Any official disquiet in Beijing about the reliability of an unstable ally like Pakistan is carefully concealed. Not so it would appear in sections of the Chinese academic community, in particular an article published by the prestigious China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) dated October 29, 2018. Authored by Li Qingyan, an assistant research fellow at the CIIS whose focus area is South Asia, China’s diplomacy in the neighbourhood, CPEC and Pakistan, the article offers a nuanced and careful analysis of the pitfalls facing Beijing in the region. The article is also surprisingly frank about “iron brother” Pakistan.
Titled “The New Trend Of The Situation In South Asia On The Impact Of The Belt & Road Initiative in South Asia”, the author frankly acknowledges China’s reasons for pushing the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in this region. She writes that BRI “is conducive to consolidating China’s strategic support in the hinterland of Europe and Asia and expanding economic integration and cooperation between China and its surrounding regions.”
So clearly, the intention behind BRI is strategic, confirming the suspicions among countries like India that “expanding economic integration and cooperation” is a cover for larger designs.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is defined as part of the BRI and also an important barometer of ties between Islamabad and Beijing. But while underscoring the strong ties between the two countries, and blaming India for seeking to isolate and expel Pakistan from the region, the author offers a less than flattering view of the “iron brother”.
Pakistan is described as “affected by political turmoil, weak economic growth and poor security situation”, also noting that Pakistan is derided by the West as a “failed country.” It notes Pakistan’s double deficits in fiscal and current accounts resulting in high public debt and pressure on international balance of payments.
The author makes two telling points: “The situation inside and outside Pakistan is worrisome and the risk of domestic contradictions shifting to China-Pakistan relations has increased… political turmoil will have a negative effect on economic cooperation and policy continuation of the two countries.”
She then goes on to add: “The CPEC is a development cooperation plan mutually agreed by the two countries. It consists of cooperation projects in specific areas, and most of the projects adopt a business operation model which is not a welfare project.”
So here’s an academic from a think tank attached to the Chinese Foreign Ministry cautioning her government about Pakistan: that the iron brother must set its internal house in order whether in terms of resolving domestic political conflict and contradictions or dealing with terrorist groups. That CPEC is about business not charity. Also that China must avoid taking on any “unnecessary burdens” in this bilateral relationship.
Let’s turn to what she says about India. Here she warns that the “rare strong government” in India has enabled Delhi to “consolidate regional dominance and arbitrarily interfere in the internal affairs and diplomacy of neighbouring countries”. It goes on to say that New Delhi wants to ensure pro-Indian governments in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, is tightening relations with Bangladesh and Afghanistan and is isolating Pakistan from the South Asian regional cooperation framework.
She writes that India wants to strengthen control over Nepal and Bhutan and “consolidate the buffer zone between India and China”. Li Qingyan says the Donglang (Doklam) incident seriously set back China-India relations but curiously she does not refer to the Modi-Xi informal summit in Wuhan in April last year, which is widely believed to have “normalised” ties.
The article appears to reflect official disquiet about Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy: “India is willing to serve as an important fulcrum for the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategic arc. The Trump administration’s strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia emphasises the further development of the India-U.S. strategic partnership.”
It notes how India has balanced relations between Washington and Moscow and that Japan sees India as a “natural ally to contain China”. The author does not have high hopes of better relations between Beijing and Delhi, indicating no progress until the border dispute is resolved. This contradicts the Chinese government stand that the border dispute is too complicated and must be left to future generations to resolve (oddly, some Indian diplomats repeat the same mantra).
The analysis suggests that contrary opinions do go up the bureaucratic and political chain but with what effect is hard to say. That there’s been no discernible change in China’s public stance on Pakistan is evident but it also offers hope of some course correction down the line.
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