China is Pakistan's most steadfast partner
By Farhan Bokhari, Special to Gulf News
Gulf News, April 13, 2008
Pakistan's long-standing ties with China are set to receive a symbolic but important boost this week, when the Olympic torch arrives in the country on the last leg of its eventual journey to Beijing for this year's Olympic Games.
This forthcoming event follows an ongoing visit to China by President Pervez Musharraf for high-level talks on a range of bilateral issues. In a highly symbolic gesture, Musharraf will also be paying a visit tomorrow to Urumqi, the capital of China's northern, predominantly Muslim Xinjiang province.
The visit to Urumqi will underline Pakistan's active determination to respond to China's concerns over militancy by Uighur separatists, who in the past have allegedly tried to build ties with hardliners in Pakistan.
Pakistani officials, however, now claim that they have moved to block all mountainous passes, so as to stop the flow of Uighur separatists into Pakistan.
It is clear that Pakistan places a big premium on its ties with China, and for good reason. China has been Pakistan's most steadfast partner, as a supplier of key defence items in times of greatest need. In the years when Pakistan was placed under sanctions by the United States, Beijing continued to help Islamabad by keeping the supply lines open.
After Pakistan's maiden nuclear tests of 1998, a number of Western countries immediately moved to slap sanctions on Islamabad, punishing it for defying international pressure to refrain from carrying out the tests. China, however, was the only friend of Pakistan which kept its support intact.
The Olympic torch comes to Pakistan at a difficult time for China, just after the riots in Tibet brought condemnation from most of the Western world. The case against China has been given momentum by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, many of whom have lived in Dharamsala, India, for decades. The Dalai Lama has become the focus of the global drive against China on the contentious question of Tibet.
While India says it wants to improve relations with China, Delhi's actions have been far from friendly towards Beijing in this difficult hour. Little has been done by India to fully curb the protests on its soil, which provided some of the strongest images in the drive against Beijing. If indeed China's plans for holding a smooth Olympics this year are affected, part of that would happen as a result of the activism in India against Beijing.
For Pakistan, staying the course without becoming embroiled in any controversy against Beijing is vital. This is necessary for maintaining a long-term and durable relationship. Besides, there are a number of other avenues where Pakistan can build and promote its relations with China.
One of the more obvious avenues is tied to the way the two countries continue working together to promote their arms industry. Earlier this year, at the Singapore Air Show, there was much interest in the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet jointly produced by Pakistan and China.
According to the authoritative Jane's Defence Weekly, up to 20 countries from the Asia-Africa region expressed an interest in purchasing the JF-17 aircraft, attracted not only by its high quality but also the very attractive price. Some analysts claim the JF-17's price could be about one-thirds the price of a comparable aircraft produced by leading manufacturers of fighter planes in Europe and the United States.
Earlier this month, China formally launched the first of four naval frigates that it has promised to produce for the Pakistan navy in a package deal considered worth $700-$800 million.
While these are some of the recent examples of ongoing cooperation between the two countries, China has historically helped meet Pakistan's defence needs in a number of areas such as the production of a range of arms for the army.
Going into the future, China's emergence as a large economic power also promises to provide major new opportunities for Pakistan. If indeed Pakistan is able to carry out a significant and long overdue set of internal reforms aimed at stabilising its politics and the economy, then the prospect of long-term ties with China remains strong.
For the Chinese, too, the warmth with which the Olympics torch is received in Pakistan this coming week will be key to a relationship of trust and co-operation.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.