Last Updated: Mon Dec 27, 2010 23:26 pm (KSA) 20:26 pm (GMT)

Indispensable element

Asif Ezdi

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Pakistan earlier this month was his second trip to Pakistan - the earlier one took place in April 2005 - and the first by a top Chinese leader since that of President Hu Jintao in November 2006. Unlike other major world leaders who have been visiting India this year but have shied away from combining their trip to that country with one to Pakistan, Wen arrived in Islamabad directly from a visit to India. The Chinese also pointedly kept the duration of Wen’s visits to the two countries the same: two days in both Pakistan and India. While Obama - not to speak of lesser Western personages like Cameron and Sarkozy - avoided Pakistan to underline the de-hyphenation of relations with the two South Asian countries and the wish to “make” India a global power, the main purpose of Wen’s visit to Pakistan was to reassure Pakistan - and demonstrate, not just to India -, that its warming ties with India will not be at Pakistan’s expense, that the importance that Beijing attaches to its strategic partnership with Pakistan remains intact and that its interest in developing political, economic and military ties with Islamabad is undiminished.

This message was reciprocated by Pakistan in an extraordinarily warm reception accorded to the Chinese leader. The highlight of the visit was Wen’s heart-warming speech to a joint session of the Parliament, the first by a Chinese leader to the assembled parliamentarians since that of President Jiang Zemin to the Senate in December 1996. (Since the National Assembly stood dissolved at that time, a joint meeting of the two houses could not be held.) The essence of Wen’s speech was summed up in its title: “Shaping the future together through thick and thin”. China and Pakistan, Wen said, are “all-weather strategic partners” and “brothers forever”; and “to cement and advance this partnership is the common strategic choice” of the two countries.

This choice has been reflected in the policies and actions of the two countries for nearly half a century. Besides extending cooperation to Pakistan in the development of roads, ports and infrastructure of strategic importance, China has brushed aside Indian protests and US objections to the supply of military hardware to Pakistan and has been cooperating with the county in the generation of nuclear power at a time when the rest of the world has maintained a discriminatory embargo. The strong strategic partnership that has existed between Pakistan and China has been and remains an indispensable element for the peace and stability of South Asia.

Earlier this year, Washington and Delhi joined hands in an effort to scuttle an agreement for the sale by China of two 300 megawatt nuclear reactors (Chashma-3 and -4) to Pakistan and the possible supply of a larger 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant, all under IAEA safeguards. Not only are these efforts continuing, the US last week imposed a heavy fine on the Chinese subsidiary of a US firm for exporting equipment (high-performance coatings) to Chashma-2 Nuclear Power Plant which the Chinese are building in Pakistan, although this plant has the clearance of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This could be a signal that Chinese suppliers for any future nuclear reactors in Pakistan would face similar heavy penalties.

In a briefing for reporters ahead of Wen’s South Asia tour, a senior Chinese official reaffirmed that China and Pakistan would further develop their nuclear energy cooperation. “This is restricted to the civilian nuclear sphere and conforms to the international duties assumed by both countries,” Liang Wentao, a deputy director general at the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, said. “It is entirely for peaceful purposes, and comes under the safeguards and oversight of the IAEA.” Nevertheless, during his talks with Wen in Delhi, Manmohan Singh predictably reiterated India’s concern at the supply of Chinese nuclear reactors to Pakistan.

The question of civil nuclear cooperation was not the only point concerning Pakistan that Manmohan took up with Wen. In fact questions concerning Pakistan-India and Pakistan-China relations, as well as the issue of “stapled visas” for the Kashmiris, seem to have consumed a not inconsiderable part of the talks between Wen and Manmohan and received a lot of attention in Indian media coverage.

The Indian Prime Minister forcefully took up with the Chinese Premier the issue of “terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil”. Wen expressed great sympathy for the victims of the Bombay attacks but in stark contrast to the orgy of Pakistan-bashing by Cameron and Sarkozy from Indian soil, Wen refrained from any comment that could suggest that Pakistan had harboured the perpetrators of this terrorist act or that Pakistan has been tolerating acts of terrorism from its territory. The spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry suggested that Pakistan and India should deal with the question through bilateral exchanges and cooperation.

Wen probably irked the Indians further by praising Pakistan’s sacrifices and efforts to tackle the challenge of Islamic militants in his speech to the Parliament. He also called on the international community to fully recognise and support Pakistan’s efforts in its struggle against this menace. In other words, it is for the international community to “do more” to help Pakistan in its fight against militancy. It is unlikely though that Washington will heed Wen’s sound advice.

We must also be wary of the way India has been trying to narrow the scope of the Kashmir issue to a question of “stapled visas” rather than one involving the destiny of 13 million Kashmiris. Delhi asserts that this practice challenges India’s “sovereignty” over Kashmir and India’s territorial integrity. Beijing, on the contrary, has been trying to play down the significance of the question. A Chinese official reportedly said it was an administrative not a political issue. Another Chinese official said it “falls under the category of details.”

In talks with Manmohan Singh, Wen himself brought up the subject. He said he took India’s concerns seriously and suggested in-depth consultations at the official level to resolve the issue. Delhi has raised the ante by linking it to India’s support for “One China.” The Indian scheme is easy to guess: If China gives in to India’s demand, Delhi would be able to claim that Beijing has recognised occupied Kashmir as an integral part of India, something that it has not done so far.

On the question of a permanent seat for India on the Security Council, the joint statement stopped short of endorsing the Indian bid. It repeated China’s position that it attaches great importance to India’s status in international affairs as a large developing country and that China understands and supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the UN Security Council. But according to one Indian newspaper, Wen also told Manmohan that China would not be an obstacle to India getting a permanent seat. This indicated, the newspaper said, that a “significant gap” had been covered during Wen’s visit. The Indian Foreign Secretary has expressed the confidence that when the time comes for “the ultimate decision”, China was unlikely to stand in the way if there was a groundswell of support for India.

The report on Wen’s promise that China would not stand in the way of a permanent seat for India may or may not be true but it cannot be lightly dismissed. Even without the reminder from Delhi, our policy-makers should know that if there is overwhelming support for an Indian permanent seat, Beijing would find it politically very difficult to stop it, even if it wished to. In any case, it would be huge mistake to bank on others to do what is our job. The confidence expressed by Shah Mehmood last month that India would not get a permanent seat because of Chinese opposition falls under this category. We will have to do some heavy lifting ourselves and the sooner we start the better.

*Published in Pakistan's THE NEWS on Dec. 27, 2010. Asif Ezdi is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign

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