Does the the average Pakistani feel that bilateral relations with China are deeper than the ocean and higher than the Himalayas? Ask an ordinary citizen this question and he/she will parrot this myth without taking a deep breath. However, it takes a bit of unpacking before one begins to see that this statement is nothing more than a half-truth. At best, the bilateral ties can be described as a strong relationship between two States and their militaries, which is tactical from Beijing’s perspective and strategic from Pakistan’s.
I remember a conversation with Tariq Fatemi, a retired career diplomat and adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign relations. The discussion was about Pakistan’s strategic relationship, and to Fatemi, China was the only country that qualified to be placed in that category. Using a traditional textbook definition of ‘strategic’, Fatemi believed that China was the only country in the whole wide world that strengthened Pakistan militarily.
Although a lot is made out of the assistance provided to Islamabad in the field of nuclear weapons technology, some scientists from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) disagree with the notion. They believe that while a lot of attention was focussed on Dr AQ Khan and Chinese assistance, the PAEC did a lot of work indigenously. Pakistan had a fine bunch of scientists, engineers and technicians who will be buried in history without any reference in history books about their hard work and tremendous efforts in acquiring nuclear weapons technology. This is not to say that AQ Khan and China did not do anything, but that there is far more credit given than what is deserved.
In any case, many people believe that China has extracted far more in return for services rendered to Pakistan. This is obvious in three critical areas: defence production, economic cooperation and mineral exploration. For instance, most of the defence production deals have no inbuilt offset arrangements. Besides, in most of the projects, such as the co-development and co-production of the K-8 jet trainer, JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft or the F-22P frigate, most of the value addition is done in China. Indubitably, this is not Beijing’s fault but Pakistan’s where military men don’t understand transfer of technology and the necessity of direct and indirect industrial offsets.
However, the realisation that modern China is different from the mythical country, which opened its doors to Pakistan and gave it free weaponry during the 1965 war with India, often comes as a shock to military men, especially those dealing with the procurement of military hardware. It is not expected from a strategic friend to pack its financial estimates with a lot of fat and force Islamabad to buy certain equipment.
Then there are officers, who are clueless when confronted with the reality that the Chinese indulge in paying kickbacks as much as any other arms seller. As far as military equipment is concerned, Pakistan has serious limitations. Due to a dearth of resources, Islamabad is gradually building dependency on Chinese equipment. And this pertains to all three services. But generally speaking, we don’t hear a lot of chatter about China, mainly due to secrecy around military matters.
However, there is greater talk when it comes to economic ties where traders and businessmen often complain about the negative impact of the free trade agreement with China on business and industry in Pakistan. For instance, a glance at the 2011 trade figures show that while 18.9 percent of imports were from China, the comparative export figure was 7.7 percent. The dumping of Chinese goods has almost destroyed the small and medium-sized industry in Pakistan. Chinese manufacturers have even started to make traditional shoes called khusas or jutees, which does not bode well for small and medium enterprises in that area of production. Nonetheless, the government tends to curb these complaints and sacrifice interests of local business and industry to keep a military-strategic relationship intact.
A similar situation pertaining to preferential treatment for Chinese interests prevails in the field of mineral resources. Beijing has gradually consolidated its interests to dominate its allies’ mineral reserves. Pakistan, it is worth noting, has the world’s fifth largest coal reserves (184 billion tonnes) and a huge reservoir of copper, zinc, lead, gold and aluminum. There is already a lot of talk about using Chinese help to tap the coal reserves for use in producing electricity. As far as copper reserves are concerned, China began to establish its interests in 2001-02 when it managed to wrangle a contract already awarded to Australian company BHP Billiton. Sources familiar with these operations say that since China bagged the Saindek copper mine project, the country had its eyes on an even larger copper reserve at Reko Diq in Balochistan. The exploration project deal, which was given to a Canadian firm, was finally cancelled in 2011-12. Many believe it will eventually land with Beijing. The fact that the Reko Diq contract, initially awarded to a Canadian company, was cancelled by intervention of the Supreme Court raises a lot of questions whether the Chinese managed to approach the Chief Justice. After all the CJ’s son is known to be on the take from business firms and entrepreneurs.
Furthermore, China has a monopoly over oil and gas drilling in Pakistan. Officials and industry experts complain about how even government entities like the Oil and Gas Development Corporation (OGDC) are not allowed to compete for drilling bids against Chinese companies. This is despite the fact that the OGDC has better technical capacity than its Chinese counterparts. The quality of Chinese drilling is fairly poor with machines collapsing ever so often. But Islamabad does not want to annoy its partner, which is expanding in other strategic areas as well such as Gilgit-Baltistan and Gwadar. Although Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan is rubbished as Indian propaganda, locals talk about a large number of Chinese operating in the area. As far as Gwadar is concerned, Islamabad is interested in China developing the port and adjoining areas. This is both from a development and military-strategic perspective. It is believed that building Beijing’s stakes in the area will be a counter-weight to New Delhi.
But then, Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan are not the only places that are seeing a spike in Chinese presence. Anyone comparing the Islamabad of five years ago with today would almost feel like there are Chinese dropping out of every tree. The presence of the Chinese is quite visible. They even have their own neighbourhoods. Many of the culturally liberal types appreciate the significance of the military-strategic relationship because a number of Chinese bars in posh neighbourhoods serve liquor while authorities look the other way. The final clash between the clerics of the Lal Masjid and government forces in Islamabad in 2007 had occurred after the madrasa students tried to close down a Chinese massage parlour.
Referring to the increased Chinese presence, there are different estimates for the number of Chinese people in the country engaged in various construction or other projects. The estimates vary from 30,000 to 100,000. Chinese companies tend to bring their own workforce, which means they contribute very little in job creation. In fact, the Chinese prefer their own people than building human resource potential in Pakistan. This could be due to the fact that not many people are familiar with the Chinese language in Pakistan. Although the Sindh government had announced the addition of Chinese language to the secondary school curriculum, and a few elite schools in Islamabad are also doing the same, this is probably a long-term investment that will bear fruit at a later stage. Meanwhile, Islamabad does not seem interested in engaging Beijing in a conversation in this regard. The government does not even object to the fact that most mineral reserves and oil and gas exploration projects are documented in Chinese, which makes it difficult for Pakistanis to hold the strategic friends properly accountable.
China is indeed a major factor in the future of Pakistan’s economy and, perhaps, politics. Beijing is well-liked because it does not interfere in politics or make claims like the US does. However, this is a very limited relationship in which tensions will grow in the future unless a conscious effort is made for the people of the two countries to become familiar with each other.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc