The political transition underway in Pakistan will not dampen in any way the enthusiasm in Islamabad for serenading visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. After wrapping up his engagements in Mumbai,Li heads out to Pakistan,the next destination in his four-nation tour that also includes Switzerland and Germany.
Beijing and Islamabad never stop celebrating their all-weather partnership,often described as higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the Indian Ocean. The partnership,launched way back in the 1950s,has survived political tumult in both countries over the decades.
During his two-day stay in Pakistan,Li will meet President Asif Ali Zardari and have talks with the leaders of the caretaker government and sit down with incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif,who is expected to be sworn in shortly. Lis engagements include an address to the Pakistan Senate.
Much has been made in Delhi of Lis decision to make India the first stop abroad in his tenure as prime minister. The UPA managers are visibly relieved at the peaceful resolution of the Depsang crisis. They are also pleased that PM Manmohan Singh has been frank in telling Li of Indias profound concerns about the Chinese approach to the border issues.
But the boundary dispute is only one set of Indias difficulties with China. Another perennial problem is Chinas determination to prop up Pakistan as a counter to India. There is nothing to suggest that the smiling Chinese Premier Li would dilute the partnership with Pakistan in order to please Delhi.
Quite the opposite. Delhi must assume that Beijing will continue to build up Pakistans strategic capabilities to ensure its parity with India. There is no cheaper option for Beijing than using Pakistan to keep India off balance. Every visit by a senior Chinese leader to Pakistan includes the signing of major new agreements for bilateral cooperation. Lis visit will be no exception. According to the foreign office in Islamabad,at least 12 MoUs will be signed during Lis visit this week.
The Indian security establishment would want to pay special attention to new agreements that Li is likely to announce on upgrading the Gwadar port.
It might be recalled that Islamabad had handed over control of the Gwadar port on the Balochistan coast to Beijing earlier this year.
According to Pakistan Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani,Li is expected to sign three MoUs on expanding the facilities at the Gwadar port. Pakistan hopes Li will unveil a commitment to construct an international airport at Gwadar and undertake new projects to link Gwadar to Pakistans road and rail networks in the Sindh province adjacent to Balochistan.
Without developing its hinterland and connecting it to the rest of the country,Gwadars potential as a commercial port will remain entirely on paper. Lis visit is likely to see the two sides underline their commitment to transform it into a strategic facility in the coming years.
While some civilians in Delhi have made light of the Chinese String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean,Indias military planners cant afford to be so complacent. They must see the developments at Gwadar as emblematic of the deepening maritime and naval cooperation between China and Pakistan.
As China prepares to transform Gwadar into a place to reckon with in the Arabian Sea,Beijing is quite close to completing the modernisation of the Karakoram Highway that connects Chinas Xinjiang province with Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
At the end of 2006,the governments of Pakistan and China decided to rebuild the Karakoram Highway that was constructed in the early 1970s. The 1,224-km road across one of the worlds most difficult mountainous terrains is expected to be ready by the end of this year. Unlike in the past,the Karakoram Highway will now be open round the year. It will also be able to handle trucks with 40-foot containers. The highway,linked to Gwadar and Karachi ports,helps Beijing realise Chinas longstanding search for the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.
Li is expected to sign another MoU on the development of a 1,000-megawatt hydropower project in PoK where Chinas economic and military presence has rapidly risen over the last decade.
For all the smiles in Delhi this week,the problem of Pakistan is unlikely to disappear any time soon from the agenda of Sino-Indian relations.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express
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