Making a Play for the Indian Sub-Con, Post-bin Laden

May 22, 2011
*Special to asia!

The death of the world’s most wanted terrorist has started a new act in geopolitics in the India-Pakistan neighbourhood, with the U.S. and China jostling for a starring role.

These are pivotal times in international relations in South Asia.

As U.S.-Pakistani relations teeter on the brink of mistrust following the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, China, its large and newly rich and powerful neighbour, looks ready to step in and assert a greater role of influence in the region.

In the U.S., Defense Secretary Robert Gates may believe in continuing funding and aid to Pakistan in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, but he is battling a strong tide of public opinion.

The Washington Post published a round-up of public opinion both on the American and the Pakistani sides on bilateral relations, especially in the wake of the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.

Citing a Gallup poll of Pakistanis, it says “only 10% approve and 64% disapprove of the U.S. military action in their country that killed bin Laden”.

On the American side, according to a poll carried out by the conservative network Fox News:

- 74% across the Democrat and Republican partisan divide say Pakistan is “not a strong ally of the United States in the war against terrorism”.

- 73% advocate cutting funding until Pakistan proves commitment to rooting out and capturing terrorists.

In the midst of all this, enters China, much less encumbered by public opinion and an American election year approaching in 2012.

Receiving Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani on his state visit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told him: “I want to stress that no matter how the international situation changes, China and Pakistan will always be good neighbors, friends, partners and brothers.”

Gilani, in turn, reciprocated by calling China “the most reliable friend and all-weather strategic partner”. (Source: Xinhua)

He was also quoted as saying that China was the first country to make an open statement to show its respect for Pakistan's sacrifices for and contribution to the war against terrorism, after the Osama bin Laden incident.

866 Osama bin Laden (Photo by jen_maiser)

60 years of friendship

The Chinese-Pakistani alliance is nothing new. In fact this year, the two sides are marking the 60th anniversary of bilateral relations. What is interesting is how it is now evolving and what this means for the other countries involved.

Analysts believe the post-bin Laden tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan will reinforce the latter's ties with China.

There is the U.S., which wants to counter China's influence in the nuclear-equipped Indian sub-continent and Asia on the whole, and is allied with Pakistan in its long-running military efforts in Afghanistan and overall war against terror.

There is also India, which has, to varying degrees, less-than-friendly relations with both China and Pakistan.

Analysts in Pakistan believe that the post-bin Laden tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan will reinforce the latter's ties with China.

In an analysis in the Daily Times, Talat Masood, a political analyst and retired Pakistani general was quoted as saying:

“China is the only country that has taken a sympathetic stand for Pakistan after the bin Laden operation.”

On Gilani's trip to China, he added, “This visit is important in the sense that it could counter (U.S.) pressure on Pakistan. It shows Pakistan wants to say we also have some cards to play.”

Pakistan's opposition leader Nawaz Sharif also said, “At this crucial juncture of history, I cannot say anybody is standing with Pakistan except for China.”

What can China do for Pakistan?

According to an article in the International Business Times,

1.China has been Pakistan's biggest supplier of conventional arms, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's database, and many analysts believe China supported Pakistan's nuclear weapons program in past decades.

China has helped Pakistan build its main nuclear power generation facility in Punjab province, and has plans to build two more there.

2.China has helped Pakistan build its main nuclear power generation facility at Chashma in Punjab province, where a second, 330 MW unit started last week, and it has plans to build two more there, despite international misgivings about risks to nuclear safety and the integrity of non-proliferation rules.

3.Last year, the China National Nuclear Corp said it was also in talks about building a separate 1-gigawatt atomic plant in Pakistan.

4.China has helped build the deep-sea Gwadar port on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, partly with a view to opening up an energy and trade corridor from the Gulf, across Pakistan, to western China.

Indian reaction

Indian intelligence agencies also in the process of verifying if several hundred Chinese army engineers working in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir are engaged in some sort of military construction like bunkers. (Times of India)

China’s push for a stronger presence in the Pakistani neighbourhood was also noted in opinion piece in the Times of India:

With nearly $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and burgeoning armed forces, China presents a reliable counterweight to the intensified pressure from an angry U.S. Even if Washington papers over the current rift, which seems likely, the latest episode will surely deepen China's presence and influence in the region as the U.S. starts to draw down from Afghanistan in 2012.

Indeed, two weeks before the bin Laden raid, Pakistani leaders visited Kabul to give Afghan President Hamid Karzai advice on the coming new era. Abandon the untrustworthy Americans, they said, urging Afghanistan to embrace China as the economic powerhouse and reliable regional military power.

On his own visit to Kabul, Indian Prime Minister Mahmohan Singh had assured Afghanistan that India was its “neighbour and partner in development”.

Afghanistan provides India with a gateway to the oil and natural gas wealth of Central Asia...

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi