Pakistan-China ties have long been based on solid and unexceptional principles. The one abiding principle of Sino-Pakistan friendship has been that it is not directed against any third party. This mutually respected principle and the common aversion of the two countries to the odious concept of regional hegemony have combined to elevate the relationship to a sublimity that has helped ensure stability and equilibrium in the region for the past many decades. Peace and stability in the South Asia region is inextricably linked to the constructive role played by China.
Asia – the biggest continent on Earth – is in a state of re-evolution. The ultimate result of this metamorphosis is bound to have a profound impact on the shape of things to come on our planet. Whether the powers that be like it or not, Asia is destined to emerge as the continent of the 21st century. The latent forces in Asia will shape the destiny not only of the continent itself but, indeed, of the world at large in the years to come. Events are moving with breathtaking speed in this vast Continent, that encompasses not only the two most populous countries on the planet as well as its two most vibrant economies but also the bulk of the world’s Muslim population. In addition, the continent of Asia is heir to some of the world’s most ancient civilizations. It also is the repository of some of the most coveted of the Earth’s natural resources.
The newly emerged states of Central Asia have added an entirely new dimension to an already highly strategic geo-political environment in the region. The international scenario has undergone a sea change over the turn of the millennium. Paradigms, such as they are, have lost the glitter of old and, in most cases, will need to be formulated anew.
The events unfolding in the wake of 9/11 had the effect of bringing about a turning point in the annals of contemporary experience. They marked an upheaval that can be compared to the rude awakening of a slumbering giant that then goes on a violent rampage against known or imagined enemies. The United States Administration precipitately declared the ‘war on terror’ in what was a facile attempt to mollify domestic public opinion. The retaliatory forays of the US-Britain combine and NATO first against Afghanistan and, subsequently, against Iraq had the effect of changing the very rules of the game.
The eventual enunciation of the doctrine of pre-emption made it abundantly clear that the sole superpower was no longer in a mood to bow to niceties. It envisaged, instead, a no-holds-barred contest against an ephemeral foe that has defied definition. The traditional goal posts were, thereby, moved to suit the whims of the powers that be.
South Asia has suffered for decades due to an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, partially as a result of the undisguised hegemonic ambitions of the biggest state in the region. Despite the emergence of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC for short), India appears to have made no conscious effort to lower its profile so as to avoid giving the smaller member states a feeling of having a ‘big brother’ in their midst. Both within SAARC and without, India has made no secret of its intention to throw its weight around.
Because of largely unfounded fears that the small member states might ‘gang up’ against it, India has made no secret of its intention to deal with each neighbour individually, on bilateral basis and on its own terms. Despite lip service to the concept of liberalization of trade, India made little attempt to eliminate the hidden non-tariff barriers in its bilateral trade. With all the talk about free trade, India has made little effort to ensure a level playing field in its economic and commercial dealings with its SAARC partners.
Relations between India and Pakistan give cause for particular serious concern. These two successor states of the British Indian Empire inherited several disputes that were, in effect, the legacy of a somewhat shoddy transfer of power. The partition plan devised by the colonial administration left several loose ends, some in such vital fields as division of water resources, delineation of some strategic frontiers and the like. The dispute relating to the state of Jammu and Kashmir continues to fester. India has shown little inclination to settle any of these contentious issues except on its own terms.
Positive fallout, if it can be termed as such, of the war against terror was that the United States used its influence to goad India and Pakistan into starting a negotiating process of sorts aimed at the settlement of their long-standing contentious issues. The start of this dialogue raised hopes that the region would at long last move towards a regime of peace, amity and good neighborliness, which had been lacking for five decades and more. The negative aspect of this exercise was India’s insistence on including a pointed reference to Pakistan’s ‘obligation’ to control what was termed “cross-border terrorism”. By hindsight, it has become evident that the Indian Establishment always intended to use this as a handy pretext to scupper the ‘peace talks’ at a time of its choosing. India’s knee-jerk reaction of pointing an accusing finger at Pakistan every time a mishap occurs on its soil lends itself to only one interpretation: that India somehow lacks seriousness in the quest for peace in the region and that it used the negotiating process merely to gain time.
It is the ‘China factor’ that has served to lend a stability of sorts to the otherwise fragile regional situation. It is imperative that Pakistan-China relations should not only be maintained but actually nurtured in the interest of regional stability.
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.