Tensions between the civilian and military establishments in Pakistan are rising apace as the fallout from the “Memogate” scandal and the NATO Mohmand attack take their toll. Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani took a five-day trip to China in the midst of the political turmoil, fueling fears that a coup was imminent and he was suring-up support from China. Kayani’s visit to China further underscores the divide between the military and civilian leadership, as well as the important role China has to play in Pakistani foreign affairs.
Military-to-military visits between friends and allies are not uncommon by any means, however, they are typically far less high-profile than the one just conducted by Gen. Kayani in China. Kayani flew into China on January 4 for a five-day visit that would include meetings with China’s top military brass, as well as the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiaboa.
Before Kayani left for China there were already rumors of an impending coup d’etat, so Kayani’s actions were being keenly watched for telltale signs. By most accounts Kayani doesn’t have much of an appetite for a coup, however the widening gap between the military and civilian government puts most cards on the table.
Observers were quick to point out that the reception Kayani received in China was much more the type usually reserved for heads of state, particularly the 75-minute meeting he had with the Chinese Prime Minister. The sentiments Wen Jiaboa expressed to Chinese media after the meeting were also those more appropriate for a visiting head of state than an army chief, which further fueled suspicions that Kiyani was positioning himself for a coup.
Jiaboa reiterated that China was a “true and steadfast friend of Pakistan”, and would work to “safeguard its [Pakistan’s] sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, maintain its national dignity and back the country’s economic growth”. He also noted the special role of Pakistan’s military in strengthening ‘strategic cooperation and partnership’ between the two countries.
After heaping praise on Kayani, China was somewhat embarrassed when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani chose an interview with Chinese media to lambast the army chief, who was heading home from China at the time. Chinese officials later blocked the interview with Gilani from playing in local media.
The somewhat rash move by Gilani to use Chinese media to attack Kayani while he was in the country may be seen in light of the panic that is supposedly gripping the Prime Minister’s office about an impending coup. An unconfirmed incident on Friday shines more light on the serious concern Gilani has about the military. He reportedly called the British High Commissioner Adam Thomson to ask for support and intervention to stave off a military coup, and while both the Prime Minister’s office and the British High Commission have denied such a call took place, it nevertheless underscores the seriousness of the situation.
China and US – Shifting Regional Interests
The political crisis in Pakistan comes on the backdrop of a shift in focus by regional power players. China has been clearly making inroads into Central Asia and the Middle East, while the US has displayed renewed focus on the Asia Pacific region.
While Sino-Pak relations have been getting closer, the embattled US-Pak relationship is at a standstill following the US attack in Mohmand agency that killed 24 Pakistan soldiers in November of 2011. Resetting of the relations between the two traditional allies would involve dealing with difficult issues involving India, Afghanistan and Iran that are a long way from being solved.
On the flip side, China is seeking to make friends without making enemies by supporting countries, Pakistan included, on some issues and staying quiet on others where they risk angering or upsetting other countries, or where there is more strategic benefit for China is staying silent. This was clear on Kayani’s visit to China, where he received full and open support for issues beneficial to both China and Pakistan, but received no commentary on China’s position vis-à-vis India or Afghanistan.
This policy of the Chinese doesn’t extend to their dealings with the US, where they are more ready to voice disagreement, especially when it comes to the renewed interest in the Asia Pacific region, China’s front yard.
China’s Ministry of Defense has cautioned the US to be “careful in its words and actions” after US President Barack Obama unveiled the new defense strategy with its heavy emphasis on the Asia Pacific. This follows a promise by Australia to host increased numbers of US soldiers at a Darwin military base in early December 2011, and an increased presence in Japan and South Korea.
China’s relationship is an important one for Pakistan on strategic, military and economic levels, and has remained so throughout Pakistan’s history of military and civilian rule. It would not doubt remain so in the event of another coup, which is, despite the fears and hype, quite unlikely at this point. Much more realistic is that the army would support a constitutional dismissal of the government over Memogate, or even over their refusal to reopen corruption cases against President Zardari.
PoliTact will continue to monitor the tensions between the civilian government and the military for signs that the situation is becoming more serious, particularly today’s meeting between Gilani, Kayani and the Pakistani Cabinet Committee, which will be the first meeting between the two since the storm of the Memogate scandal broke out.