How effective is the China card

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE euphoria generated by President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to Beijing earlier this month has glossed over some hard realities of international politics in South Asia.

The visit was described as “outstanding” and a “success” by the two sides. There was a lot of talk about the “all weather relationship” and their ties being as “high as the mountains and as deep as the oceans”.

No one would dispute all of this. One, however, hopes that the policy makers in Islamabad have noticed that behind the bonhomie was the shift in China’s approach vis-a-vis South Asia which has a direct bearing on the entire gamut of Pakistan’s external relations. The fact is that ever since the two countries negotiated their boundary agreement in the early sixties and entered into a special relationship, they have derived great strength from it. Needless to say, Pakistan as the smaller state and with an ambitious foreign policy has emerged as a more dependent partner.

Besides, China was quick to diversify its external relations with other countries. Within a decade it had established communications with Washington, thus reducing its dependence on the good offices of its friendly neighbour in the south. Although China has been signalling a shift in its policy for quite some time now, Pakistan has not responded to it and continues to proceed on the assumption that the China card is still available to it.

True, Beijing is a steady friend. The defence links and economic and trade relations that Pakistan and China have forged are undoubtedly phenomenal. The array of agreements signed during President Musharraf’s visit speaks volumes of the significance they attach to their ties.

Yet at the same time China has been normalizing and expanding ties with India. This could have been dismissed as one of those quirks of international relations which take place all too often. It is, however, important to take note of this development because of the fact that India is the country against which we have been using the China card. Does this not call for a modification in Pakistan’s policy vis-a-vis New Delhi?

One has just to see how things have been moving on the Sino- Indian front. If you read the People’s Daily on the web you would realize that howsoever warm the Chinese may be towards us they are not unmindful of their strategic and economic concerns. It must be noted that the People’s Daily reflects the views of the Chinese government and can be regarded as a barometer to test the mood in Beijing.

We have been told that the joint declaration signed in Beijing during the president’s visit gave a roadmap of the future relationship between the two countries. Strangely enough, the text of the joint declaration about which there has been a lot of hype in the media has not been published so far. A week has already elapsed since it was signed and though it was announced that it would “be released to the press after a couple of days”, it is not yet available.

On the contrary the People’s Daily had printed the full text of the joint declaration which was signed in June when the Indian prime minister paid a visit to China. It contained significant statements, such as: “The common interests of the two sides outweigh their differences. The two countries are not a threat to each other. Neither side will use or threaten to use force against the other.”

After this no one in Islamabad should still believe that China serves as a countervailing force against India. China’s ties with India have grown to such an extent that Beijing would want a very solid reason to upset its equation with New Delhi. What is more, according to the People’s Daily, bilateral trade between China and India exceeded 4.9 billion dollars in 2002, up 37 per cent from the previous year. It is expected to touch the 10 billion dollar mark in 2005. Compare this with China’s trade with Pakistan which stood at 1.8 billion dollars last year.

China is holding joint naval exercises with India for five days. How should this be seen when a similar three-day exercise last month with the Pakistan Navy was defined as a “milestone in their defence cooperation”? All this indicates that China’s South Asian policy is now directed at maintaining a balance in its ties with the two squabbling South Asian neighbours. This has been made clear by the Chinese themselves.

While emphasizing that any improvement in Sino-Indian ties is not directed at Pakistan, Chinese scholars have reaffirmed that China wants to deal with South Asia on a regional basis while forging good neighbourly relations with all states. Hence Beijing welcomes peace moves between Islamabad and New Delhi, but it would avoid getting involved in any way in an India-Pakistan peace process. It is essential for the “South Asian countries to solve their problems and disputes by themselves” a Chinese scholar said at a seminar on big powers and South Asia in Islamabad.

In view of this shift in the Chinese stance, should we not modify our hardline position on Kashmir? On a one-to-one basis, Pakistan lacks the strength to seek a military solution to the Kashmir problem — be it directly by fighting a war across the Line of Control (as was launched in Kargil in 1999) or indirectly through infiltration of the extremist groups. A resolution of the dispute has to be sought through a political dialogue. Even in this process, help is not forthcoming from any quarters. China which has always proved to be our most reliable ally has now made it plain that it prefers to adopt a neutral stance.

Past experience has shown that outside pressures can push India to the negotiating table but no further than that. India is too big a power to be forced to submit to the good offices of a third party without its voluntarily agreeing to it. So far New Delhi has not shown the propensity to talk about the core issue of Kashmir with Pakistan.

With the China card seemingly no longer available to it, Islamabad must plan its next moves accordingly. The imperative for peace in South Asia has increased only further. In Beijing President Musharraf joined the Chinese leaders in pledging to battle the “separatist Muslims” and not allowing anybody to use Pakistan’s territory to carry out any anti-Chinese activities. Although this has incurred him the wrath of the jihadis, it was the sensible thing to do.

Had he not adopted a firm anti-terrorism stand President Musharraf could have found himself in a tight spot in view of what Prime Minister Vajpayee and premier Wen Jiabao agreed to in June. They “recognized the threat posed to them by terrorism” and agreed “to promote cooperation on counter-terrorism through their bilateral dialogue mechanism”.

Wouldn’t it be wiser if Pakistan were to avoid creating a situation which will force China to drop its neutral posture and join hands with India to fight the “terrorists”?