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China's overlooked role in the not-so-Great Game

Sol Sanders also writes the "Asia Investor" column weekly for

It’s become the cliché of clichés that Washington’s effort to stem the return of jihadists to power in Afghanistan and their seizing power in nuclear-armed neighboring Pakistan is The New Great Game. That is, it is successor to the extended and complex struggle between the Russian and British Empires in Central and South Asia throughout the 19th and early 20th century — a block against Moscow’s access to the Indian Ocean and London’s maintaining the crown jewel of its Empire.   

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To abandon the effort, as has become increasingly a popular view according to the polls of public opinion in the U.S., would be for America to invite the possibility of the reconstruction of an even more powerful sanctuary for the Islamofascists for another 9/11 attack on the U.S. — or worse.

But tied to the success of the American effort is a subsidiary game as convoluted as anything the British nawobs in Calcutta ever faced in trying to stabilize the Indian Empire’s western borders: it is a triangular contest among Pakistan, India and China.

In the lather worked up over Washington’s rediscovery of anti-guerrilla tactics, that important part of the South Asian chess game is publicly being studiedly ignored.

But if, as all and sundry now seem agreed, “winning” in Afghanistan is problematical without stabilization of Pakistan’s Pushtoon tribal belt along the border, that difficult problem which defeated an otherwise successful British Indian Empire, revolves to Islamabad. It is equally clear that Pakistan’s military, geared to fight conventional war in their inferior position to what has become their perennial enemy, India, and faced with the always daunting political demands of counterinsurgency warfare, are far from ready to take it on full force — much less win it.

One of Pakistan’s rising military stars, Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmed, recently told reporters the Pakistani army was trying to create the "right" conditions for a full-blown offensive in the rugged tribal region by imposing a tight blockade on entry and exit points, and by pounding militant targets from the air. "It's going to take months," and possibly beyond the coming winter, Ahmed said, in response to the always aggressive U.S. Special Envoy Richard H.A. Holbrooke’s insistence that the Pakistanis follow up on their recent tactical victories in the area. And, as always the Pakistani pleaded for additional American equipment in a $10 billion package which Holbrooke reluctantly admitted had been slow in coming. In addition to Cobra helicopters [no longer in the U.S. inventory or in production], Ahmed cited "shortfalls" of protective gear, intelligence-gathering and night-vision equipment, and precision weapons.

Indeed, the Obama Administration — following on the heels of its predecessors in the Bush era — appears to believe adding additional layers of bureaucracy will solve the strategic problem. But Secretary of State Hillary is not likely to get better answers that the boorish Holbrooke when she finally co-chairs a dialogue scheduled for October with her interlocutor Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a fourth round of “the strategic dialogue” after Islamabad’s requests to Washington were cold shouldered at least on two occasions this year.

Meanwhile, one has to ask how effective in the long run will be the costly — in logistics and manpower — American and NATO clear and hold operations against the resurgent Taliban across the border in Afghanistan if the Pakistan tribal border problem is not simultaneously attacked vigorously. Cross border infiltration is no less a determinant of the outcome of this Afghanistan war than was the Laos corridor and Cambodian sanctuary in the pre-Tet guerilla stage of the Vietnam War.

The nub of the problem is how to get Pakistan — and force majeure, India — to turn full attention to the problem.

“As long as the terrorist camps are functioning in the border areas in Pakistan soil, certainly there is a threat to India, and it is a fact,” Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony recently told newsmen. Antony said that despite India’s continuous urging, no terrorist camps had been completely dismantled along the India-Pakistan border. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chimed in with accusations that anti-Indian terrorists in Pakistan were plotting new attacks on India and urged security forces to stay on high alert.

That Pakistan has aided and abetted armed terrorists opposed to Indian rule in the contested state of Jammu-Kashmir for more than half a century is a given. But that New Delhi refuses to budge on a problem that requires more than its half a million security forces in the region to keep a fragile peace against political dissidents trailing off into armed insurrection, and against Pakistan forces arrayed along the Line of Control in a always tenuous ceasefire, is a equally important obstacle to progress.

Furthermore, it is no secret that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, now battling for continuation in office, has played games using India against Pakistan. One of his earliest decisions was to permit the reopening of Indian consulates facing the border tribal regions where there are old ties to the Indians reaching back to pre-independence party politics. Islamabad claims that some 26 Indian “stations” of RAW, the highly politicized principal Indian and intelligence community [as notorious as the Pakistan’s ISI], are operating along its borders in Afghanistan and Iran. Islamabad claims, and probably accurately that a full-blown revolt in Pakistan’s westernmost province of Baluchistan, led by elements of the old feudal, tribal and ethnic elites, has an Indian input. Indian activities there have included an uncharacteriscally rapid building of an expensive alternate highway route into Afghanistan from a cross-border Iranian port for trade that would elude transit through Pakistan..

With the anniversary of the Bombay massacre last fall approaching, despite extensive contacts and a welter of public accusations and counter-accusations, the atmosphere between the two Siamese twins separated in the 1947 Partition of British India is still at fever pitch. That’s despite kind words on both sides — a new book by a prominent Indian politician seeks to undemonize Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah — and the effort of Washington to calm the waters.

But Washington appears reluctant to face an even greater impediment to the required joint effort required of all parties in the region to end the terrorists’ threat: that is Pakistan’s “all weather” alliance with Beijing.

Pakistanis never tire of reminding Americans that after the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, in no small part because of U.S.-assisted operations off Pakistani territory, Washington abandoned the alliance. China, on the other hand, which had played a major role in the development of Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure, especially after stringent export controls in Western countries made it difficult for Pakistan to acquire materials and technology elsewhere, strengthened its bonds.

Furthermore, nuclear technology for Islamabad’s missiles weapons, which Pakistan’s notorious A.G. Khan Network may have swapped for access to North Korea’s missile developments, could probably not have taken place without Beijing’s tacit consent. Chinese missiles technology — if not missiles themselves — are part of a Pakistan arsenal which even some Indian sources estimate may surpass New Delhi’s largely limping indigenous missile development. [As far back as 2001, Washington sanctioned a Chinese company for transferring missiles technology to Pakistan.]

This Pakistan-Chinese intimacy has to be placed against New Delhi and Beijing’s deteriorating relations in recent months. Beijing unsuccessfully opposed an Indian loan from the Asian Development Bank destined for infrastructure in the northeastern Himalayan state of Arundal on the Tibetan border which Beijing still claims. Talks between New Delhi and Beijing on border issues are now in their third decade without any tangible result. The Chinese military buildup in Tibet — probably including nukes — continues. And India has deployed its latest fighter aircraft to Ladakh, the eastern end of the Tibetan plateau [a part of Kashmir] and to northeast India, the scene of New Delhi’s bitter defeat at Chinese hands in 1962. New Delhi has rushed into a 200-ship expansion of its navy to counter the increasing presence of Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, the courtship between Pakistan and China continues apace. In August, President Asif Ali Zardari made a four-day visit to China – his fourth since he came to office last year, largely as a result of American pressure to oust Gen. President Perez Musharraf. Zardari has gone out of his way to endorse Beijing policies – even suppression of fellow Muslims in neighboring Singkiang: “We are glad that the situation in Urumqi has been brought under control. We believe that China’s policy of social harmony and development is producing great results for all Chinese people,” Zardari told Chinese journalists before his departure from Islamabad for industrial sites in China. Pakistan and China had undertaken 50 new economic initiatives and signed 30 memorandums of understanding over the past one year. Many of these are relatively small but — if successful, a big if — grass roots projects for Pakistani agriculture and industry. [One can only speculate over Zardari’s direct negotiations with the notoriously corrupt Chinese, his title of Mr. 10 Percent during his martyred wife’s prime ministryships.]

Annual two-way trade is worth $7 billion, according to Pakistan, and the two countries have set a target of $15 billion by 2011. But in the first six months of this year bilateral trade shrank to $3 billion, a fall of 13 percent compared with last year, according to Chinese data. As the U.S. funnels billions in aid — along with its contributions through the international lending agencies – to buoy up what is a near bankrupt economy, cheap Chinese imports and weapons purchases could become a large, if not the largest, benefactor.

But the dovetailing of Chinese into American economic programs pales into insignificance beside the question of Pakistan’s use by the Chinese as a pawn in Beijing’s continuing confrontation with New Delhi.

While the Chinese have a vested interest, expressed more frequently publicly immediately after 9/11, in stemming the growth of Muslim extremism on its borders in Central Asia including Afghanistan, Chinese Communist leaders also are conflicted by feeding Pakistan’s continuing enmity with India to neutralize New Delhi’s proposed $30 billion military hardware buildup in the next few years, much of it presumably coming from American imports and technology transfers. In fact, London has protested to Beijing on the presence of Chinese weapons in the hands of the Tommies’ opponents in Afghanistan. While the source of these weapons is not clear – serial markings have often been erased — U.S. officials have been quoted saying that China has been selling arms to Iran which Tehran is then passing on to insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, in fact, Islamabad has in the recent past armed tribal elements, at least temporarily with the government, with Chinese AK47s which Zardari bought from Beijing. Meanwhile, in July Pakistan began local assembly of the Chinese JF-17 fighter aircraft, billed as a joint Chinese-Pakistan effort to adapt an original imported Russian design to China as a general all around jet fighter. Again, this contrasts — for Pakistanis — with the on again, off again, on again delivery of F16s by the U.S. to Pakistan with its implications as a delivery vehicle for nukes.

In all this muddle, however, Beijing has recently, tacitly, acknowledged a loss on the chessboard. The Chinese told Islamabad they are pulling out of the multibillion oil refinery and storage project at Gwadar, a port China has financed and has been building for the Pakistanis at the entrance to the Persian Gulf on the Iranian border. Beijing’s announcement followed the withdrawal of United Arab Emirates from the $5 billion refinery also in Baluchistan. The cancelations create uncertainty about the future of the planned $12.5 billion mega oil city Gwadar was supposed to become. There were even grandiose plans for pipelines to western China.

For the Pakistanis, Gwadar was seen as an alternative and more secure port and naval base to the increasingly unmanageable largest port city, Karachi, which was blockaded by the Indian navy in the three wars between the two countries. Some observers, too, had seen Gwadar as one of Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy — military and commercial strongpoints for its ambitions dotted across the Indian Ocean, from Myanmar to a new port in Sri Lanka to the island of Mauritius to the Persian Gulf. The port was officially declared open last December when a contract to run it was given over to the Singapore Port Authority and coastal highway to Karachi was completed, yet conflicts continue over space between the Pakistani navy and commercial developers and the constant carping of much of the Baluchistan elite.

The worldwide recession obviously played a role in Beijing’s decision. But so did the low-level insurgency that has plagued Islamabad in the province, and which has seen several Chinese nationals attacked, kidnapped and killed in the country since May 2004, when three Chinese engineers were killed in Gwadar.

The Not-so-great Game goes on. Next chapter.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and


In the discussion on the unrest in Balochistan, the involvement of the Indian agencies cannot be underscored enough. While Pakistan has offered to link the countries through energy grids such and the IPI and the TAPI pipelines, that would reinforce cooperation and reintegration over sabotage and competition, India has consistently chosen to thwart such initiatives. Interference from RAW continues unabated. For the regional focre majeure in the region, India tends to act like an enfant terrible.

Omar Rahim      5:20 p.m. / Sasturday, August 29, 2009

Beijing told Islamambad (via a Chinese delegation to the Pakistan capital) that the refinery project was off the list of funded investments for Pakistan's current fiscal year ending June 30, 2010. Of course the problems in Balochistan are probably the real reason plus the trade and finance recession. It seems more than likely that the Gwadar project will resume at some point in the future. China wants Pakistan more than anything else as a land and sea bridge to the central Asian republics, the middle East, Europe, and Africa so that the country will be free of the chokehold the U.S. Navy and potentially India have on its almost entirely water-borne trade.

Sinomania!      2:20 p.m. / Thursday, August 27, 2009

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