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Eastern alliance

Reports in the Pakistani media,that Islamabad has been lobbying for a formal defence pact with China in recent months,are not news for Delhi.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
September 28, 2011 3:27:23 am

Eastern alliance

Reports in the Pakistani media,that Islamabad has been lobbying for a formal defence pact with China in recent months,are not news for Delhi,which has been closely monitoring the intensified China-Pakistan engagement in recent months.

The question for India is not whether but when and how the China-Pakistan alliance,often described as “deeper than the Arabian Sea and higher than the Himalayas”,will acquire a new dimension.

As Pakistan’s relations with the United States headed south this year — amidst the Raymond Davis affair and the American raid and execution of Osama bin Laden — Rawalpindi has made no secret of its desire to elevate its strategic partnership with Beijing.

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We are now told that the idea of a formal alliance was taken up during the visit of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to Beijing last May,within days of the killing of Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan.

According to reports from Pakistan,the Chinese leaders cautioned Gilani against embarking on a formal alliance,given the potential reactions in Washington and Delhi.

Beijing had reportedly advised Gilani to mend fences with the US as well as India and other neighbours. Gilani was also told by Beijing that Pakistan should not expect from China the kind of financial assistance that the US mobilises through the World Bank and other international lending agencies.While China does provide massive project assistance to Pakistan and other countries,it has,until recently,had no policy of helping friends fix their fiscal imbalances.

We don’t know if China’s discussions with Pakistan have advanced since May. But there is no doubt that matters have gotten a lot worse for Islamabad since then. The recent US-Pakistan spat over the Haqqani network and Washington’s threats to cut off aid and take unilateral military action in Pakistan have sent Rawalpindi scurrying for a more open alliance with China.

Beijing’s calculus

The visit this week to Pakistan by Meng Jianchu,Chinese vice-premier in charge of public security,has provided the context for a more open discussion in Pakistan on the need to formalise new alliances,especially with Beijing,amidst a potential confrontation with Washington.

It is clear that Meng’s trip to Islamabad was scheduled before the current crisis and was probably aimed at eliciting stronger cooperation in dealing with the challenge of militancy and terrorism in China’s restive far western province of Xinjiang that borders Pakistan.

Delhi might be right in assuming that Beijing will not rush into a tighter embrace with Pakistan,despite the public diplomatic support it has offered Rawalpindi in the last few months. That should not,however,mean China has no strategic interest in bailing out Pakistan from its current isolation.

Beijing must be expected to decide on the content of a formal alliance with Rawalpindi and the timing of its announcement on the basis of its own assessment of the changing dynamic of US-Pakistan ties and its long-term implications for the future of Afghanistan and the balance of power in the subcontinent and Southwest Asia.

Nuclear Khan

For those interested in the history of the China-Pakistan strategic partnership,the father of Pakistan’s bomb,A.Q. Khan,provides some interesting new detail. A British journalist friend of Khan’s,Simon Henderson,has now released a letter that Khan had written to his wife in December 2003.

Under pressure then from the United States,through General Pervez Musharraf,to dismantle his notorious nuclear smuggling racket,Khan chose to put on record a few important facts before his former benefactors in the Pakistan army destroyed him. Khan confirms that China had given significant quantities of low-enriched uranium that allowed Pakistan to accelerate the production of weapons-grade uranium in the early 1980s. Even more important,China gave a proven nuclear weapon design to Pakistan. But it was not entirely clear then what Khan had provided China in return.

It transpires that Khan was giving China the secrets of the centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment that he had stolen from a plant in the Netherlands. China,which already had built uranium enrichment plants based on gaseous diffusion technology,was eager to master the more efficient centrifuge technology that Khan had on offer.

Khan wrote that he had helped China set up a uranium enrichment plant at Hanzhong by sending plane-loads of equipment and deploying Pakistani personnel to assist the Chinese engineers.

The China-Pakistan nuclear collaboration in the 1980s was followed by expansive Chinese transfers of missiles and related technologies to Pakistan in the 1990s.

If Khan’s letter reveals the extraordinary depth of the China-Pakistan relationship,Delhi would be unwise not to prepare for strategic surprises from a partnership that has caused so much grief to India over the last few decades.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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