In the aftermath of the US Operation Geronimo that took out Osama Bin Laden, PoliTact has been monitoring the dynamics of China-US relations closely, especially as it relates to Pakistan. A number of high-level talks have also taken place between Pakistan and China, and China and the US. Moreover, we have noted one peculiar trend in the upsurge of attacks against the assets of the Pakistan Navy and beefing up of the naval capabilities of India. As the US adopts an aggressive posture towards Pakistan, it has also actively engaged Chinese political and military leadership. This article examines the dramatically altered security environment of South Asia since the unilateral US Osama operation.
Pakistan China Relations
In the wake of the US Osama operation, President Zardari visited Russia on May 12 and Prime Minister Gilani’s traveled to China on May 17. Both trips signified Pakistan’s attempt to strengthen its relationships with the two key powers in the aftermath of US Osama operation.
Pakistan stated that Gillani’s trip to China would give fresh momentum to enhancing ties between Islamabad and Beijing. According to Pakistan’s Ambassador to China Masood Ahmed Khan, “One of the major targets of Prime Minister Gillani’s visit to China is to cement economic ties between our two countries.”
Pakistan has faced mounting international criticism following the discovery and eliminations of Osama Bin Laden on its soil. In these tense times, China has been steadfast in its backing, announcing “unswerving” support for Islamabad’s anti-terrorism efforts. “Pakistan has made very important contributions to international counter terrorism cooperation as well as great sacrifices,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jiang Yu, as Gillani commenced his trip to the country. “Indeed Pakistan is the victim of terrorism,” Yu added.
This is in addition to reports in Pakistan’s media indicating that China has warned an attack on Pakistan would be considered an attack on China, and that this was conveyed to the US during the recently concluded US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington. If these reports are indeed correct, this would be the first time China has made such a linkage and it dramatically changes the geopolitics of the region and beyond.
The following key developments were also reported in the media since Gilani’s visit to China and carry wide-ranging implications:
- Pakistan and India would be offered full membership during the June 15 Shanghai Cooperation Conference Organization (SCO) summit meeting being held in Astana. Afghanistan is also likely to be given an Observer Status, for which it has applied against the wishes of the US. These developments are being interpreted as a move away from the South and Central Asian region – away from the NATO alliance and into the domain of a China-Russia dominated SCO.
- Statements from Pakistani officials revealed that China has agreed to take control of a key Pakistani port. According to reports, Pakistan expressed hopes that Beijing may also assist in building a naval outpost there. Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Mukhtar appreciated the government of China’s decision to run the Gawadar port in Baluchistan, but said he would be even more thankful “if a naval base is constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan.” The defense chief’s statement came after his trip to China, where he accompanied Prime Minister Gillani. However, China later clarified that it has not committed to construct a naval base.
- China will immediately supply fifty JF-17 Thunder jets to Pakistan, a Pakistani official stated. ‘We [Pakistan] will get these planes in weeks,’ he told reporters, adding that a formal deal to that effect will soon be signed. The official further said that China and Pakistan are already co-manufacturing the JF-17, but these fifty jets would be armed with more state-of-the-art avionics. According to the official, the war jets will be fully funded by Beijing and will help enhance Islamabad’s defense and improve the tactical capabilities of its air force.
The attack on Pakistan’s naval facilities followed these developments on May 22nd. A key question has now been raised: why are Pakistani Navy personnel and assets being attacked. Up to six gunmen attacked the heavily guarded PNS Mehran Base close to Shahrah-e-Faisal in Karachi on May 22nd killing 13 people, wounding 16 others and destroying at least two navy P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircrafts. Additionally, two Navy busses were also attacked in Karachi on April 26th, killing four people and injuring 56. The Pakistan Taliban (TTP) subsequently claimed responsibility for the attacks.
US-China relations remained quite tense last year, particularly military to military relations. The United States has wanted to engage China in a comprehensive dialogue to gauge its strategic intent and to avoid potential mishaps, the possibility of which exists in the tense Korean Peninsula and increasingly in Pakistan. China’s defense budget escalated between 1999 and 2009 and is reported to be at $78bn in 2010, while US has the world’s largest military budget at around $700bn.
However, since last year, the US has actively and assertively engaged the Chinese leadership, represented by Obama’s visit to India and Asia pacific in November 2010. The Chinese president also visited the US in January of this year. The agenda for the summit included global trade imbalances, currency valuation, Iran’s nuclear program, global climate change, clean energy and North Korea.
Since the Osama operation, the top political and military leadership of the two countries have had a number of meetings. No doubt on the forefront of these leaders mind was the unilateral US Osama operation in Pakistan, which has altered the security situation of the region. China will have to find a balance between increasing assistance to Pakistan, who have expressed a wish to be less dependent on the US, and enhancing cooperation with the US in the region – not a balancing act easily carried out. On the other hand, these meetings provide an opportunity for the US to observe the Chinese reaction to the events in Pakistan and the Middle East, where NATO is playing an active role in Libya.
Top US and Chinese military officials held talks in Washington on May 15 to exchange views on the ties between the two armed forces as well as regional and international issues. The meetings were headed by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Chen Bingde. Welcoming Bingde’s visit, Mullen said that enhancing the military-to-military relations serves both countries’ interests, since there is significant scope for them to work together on several regional and international issues. Bingde expressed China’s willingness to cooperate with the US to enhance military ties. The issues discussed during the talks included anti-piracy initiatives, cyber security, counter terrorism and the Korean nuclear crisis.
Meanwhile, while attending the prominent Asian security conference, Shangri-La Dialogue, Robert Gates vowed for a long-term presence in Southeast Asia, He stated on June 2nd that the US wasn’t attempting to “hold down” China and that he doubts Beijing intends to match America’s military strength. The comments appear to mimic statements made by the Chinese Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie after Chinese military tested of J-20 stealth fighter jet earlier in the year while Robert Gates was visiting China.
“We cannot call ourselves an advanced military country,” Liang told reporters. “The gap between us and advanced countries is at least two to three decades.”
Other reports indicate the relation between the US and China bordering on conflict. A strategy statement on cyber security issued by the White House last month stated that the US “would respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country.” A Chinese military analyst warned the Pentagon’s first official cyber strategy is highly dangerous, with likely consequences of weapons races and even armed conflicts between nations. Li Shuiseng, a researcher at the leading military science academy of the People’s Liberation Army, commented that the new strategy was “fundamentally an attempt of the US to maintain its unparalleled global military superiority.” It provides the US with a new pretext to flex its conventional military muscles, Li added.
Clearly, US-China relations continue to tread along a delicate balance between cooperation and confrontation. It was just in August 2010 when the US Commander for the Pacific region (PACOM) Admiral Robert Willard stated that increasing Chinese assertiveness in South China Sea is a cause for concern and the country would take steps to counter. He added:
“Our purpose there is to maintain security, when you consider the sea lines of communication that criss-cross this very strategic and important region of the ocean, they carry the majority of commerce for this part of the world,” he said, saying the U.S. Navy would work with “our partners in the region”.
The Indian Connection
China has clearly determined to strengthen its relationship with Pakistan and is indeed taking steps to deepen it and not everyone in the region is happy about it. Indian intelligence claims it now has credible proof that several hundred People’s Liberation Army engineers are working in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. However, it is still trying to verify if these engineers are involved in some form of military construction such as bunkers, or merely there for civil projects. This is in direct conflict with China’s official denial that its military was present on the Pakistani side of Kashmir. Reportedly, US intelligence agencies had in the past informed India of China’s military presence in the area.
Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony stated in an interview recently it views growing defense relations between Pakistan and China with “serious concern” and believes it should improve its own military capability to confront the challenge. The remarks followed reports that Beijing plans to speed up supply of fifty new JF-17 Thunder warplanes to Islamabad.
It was a strange coincidence that Russian manufacturer of MiG aircrafts delivered another batch of five carrier-based MiG-29K/KUB fighters to the Indian navy last month, just as two navy P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircrafts were destroyed in an attack in Pakistan. India and Russia signed a $1.5bn contract in March 2010 for the supply of 29 MiG-29K Fulcrum-D carrier-based warplanes to New Delhi.
An Indian cabinet meeting agreed this month to a deal of over $4bn to purchase military transport aircrafts from aerospace firm Boeing. According to officials, this was India’s biggest defense deal with a US contractor. The deal for C-17 Globemaster III aircrafts, meant for carrying heavy equipment, was approved during a government’s cabinet committee meeting on security matters, said a senior government official. The defense ministry refused to talk about the contract but the official, who requested to stay anonymous, told the media that the cabinet had given clearance to purchase 10 C-17 planes in what would be a government-to-government sale. In January 2009, India signed a $2.1 billion deal with Boeing to buy six maritime surveillance aircraft for its navy.
China’s rapidly-growing involvement in infrastructure schemes in Pakistani-controlled-Kashmir and in the backdrop of a perceived Islamabad-Beijing military nexus targeting India, the concerns of the Indian defense establishment have heightened. A series of high-level military briefings to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have focused on the urgent need to boost the country’s military infrastructure, operational logistics and strike capabilities on India’s border with China. As a result, India will now deploy light observation helicopters and spy drones along its border with China in an attempt to keep an eye on the accelerated maneuvers of the People’s Liberation Army. The construction of more than 5,500 permanent bunkers and defenses on the borders is also being sped up to make sure they are completed within 4-5 years.
According to think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India has been the world’s biggest importer of weapons for the last five years. The country has increased its military spending this year to 1.65 trillion rupees ($36 billion) from 1.47 trillion rupees last year.
There is clearly a concern in Washington about the advancing economic and military capabilities of China. On the other hand, the US unilateral Osama operation which the Pakistan army was unable to detect, must have created anxiety for both China and Iran on the extent of US military reach.
The news about the Chinese desire to create a naval base in Gwadar was widely interpreted in US media and think tanks as a tactic inline with the Chinese “String of Pearls” strategy. However, American analysts also concluded that such a move was more a reflection of Pakistan’s wish as oppose to any real intent by the Chinese, especially in view of the deteriorating law and order situation of Baluchistan. Nonetheless, the analysts conveniently overlooked the growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan. In other words, if it would be difficult for the Chinese to develop a naval based in Gwadar due to the law and order situation of Baluchistan, its has become equally difficult for the US to operate in Pakistan as a consequence of growing anti-American sentiments.
This talk of Chinese naval presence in Pakistan has some parallel to how the tussles of the regional and global players are playing out in Syria. The Russians and Iranians naval presence in Syria is clearly in the spotlight as the Syrian situation deteriorates. Iran stunned Israel in March by signing a naval cooperation pact with Syria, to build a Mediterranean naval base at a Syrian port. This Iran-Syria pact is in addition to a naval base the Russian’s are building at the Syrian port of Tartous. Israeli analysts predict that Iran-Syria-Russia cooperation is meant to counter the US sixth fleet in the eastern Mediterranean.
It is in this context, the Russian Foreign Ministry on Sunday issued a statement making it clear that it won’t leave any elements of American strategic infrastructure close to its borders unnoticed and will see such measures as a threat to its security. Russia has expressed serious concerns over an American warship that is now moving toward its shoreline in the Black Sea, whereas the US sees it as a vital aspect of its plans to build a missile defense system in Europe, which Moscow opposes. USS Monterey, a guided-missile cruiser, is now participating in joint annual military exercises the “Sea Breeze-2011” carried out by Ukraine and NATO off Russia’s shores.
None of the global powers want a direct confrontation at this point. These actors are adopting a strategy similar to how the Cold War was fought using proxies and client states. The US however, is increasingly shifting from a soft power approach to testing Russia and China and their strategic intent, especially as it relates to the allies of these countries.