"Pakistan has walked dangerously deep into Chinese grip. Wake up, West", warns think tank

CPEC Investors China Pakistan China–Pakistan Economic Corridor

China’s growing role in the Middle East, as it helps Saudi Arabia and Iran negotiate its differences, is talk of the town. However, senior fellow at the Stimson Center, Sameer Lalwani’s recent paper for the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) draws attention back to Asia. South Asia to be precise, where Beijing’s hold, as he argues, has increased. The USIP special report on China-Pakistan military relationship draws attention toward the ever-strengthening security relations between the two states. And, as Lalwani correctly points out, these special ties are military technology centric. While China has been one of Pakistan’s key arms suppliers since the 1960s, the dependence is today deeper than ever because of lack of choice. Islamabad does not have the money to buy off-the-shelf the same way it did during the 1970s after its second war with India and second critical American arms embargo.Nor is it part of any alignment that would reap major military modernisation.

The argument of the special report may not be new, but it is a reminder to the western audience that was lately lost in the mirage of a failing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) relationship, reading it as serious limitations to the bilateral ties between the neighbours.

In fact, western diplomats would like to imagine that the West has greater soft power as demonstrated by the presence of Pakistani civil and military leadership and their families in US or/and European capitals instead of China. I haven’t at least heard of sons and daughters of senior Generals living in China despite the relationship being ‘higher than mountains, deeper than ocean and sweeter than honey.’

Given Pakistan’s dire economic conditions and western ability to use international financial institutions such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to moderate behaviour of resource-dependent states, a general understanding is that states like Pakistan or Sri Lanka may not entirely slip into the Chinese camp.

This assessment may not be too far from reality as dearth of resources is a major reason why Chinese influence did not permeate Pakistan to the extent it was feared in 2016 when the CPEC agreement was signed.

Sources I spoke with say that one of the reasons China is not going out of its way to help Pakistan is due to some trust deficit. The Chinese leadership understands that despite paying lip service to the idea of BRI, Pakistan’s military leadership is not ready to shift to Beijing’s security block.

The two-dimensional relationship

In fact, CPEC is just one aspect of the two-dimensional China-Pakistan lineage. The CPEC relationship was developed on the shoulders of a more stable military security relationship that revolves mainly around arms and technology transfer between the two Asian allies. It’s not the other way around.

What Lalwani describes in the paper as a ‘threshold alliance’ is basically the story of China building a relationship on the basis of shared and sustainable mutual need. The threshold relation does not extend to the shared geo-strategic goals of China and Pakistan, for which Kashmir is the contention. What the paper does not mention is the fact that during the Kargil crisis in 1999, the Pakistani delegation consisting of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Pervez Musharraf went to Washington to negotiate withdrawal after their visit to Beijing where they did not get any encouragement to persist with the military venture. According to Air Chief Marshal (retd) PQ Mehdi, who was part of the delegation, the PLA Air Force chief told him that he was happy to offer any amount of technology if there was nod from the civilian leadership that he eventually did not receive. Clearly, China did not want to see the conflict dragged on.Beijing’s disagreement on Kargil does not mean that it will stop building its ally’s military muscle by providing its technology to be used in contesting India, irrespective of Pakistan’s financial capacity. China continued to supply Block-3 of the JF-17 Thunder and J-10 multirole fighter aircraft and the VT-4 tanks despite Pakistan’s continued economic downturn.

China-Pakistan relations can be categorised as two-dimensional: (a) the newer CPEC relation, which is driven by Beijing’s need for economic projection and Pakistan’s of economic development and has lesser potential, and (b) the time-tested and traditional military security linkage that is not one-sided but caters as much to China’s needs as Pakistan’s. The two elements may be connected but are kept separate to ensure the newer economic relationship does not affect the older military ties. Pakistan for long has been a source of western technological output to China — The Tomahawk cruise missile that accidentally fell inside Pakistan in 1998 or the Blackhawk helicopter that crashed in Abbottabad during the operation to search and kill Osama bin Laden.

Lalwani’s paper doesn’t mention how Pakistan helped China over years in military technological terms. For instance, the role played by the PAF in fine-tuning the design of the JF-17 Thunder, which is a co-development and co-production project. Pakistan could help because of its knowledge of both Chinese and the better-quality western technology that also meant a better sense of quality control and standardisation than what the Chinese originally had.

Pakistan is also used by Beijing for showcasing Chinese technology for sale to other developing states.

But with Pakistan now losing free access to western technology, it will be interesting to see the future of this dependent relationship.

In fact, western technologies are being denied to both China and Pakistan. The Germans refused to provide engines for Pakistan’s Type-039 submarines from China, resulting in project delays. Though, as Lalwani’s paper suggests, Pakistan will get its first submarine by 2024. Sources in Pakistan say there may be delays or cost overrun because of adjustments that will have to be made at this stage in the submarines that were designed keeping the German engine in mind.

The threats

The growing technology dependency on a single source (China) will also impact the overall strategic culture of Pakistan’s armed forces that up until now is part of the western security constellation. Historically, Islamabad used to get a limited number of critical technologies from the West. It used to bolster numbers by procuring qualitatively inferior technology from China. This not only gave it a good high-and-low-technology-mix but also access to western technology training. Pakistan doesn’t go to Europe and the US for weapons training any more. However, it continues to prefer western military educational programmes that now are mainly offered by the UK. Pakistan’s access to American International Military Educational Training (IMET) programme was stopped by Donald Trump, which was later restarted but never resumed due to Covid and other reasons. This training was critical in keeping the officer cadre inclined towards the West. Understandably, General Bajwa pulled his country back into the Western security constellation after there was fear of it drifting away into the China camp. However, reduced general training in the West and increased weapons training for operators in China is likely to create a tilt within the organisation. Let’s not forget that those who visit return impressed with Chinese development and pace of growth despite there being no opportunities to relocate to China. My guess is that at some stage this may add to a chasm within the organisation. Today, for instance, weapons operators and end users that I spoke with think more in terms of aligning with China in times of a strategic crisis as compared to the echelons that still think of keeping a balance or saving its ties with the US.

From a Chinese perspective, the situation is favorable. It means that it does not necessarily have to push Pakistan on developing Gwadar. Instead wait for the opportunity when it can come and indulge on its own. Meanwhile, Pakistan will continue to depend on China as long as its tension with India does not resolve.

Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

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