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Visit of Pakistan Army Chief to China

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 17, 2012

    “Chin-Pak dosti zandabad!” – this closing remark by Liu Jian, in an article in the Pakistan daily `The Nation` on January 10, 2011, is a telling statement about China-Pakistan relations during the past year. That the new year began with the third visit of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to China on the invitation of the Chinese leadership from January 5-10, 2012 is in itself very significant. Coming as it did at a time when Pakistan is passing through a critical phase in its relations with the US over the war in Afghanistan and a troubled relationship with the political leadership back home, lends the visit great importance in Sino-Pak relations. A security official reportedly said that during this visit, `we want to take the relationship to the next level`, indicating that Sino-Pak relations were moving towards a new phase. During his visit, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) met the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie, the PLA Chief of General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde, State Councillor and key diplomat Dai Bingguo, and Chen Qiufa, the Chief Administrator of State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND).

    While the official communiqué of the visit spoke of the usual strengthening of friendship and `all weather relationship` between the two nations, some issues are noteworthy. The Chinese leadership was careful about not going overboard with the visit, keeping in view its relationship with the civilian government in Pakistan. At a time when the internal situation in Pakistan itself is in turmoil, with the Army and Gilani at loggerheads, China was careful not to be seen taking sides.1 This was evident from the fact that Kayani did not meet the Chinese President during this visit. The Chinese Premier Wen said "China will consistently support Pakistan's efforts to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as back the country's economic growth and improvement of its people's livelihoods." He also added that “Pakistan Armed Forces have made an important contribution towards maintaining bilateral relations and boosting Pak-China strategic cooperation”, underlining the fact that China feels comfortable dealing with the Pakistan military and recognises the latter’s relevance in Sino-Pak relations.

    During a media briefing after Kayani’s visit, Hong Lei, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that both countries had reached agreements in defence security, military drills (read exercises), personnel training (read courses of instruction), college exchanges (read military exchanges programmes in academies/schools of instruction), equipment construction (possibly R&D) and non-traditional security.

    The key issue of discussion on defence security is likely to have been Afghanistan post-US withdrawal in 2014, a fact mentioned by the Associated Press of Pakistan as `of core interest to Pakistan`. Kayani is reported to have said: “If Afghanistan is peaceful and stable; Pakistan will be the biggest beneficiary.” It may be recalled that Pakistan-US relations reached a nadir on November 26 after US gunships killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and injured several others in what is now called as the `Salala incident`. That resulted in the stoppage of US supplies through Pakistan to the ISAF, the US evacuation of Shamsi airbase and calls for a review of the rules of engagement (ROE) with the ISAF. On its part, the US has blocked the tranche of $800 million aid to Pakistan. The latest in the downslide has been the rejection by Pakistan of the US report (prepared by Brigadier General Stephen Clark) on the Salala incident stating it to be `short on facts`. Instead, Pakistan has demanded an apology from Obama.2

    On the other hand, China has slowly increased its footprints in the region. With mining contracts for copper worth $3 billion, oil exploration in North Afghanistan of eight million barrels and at least 40 other contracts worth $500 million, China has acquired huge economic interests in Afghanistan. Naturally, China would be a major player in filling the void left by the US in the region. Even in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), China has taken up major construction contracts to build dams, bridges and roads including the strategic Karakoram Highway. It would be reasonable to assume that Kayani is likely to have garnered adequate support and assistance for Pakistan from China in the event of the US closing the tap on aid and equipment including spares. Last year, Chinese military assistance to Pakistan was estimated at $84 million, which is likely to increase in the coming years. More importantly, India must be prepared to see a change in China’s stance on Jammu and Kashmir in the future - a fact that has already been demonstrated by China when it did a volte-face by terming it as ‘disputed’ from a hither-to-fore neutral stance.

    The other issue of defence security is the Gwadar port and the Karakoram Highway (KKH). The KKH has been under repair jointly by Chinese and Pakistani military personnel since January 2010 after huge landslides wiped off 25-30 kilometres of the highway near Attabad. Further, the possibility of China setting up a military base in Pakistan has been covered in the Pakistan press quoting a report by Xinhua that: “China’s deepening strategic penetration of Pakistan and joint plans to set up oil pipelines/rail/roads and naval and military bases are a matter of concern.” The paper also acknowledged that: “China’s desire for a military presence in Pakistan has been discussed by the political and military leadership of that country in recent months.”3 China has actively aided Pakistan in developing the Karakoram corridor, a road network cum oil pipeline, which extends from the Gwadar port along the Indus- Karakoram highway to Xinjiang province. Besides, China has funded the construction of the Gwadar port. This provides China an alternative energy supply route and access to the Indian Ocean for trade. In this context, China may be seeking to set up a military presence in Pakistan to secure its assets and trade routes in that country.4

    There has been a marked increase in officers and NCOs attending courses of instruction in China vis-à-vis those doing so in the US. Kayani’s visit would have only helped increase the utilisation of vacancies in PLA institutions by the Pakistan Army.5 However, of interest is the meeting of the Chief administrator of SASTIND with Kayani. SASTIND plays an important role in regulating Chinese exports of sensitive military items and has the responsibility for vetting China's conventional military exports, including missile-related exports. One of its primary responsibilities is to research future weapon systems, scientific development of dual-use systems, and managing the exports of developed weaponry.6 SASTIND works closely with both the Ministry of Commerce and the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA), SASTIND’s bureaucratic subordinate. It would be prudent to assume that General Kayani would have reviewed progress of ongoing military projects including sensitive missile projects during his meeting with the SASTIND team. Details of such projects are however, not known.

    Insofar as non-traditional threats are concerned, in recent times, China has expressed concerns over growing Muslim separatism and training of Uighur fighters in Pakistan who routinely cross over into Xinjiang Autonomous Region. An official Xinhua commentary last September warned: ‘If violent forces in Xinjiang gain ground, China may be forced to directly intervene militarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but this is clearly not the situation China would like to see.’7 Last year, the DG ISI had to dash off to China to reassure the Chinese leadership that Pakistan would do everything possible to dismantle these camps and prevent the movement of Uighur separatists into XUAR. In November, Pakistan and China held a joint exercise at the Brigade level for the first time in counter terrorism, indicating China`s concern at the growing problem. The fact that the Pakistani Army Chief himself attended the exercise indicates its importance. Interestingly, the exercise practiced transportation of PLA Special Forces directly into a terrorist area from the mainland, a manoeuvre that highlights their capability of transportation and direct intervention in alien territory.

    To conclude, the visit of General Kayani is likely to have established a larger role for China in the affairs of the Af-Pak region. The effect of Pakistan’s worsening relations with the US and the cut in aid is bound to drive Pakistan towards its `all weather friend` China. Besides, we should be witnessing a spike in military-to-military exchanges, more joint exercises, increased military aid in terms of equipment and material and more educational exchanges between the two militaries. India will need to factor the growing PLA presence in and around Pakistan and be prepared to engage an increasingly confident Pakistan propped by Chinese support and driven by Chinese interests in the region.