Beijing has signaled. Is Islamabad listening?

October 1, 2017: Beijing has signaled. Is Islamabad listening?

Though China has repeatedly blocked Indian moves to sanction JeM and its leadership, it has given a clear signal to Islamabad through BRICS declaration that support to non-state actors isn’t a viable long-term policy for Pakistan

Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister has been criticised by the usual suspects for his blunt remarks last week at Asia Society in New York. The minister put up a robust defence of Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan and highlighted the cost of war that Pakistan has suffered. Perhaps for the first time, a senior government minister admitted that the strategic assets of yesterday had turned into liabilities: “You cannot divorce history just to move forward. They [the militants] are a liability and it will take time for Pakistan to work its way through that.” He added, “Saeed, LeT, they are a liability, I accept it, but give us time to get rid of them, we don’t have the assets to deal with these liabilities.”

This admission is in line with the position that the government reportedly took in a national security meeting last year. Contents of this meeting were leaked and turned into a cause for civil-military rupture. The civilians, according to the infamous Dawn leaks, had warned the military and intelligence officials of Pakistan’s likely isolation if the policy towards jihadist proxies was not reviewed and realigned to the changing scenario.

Almost a year later, the BRICS group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in their 2017 declaration expressed ‘concern on the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ISIS… Al Qaeda and its affiliates, including Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammad, TTP and Hizbut Tahrir.’ The fact that China was part of this joint declaration should be a wake up call for Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

FM Asif’s position, therefore, is logical and he would not have made these comments without the tacit endorsement of the military establishment. Given the fragility of federal government and the uncertain future of the ruling party, Asif was certainly not taking a calculated risk.

While the increased indebtedness and dependence via CPEC are causes for concern, the Chinese influence is an opportunity for Pakistan to reimagine its national security doctrine; and discard what has evidently not worked for decades

Leaving the domestic squabbles aside, it should be clear that China — now viewed as a savior of sorts — has little patience for Islamist groups whether they are pitted against India or not. BRICS was the forum where China sensed an opportunity of signalling its discomfort to Pakistan’s powers-that-be with the latter’s reliance on proxy-groups to achieve foreign policy goals.

Beijing seeks avoidance of regional conflict, as continued conflict in Afghanistan and South Asia is inimical to its primary interests of economic development and trade integration. With the commencement of now $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the stakes for Beijing have increased manifold. Beijing views extremism and terrorism as a threat to its economic investments in Pakistan.

In 2013, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated that a goal of CPEC is to ‘wean populace away from fundamentalism.’ Beijing has been pushing Pakistan to distance from conflict with India, focus on economic development and trade to achieve stability. After all, China’s current place in the world in large measure is attributable to economic progress. This is what the architects of Pakistan’s security policy need to understand.

While the economic gains through CPEC are dominant in the mainstream public debates, it is clear that Pakistan’s security establishment views Chinese investment as a bulwark against the perennial Indian threat. This is not different from how we viewed our relationship with the United States since 1950s. Security cooperation with the US was primarily a means to build up the defence apparatus against India. Even though we hardly received any concrete support from the US in 1965 and 1971 wars, the strategic thinking did not change. Now that the cooling off with the US is underway, the Chinese are the replacement for quick cash-flows and security buffers.

What is rarely discussed in Pakistan is that the Sino-Indian trade is close to $100 billion dollars. Despite their competition for influence, the two countries are not going to turn their relationship into a toxic rivalry resembling the Cold War politics of blocs. BRICS was preceded by Sino-Indian standoff on the Bhutanese border. Pakistan’s security gurus and pundits on television could not conceal their excitement. They must have been disappointed when China diffused the Doklam border tension through diplomatic engagement.

Though China has repeatedly blocked Indian moves to sanction JeM and its leadership, it has given a clear signal to Islamabad through BRICS declaration that support to non-state actors isn’t a viable long-term policy for Pakistan. On September 22, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson in a press conference said: ‘The Chinese side hopes that Pakistan and India can strengthen communication and dialogue and properly resolve the issue. This is conducive to jointly upholding regional peace and stability.’

This should be an eye-opener for there is no support for revisionism that is a cornerstone of our foreign policy. China is not likely to take sides in any future Indian-Pakistan conflict and will do its best to avert that.

Pakistan’s security managers need to pay heed to signals emanating from Beijing before it’s too late. One hopes that there are discussions underway in GHQ of viewing the country as a trade-investment hub and managing the conflict with the ‘enemy.’ We have to live with India, Iran and Afghanistan; and it is not going to change. While the increased indebtedness and dependence via CPEC are causes for concern, the Chinese influence is an opportunity for Pakistan to reimagine its national security doctrine; and discard what has evidently not worked for decades.