Islamabad’s closest ally

By: Daily.Pk

A rousing military parade by the Chinese armed forces on Thursday in central Beijing to celebrate the country’s 60th anniversary may have evoked interest among regular China watchers worldwide. The event, however, also carried special significance for Pakistan.

Almost two decades after Pakistan was slapped with punitive US sanctions in 1990 under Washington’s so-called Pressler amendment, which targeted the country over suspicions about a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, Islamabad’s decision to seek closer military ties with Beijing has proven to be a well-considered strategy.

The two countries have forged close ties over the past four decades since Pakistan experienced the first round of US sanctions in the 1960s, following a major conflict with India. With China itself witnessing a period of reforms which saw it taking on the mantle of a major global power, the bilateral relationship benefited all the more.

In the military sphere, China’s progress has been of particular benefit to Pakistan given the big leap made by China in economic and technological terms. In the next month or so, the first batch of ‘Made in Pakistan’ JF-17 ‘Thunder’ fighter jets – built in cooperation with China – will formally roll out. This will come after the recent induction of the first of four frigates purchased by the Pakistan navy from China. Additionally, a Chinese-built airborne early warning system will be delivered in just over a year, while negotiations continue between the two sides on Pakistan’s plans to purchase the Chinese FC-20 – one of the most sophisticated fighter planes thus far produced by China.

A day ahead of the Beijing military parade, Pakistanis were reminded once again of China’s military support as the navy began inducting a batch of new Chinese helicopters specifically built for anti-submarine operations. This marks a new start in an area where Pakistan feels it is vulnerable. Taken together, all these developments underline China’s standing as an indispensable strategic ally for Pakistan.

While the history and present-day context of Pakistan-China defence relations is promising, there are indeed important steps which need to be taken by Pakistan to further secure its ties with China.

In recent years, much publicity has been given to Chinese concerns over activities of Uighur separatists operating out of China’s predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region, which lies alongside Pakistan’s northern border. In the past, China has quietly complained to Pakistan over Islamist militants on its side building bridges with extremists on the Pakistani side. On the positive side, Pakistan’s ruling establishment, including its military leadership, appears determined to come down hard on any groups suspected to be harming Beijing’s interests. However, it is vital that any groups on the Pakistani side which at any given point of time may have conspired to foment unrest in Xinjiang be dealt with firmly. Islamabad’s ties with Beijing are much too vital to succumb to the whims of ideologically charged groups.

At the same time, Pakistan also needs to urgently review other areas where cooperation with China can be scaled up. In recent years, China’s decision to finance the construction of Pakistan’s newest deep-sea port in Gwadar, in the southwestern Balochistan province, has laid the foundation for engineering an economic turnaround in that region. This initiative however needs to be consolidated further by developing communication infrastructure to promote trade interests. Gwadar will achieve full capacity only when China is able to use it to further its commercial interests in the Middle East.

Last but not least, relations between a cross-section of communities in the two countries – ranging from business people to students – needs to be radically improved. All these initiatives will help secure a future relationship that will not be limited only to the sharing of military hardware.

The impressive parade in Beijing provided an insight into China’s military preparedness as one of the world’s fastest emerging powers. But behind this achievement lies China’s fast-paced economic progress, an aspect of far greater relevance to Pakistan than any other area of shared interest since the two sides began looking upon each other as allies.

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