics. But what Islamabad is expected to do is to reassess its priorities and its lager geo-political game plan. Pakistan will have to re-prioritise its strategic road map and look at bilateral relations with its bigger neighbours and its internal policies in terms of the economic dividends which lie in store for it. It will, perhaps, also have to abandon its obsession with equality with other bigger and more significant regional states. Indubitably, Pakistan is equal in terms of its sovereignty, but this particular term must not be confused with military, political and economic parity, which is a totally different ballgame.

Although, President Hu said he was committed to playing a ‘constructive’ role in negotiating peace between India and Pakistan, there are no signs that Beijing has the clout or will have the influence on New Delhi, even in the future, to help the two South Asian neighbours discuss a territorial solution of Kashmir. Also, in case of growing economic cooperation between Beijing and New Delhi, China will be less inclined to take on India on the issue of Kashmir. Greater economic cooperation between India and China will actually mean that Beijing will not be willing to push New Delhi on issues which hamper their bilateral economic equation. After all, both countries have also agreed to increase their bilateral trade and China will be India’s biggest trade partner after the US.

Asian politics at large is being re-structured. One of the manifestations of easing of tension and improvement of relations between India and China is likely to create a centre of political gravity in Asia which will improve the significance of this region in global politics. This political centre will gain greater strength once Russia also swings back into better economic and political shape.

Surely, the changing geo-political contours have a space for Pakistan as a medium-sized military power which would benefit from the situation even more if it were to develop economically and put its house in order in terms of re-aligning its geo-political priorities. The policy regarding militants and militancy would certainly have to be re-assessed if Islamabad intends to get on board the Asian bandwagon.

The author is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst. She is also an author of a book on Pakistan’s arms procurement decision-making, and on the military’s economic interests

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