President Zardari’s official visit to China once again brings into focus the importance of this relationship for Pakistan. China’s contribution has been significant in Pakistan’s defence and industrial capability. Most of the major weapon systems are of Chinese origin and these include armoured fighting vehicles, fighter aircraft, artillery guns, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. Several factories and production lines in the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF), the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and Heavy Industries, Taxila, have been built with Chinese collaboration. Admittedly, Chinese military hardware is not cutting-edge and is generally one or two generations behind US and western sources. However, China is fast making inroads into new technologies and upgrading its military equipment and software.
During the period of US sanctions Pakistan’s defence industrial development got a boost and the military came to appreciate the importance of indigenous development. China’s assistance, undoubtedly, acted as a catalyst in the process and brought the two nations close to each other.
Among the current joint projects the JS-17 Thunder multi-role aircraft is under development and will be the PAF’s main line of defence. The PAF, along with the Defence Production Division, has been closely associated with CATIC, the Chinese aerospace company, and the Chinese air force through all stages. The project is the finest example of the deep and enduring relationship of our two countries.
In the civil sector, the Chinese had set up the Heavy Mechanical Complex and Heavy Forge and Foundry, strengthening our industrial base. Chinese companies are engaged in several projects throughout the country ranging from telecommunications, oil exploration and mining to cement factories and power generation.
Chinese assistance in infrastructural projects has been of immense value. The two most significant projects are the Karakoram Highway and the Gwadar deepwater port. The Karakoram Highway is indeed a marvel of civil engineering and a tribute to the hard work and determination of the peoples of China and Pakistan.
The Gwadar port came as a result of an agreement signed between the two governments in March 2002. The Chinese government gave a loan of 198 million dollars and Pakistan contributed fifty million dollars for the first phase, which has since been successfully completed and berths capable of handling vessels over 30,000 DWT are functional. The second phase of construction is in progress.
Gwadar port by virtue of its excellent location is visualised as a regional hub serving commercial traffic of Middle Eastern and Gulf countries, Xinjiang province of China, Iran in the west and Sri Lanka in the south. Its strategic importance is enhanced due to its location at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and at the opposite end of the strategic choke points of the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.
The full development of Gwadar could favourably influence the geo-strategic, politico-military and economic environment of the region. It can also unlock the development potential of the hinterland and be a great boon for the people of Balochistan. Unfortunately, the previous government mishandled its dealings with the Baloch that has given rise to unnecessary misgivings.
China’s major involvement in Gwadar is essentially motivated by commercial considerations, but there are distinct advantages accruing to the Pakistani Navy and to the Chinese Navy for having a friendly port of call. And China being a heavy importer of oil from the Persian Gulf has natural interest in secure and uninterrupted flow of oil.
China’s growing economic ties with India and its mature relationship with United States has a stabilising influence in the region and is in the interest of Pakistan.
There is no doubt that China has been deeply concerned about the growing radicalism in Pakistan. The abduction and killing of some of its nationals has further exacerbated its fears. Moreover, China apprehends that expanding frontiers of militancy may spill over in its adjoining provinces and negatively influence the Uighurs. Pakistan must ensure the safety of Chinese nationals and fully cooperate in areas of anti-terrorism and intelligence-sharing.
The two countries substantively cooperate in a wide range of activities–economic, defence, foreign policy and in the cultural fields. Their relationship has transcended change in governments and the people have demonstrated a sustained pro-China sentiment that further reinforces this bond. Islamabad considers China as a strategic partner and Beijing reciprocates this relationship. Despite the current financial crisis that has engulfed the world and is also affecting China it has shown its willingness to cooperate and assist Pakistan in several areas, including agriculture, power generation, telecommunication and mining.
For Pakistan to have a close relationship with an ascending power capable of countervailing India’s propensity for hegemony always appeals to policymakers across the political spectrum in Pakistan. On the other hand, China recognises Pakistan as an important regional player, its position among the Muslim countries and as a useful ally at international forums.