China’s high-stakes Belt and Road project in Pakistan has sucked it into the vortex of a power struggle between Pakistan’s elected government and its military on the one hand and an increasingly bitter geopolitical row on the other as the United States and India join forces.
While pushing the US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in a massive vote of confidence in its “all-weather ally”, Chinese officials have quietly encouraged their Pakistani partners to facilitate the success of the project by abandoning its decades-old pursuit of strategic objectives in Afghanistan and Kashmir through the support of non-state jihadis.
These terror outfits have for years been a major bone of contention between Pakistan’s powerful military and its civilian government.
The confrontation began soon after Nawaz Sharif was appointed prime minister in June 2013. He sought to restrict the public activities of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, and pushed for greater trade ties with India as a way to resume peace talks. The military blocked the move.
Much to Sharif’s chagrin, it became apparent in 2014 that the JuD and other anti-India jihadist groups had resumed infiltrations across the de facto border into the Indian-administered part of disputed Kashmir. Sharif’s government again tried to kick-start stalled negotiations with India in December 2015, but that attempt was scuppered by a terrorist attack on an Indian air force base at Pathankot, in the western state of Punjab. New Delhi said the attack was carried out by Pakistan-based Jaish-i-Mohammed jihadis.
Tensions between Sharif’s administration and the military over the role of jihadis peaked in October 2016, soon after jihadis killed 17 Indian soldiers in an assault on a military base at Uri in Kashmir. The attack brought an abrupt end to a 2004 ceasefire agreed by India and Pakistan.
A controversial story by Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, described how in a meeting with the elected leadership, the chief of the military’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate was cornered over the powerful agency’s support for anti-India and Afghan jihadis. He was reportedly told at the meeting that China had advised the government to change tack, failing which Pakistan would face diplomatic isolation.
The civil-military stand-off grew as a consequence of the ISI’s leading role in a Supreme Court case that led to Sharif’s ousting in late July on corruption charges, and his disqualification for life from holding public office and leading a political party. Sharif has claimed to be the victim of a plot by political rivals to undermine the CPEC.
The Chinese project has been a major success for Sharif as it enabled the government to fulfil its 2013 election campaign promise to end Pakistan’s crippling power shortages. But opposition politicians accused the former prime minister’s family of taking kickbacks in return for granting lucrative contracts for CPEC projects being executed by Chinese state-owned companies.
The Chinese embassy in Islamabad has denied the allegations. It has also angrily countered criticism that large-scale imports of machinery for CPEC projects have damaged Pakistan’s economy by pushing its current account deficit to record levels, and by making its external debt burden unsustainable.
Pakistan’s economy has grown by an average of more than 5 per cent over the two years since the launch of CPEC and is on course to accelerate to 6 per cent. Chinese diplomats, therefore, were dismayed by the criticism of the government’s handling of the economy by the Pakistani military’s chief spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, who added to the negative political narrative of CPEC in a recent interview. Ahsan Iqbal, the minister overseeing the project’s implementation, demanded the army general “refrain from commenting on the economy … [because] irresponsible statements could damage Pakistan’s image globally”.
The Game of Thrones in Islamabad coincides with a crisis in Pakistan’s relations with the US. Since President Donald Trump announced his policy for Afghanistan in August, Pakistan has been under pressure to shut down safe havens on its territory used by the Afghan Taliban and its ally Haqqani Network, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
The US has also launched unauthorised drone surveillance flights into Pakistani airspace in search of the Haqqani Network. Last month, American drones tracked the whereabouts of an American-Canadian couple, Caitlin Coleman and Joshua Boyle, kidnapped in Afghanistan five years ago, to Haqqani hideouts in Pakistan’s tribal areas, eventually leading to their rescue.
According to political analyst Nusrat Javeed, the episode was engineered by the US to embarrass Pakistan and demonstrate that the US would stage military incursions into Pakistan if the authorities there did not comply with its demands. During a brief stopover in Islamabad on Tuesday, on his way from Kabul to New Delhi this week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson renewed the US’ demands of Pakistan.
“The secretary reiterated President Trump’s message that Pakistan must increase its efforts to eradicate militants and terrorists operating within the country,” said the US embassy.
In pursuit of Trump’s new “regional” policy approach to South Asia, the US is backing India to take a bigger role in Afghanistan, creating a second hostile border for Pakistan. The US has also locked step with India by voicing opposition to the routing of CPEC through the Gilgit-Baltistan region of disputed Kashmir, casting it as an integral part of its Asia-wide strategic competition with China. “The [Belt and Road] also goes through the disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a diktat,” US Defence Secretary James Mattis told the Senate armed services committee last month, using another name for China’s initiative.
Afghanistan and South Asia expert Barnett Rubin said it was unclear why the US and India had mixed a clear message to Pakistan with a long-term policy shift against China’s growing influence. “I would speculate the announcement of a major policy shift to counter the Belt and Road Initiative with a US-India-Japan partnership may be an effort to up the pressure on China to take care of the world’s Pakistan problem,” he said.
During his tour of the region, Tillerson is understood to have leveraged the Afghan government’s existential reliance on the US to persuade President Ashraf Ghani to withdraw his support for the extension of CPEC into Afghanistan. Pakistan would be denied overland access to Central Asia through Afghanistan unless it allowed trade between Afghanistan and India to flow through CPEC infrastructure, Ghani said, in an address to Vivekananda International Foundation think tank in New Delhi on Wednesday.
The growing opposition to CPEC reflected a “natural strategic partnership” between the US and India, said Akram Zaki, Pakistan’s former chief diplomat and the architect of its modern-day relationship with China.
“The US’ South Asia policy has become India-centric in return for India’s endorsement of the US policy of seeking to contain China in the Indo-Pacific. Their pressure on Pakistan is an attempt to force it to downgrade its relationship with China,” he said. “But it won’t succeed. Despite the power struggle within Pakistan, the civilian and military leadership are in consensus on this, and China is not going to surrender its first-ever point of access to the Indian Ocean.” ■