Why China is shielding Pakistan’s strategic assets

Beijing’s protective armour is clearly part of a plan.

 |  6-minute read |   15-10-2016
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Buried in Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida’s by now famous October 6 story of a civil-military rift within Pakistan is a nugget as explosive as the story’s main premise. Almeida story in The Dawn hints at China’s discomfiture with Pakistan’s use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

Almeida describes Pakistan’s foreign secretary Chaudhary speaking words to the effect that "while China has reiterated its support for Pakistan, it too has indicated a preference for a change in course by Pakistan. Specifically, while Chinese authorities have conveyed their willingness to keep putting on technical hold a UN ban on Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar, they have questioned the logic of doing so repeatedly".

On October 10, Beijing put India’s attempt to get the UN to ban the JeM’s Azhar on another three-month hold. China’s vice foreign minister Li Baodong made a preposterous suggestion that India was seeking political capital out of the move to designate Azhar a global terrorist. “There should be no double standards on counter-terrorism. No one should pursue own political gains in the name of counter-terrorism,” Baodong said.

patroliing-china_101516083959.jpg Chinese and Pakistani troops post the launch of their first joint patrol of the border connecting PoK with Xinjiang province. Photo: PTI 

China’s move to block the ban on someone who masterminded high-profile attacks on Indian soil this year at Pathankot and Uri might sound bizarre. China’s block on the ban was raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he met President Xi Jingping in Goa as part of the BRICS summit in Goa on October 15.

But Beijing’s protective shield is clearly part of a plan.

Pakistan’s deep state revived Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed only in 2014. This followed a post 26/11 diplomatic initiative by India globally spotlighted the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. This culminated Saeed being declared a globally designated terrorist by the UN on December 17, 2008.

China’s blocking action at the UN essentially completes a circle of shielding Pakistan’s twin "strategic assets" — terrorists and nuclear weapons.

Foreign policy pundits like Henry Kissinger argue Beijing's strategic mindset can be best understood by the traditional Chinese board game of wei qi or go. The focus in the game is to prevent encirclement of one's own pieces. This is something China, which has land borders with 14 countries, more than any other country in the world, understands well. Its only two allies in Asia are valuable pawns in this game. North Korea keeps its East Asian rivals South Korea and Japan in check. Pakistan firewalls India in South Asia.  This firewalling could even involve the transfers of nuclear weapon know-how to its junior partner. 

In Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the secret trade in nuclear weapons, investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott exposed the sordid truth about Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi’s quest for the bomb. Libya wound up its nascent nuclear weapons programme and surrendered its plans to the United Nations in January 2004 — blueprints for a Chinese CHIC-4 nuclear fission device came from Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr AQ Khan’s nuclear blackmarket. The most brazen peddling of nuclear arms in the 20th century came in a decidedly casual wrapping — the blueprints were wrapped in plastic bags of "Good Looks Fabrics and Tailors" in Islamabad.

The drawings and step-by-step instructions on assembling a nuclear weapon, most of them in Chinese, left no doubt whatsoever of the provenance of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Chinese assistance enabled Pakistan to leapfrog India’s nuclear weapons programme. They had their gensis in two tectonic events in the late 1970s which gave the Pakistan army a new warfighting strategy.

The 1977 coup by General Zia-ul-Haq saw the military hang the initiator of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme—the hapless President ZA Bhutto. The Pakistan army took over the civilian-led nuclear weapons programme. It has not let go ever since. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 saw the Pakistan army and its ISI receive billions of dollars of US arms and assistance to fund a war against the occupying Soviets.

China, by now on the side of the US following the Nixon-Kissinger breakthrough of 1972, also supplied weapons in the Afghan war against the Soviets. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan rolled back sanctions imposed by his predecessors to punish Pakistan’s nuclear weapons pursuit. He offered Pakistan a massive five-year aid package totaling $3 billion including $100 million in year in economic assistance and $400 million a year in loans to buy military equipment. The transfers also included F-16 fighter aircraft which gave Pakistan the capability to deliver nuclear weapons.

The nine-year long resistance fought by the Mujahideen and controlled by the Pakistan army’s ISI established and strengthened the foundations of the deep state. By the early 1990s, GHQ Rawalpindi had recalibrated its strategy to what can best be described as a sword and shield: the sword of terrorism/ non- state actors and the shield of nuclear weapons. The Pakistan army would use the sword of terrorism to inflict death by a thousand cuts against India even as the shield of nuclear weapons protected itself against a military riposte.

By the early 1990s, Pakistan’s deep state trained, funded and raised the Afghan Taliban to control the narrative on its western borders, in Afghanistan. Nuclear weapons and terrorists had become strategic assets for the Pakistan army. Multiple attacks on Indian soil began from the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai.

These strikes culminated in the savage November 26, 2008 attacks on Mumbai, arguably the most brazen attempt to test the threshold of India’s tolerance since the December 13, 2001 attack on India’s parliament. The parliament attack led to the massive ten-month deployment of Indian forces in Operation Parakram. The failed deployment led to the drafting of the "Cold Start" strategy to rapidly mobilise Indian forces and mount a swift response.

The UPA government in 2008 resisted the urge to even carry out token punitive strikes against Pakistan’s terrorist proxies. Pakistan, nevertheless, perfected what could be best called a "counter Cold Start" strategy — testing and deploying tactical nuclear weapons to blunt an Indian military assault.

The surgical strikes of September 29 authorised by the Modi government in retaliation for the Uri attacks in which 19 Indian army soldiers were killed, have demonstrated the chinks in the sword and shield strategy and indeed in the counter Cold Start. Besides the range of political, diplomatic and economic options like the cancellation of the SAARC summit in Islamabad, the surgical strikes have demonstrated the existence of the space for sub-conventional military options.

China’s President Xi Jingping has authored a new initiative to bind Pakistan, Beijing’s "batie" (Iron Brother) in a military-economic embrace. GHQ Rawalpindi is almost certainly working out its new strategy factoring Beijing in its response against India.

Writer

Sandeep Unnithan Sandeep Unnithan @sandeepunnithan

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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