Beyond Silk

Spearhead Analysis – 10.07.2015

By Zoon Ahmed Khan
Research Analyst,
Spearhead Research

Only days after the finalization of China led Asia Investment and Infrastructure Bank’s (AIIB) shares, the Shanghai Corporation Organization is set to spread its clout as well.

Initially formed between China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as Shanghai-Five (1996) – this later incorporated Uzbekistan in 2001 to create the SCO- has been dedicated towards economic, political and military cooperation between member countries. After fourteen years of its inception the SCO has for the first time opened its doors to new permanent members; an opportunity both India and Pakistan are devoted to avail. Along with Iran, Afghanistan and Mongolia, India and Pakistan currently have ‘observer’ status in the organization. However Vladimir Putin has assured India of full-member status only days before the Corporation’s summit begins- and Pakistan has been signaled similar assurity from Beijing.

Between Pakistan and China talks of reviving the Silk Route have always sparked mutual interest. Pakistan’s Commerce Minister during General Ayub Khan’s martial rule and China’s then Prime Minister Chou En-Lai sat as friends to discuss China’s Western provinces, the disparity of development opportunities on both Eastern and Western frontiers. If there was any future for economic cooperation between the Pakistan and China more avenues needed to be created. For China more interaction with the Middle East and Europe was a motive. Especially after the Cold War period, the need to restore global balance seems to have shaped the desired circumstances. A parallel system is now successfully in place- with AIIB competing with IMF and World Bank; and the SCO aiming for the UN’s portfolio.

While Pakistan may as well be the strategic partner- Beijing is deriving her strength from Moscow at this point. Both equally motivated to challenge US Hegemony- restore global balance, and find themselves in a better position to secure their regional interests. For Russia it is reminiscent of a Cold War period- and for Beijing newfound confidence in the restoration of a glorious past. Both China and Russia vouched for no intervention in Syria, both supported Tehran’s peaceful nuclear program- and both oppose pro-West ‘puppet governments’ all through North Africa and the Middle East. On matters of global security both Beijing and Moscow have therefore united against the United States. This posture became increasingly apparent with the events following the World Trade Center attack- when a side had to be picked.

“Since 9/11 the mantra that the United States and China have common objectives in the region is one that Beijing was happy enough to recite without believing it to be true…. With the exception of East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and its supporters, Beijing’s interest was not to embroil itself in a battle with extremists in the region, it was to ensure that it didn’t get on to the wrong side of them. “

Andrew Small-

While on the surface Beijing has been dancing to Washington’s war-drums in the “War against Terrorism”, agreeing to cooperate and work towards ‘stability’ and ‘peace’ in the region; on ‘terrorism’ being bad; the fact remains that Beijing never felt any reason to go after them. One could articulate that perhaps the Dragon had the luxury of remaining seemingly dormant while Uncle Sam provides the bread and butter to keep the all-weathered friend and strategic ally stronger. At the same time it was in Beijing’s best interests to stay relevant to Pakistan. After all the only exception to the ‘letting them be’ policy was the East Turkistan Islamic Movement in China’s Western province Xinjiang. The ETIM claims to be a repressed Muslim minority, and has been involved actively in terrorism. There is reason however for the international community to believe the reaction isn’t unprecedented.

At this point Beijing needs to therefore hit the ETIM with full throttle. If the situation aggravates, China’s West can possibly become the hub for Islamic State activities as well- surely to create a huge setback to China’s Silk Route plans and regional aspirations. And it is here that Beijing will need Pakistan. Pakistan’s own Zarb-e-Azb operation which is so far a success story proves the Pakistan Army’s capability. In addition, Pakistan as the largest Islamic country, supportive of China’s fight against ETIM will serve to delegitimize their claims of being a repressed religious minority- rather than actively involved in sabotaging China’s aspirations towards the West.

Already a plan that takes Europe and Asia forward in terms of economic prosperity and security, has made China’s silk road an exceedingly popular prospect. From Turkey, to Greece and even the European Union, China is being treated as the savior. What seemed a fortress built by the United States and a few key allies has already dismantled visibly.  For many analysts the sustainability of a Sino-Russia alliance is volatile and unsustainable in the long run. Possibly a Northern Sea Route Pipeline as opposed to the Silk Route would have left Russia better off as the passageway to Asia’s growth. But Moscow also realizes that absolute gain will be far greater even for Russia alone if they chose to cooperate. But we can only know for sure when the time comes.

For now- clearly it is not US Hegemony, or Asia’s and Middle East’s wars- China’s Achille’s heel- Xinjiang- remains the biggest challenge. And a challenge that China will need Pakistan to tackle with. And for Beijing hence Pakistan becomes an indispensable ally. Pakistan’s North Waziristan is the hub or terrorism- for Beijing ‘s internal threats- and also the only weapon that is capable of fighting it- How both countries navigate their internal threats and mutual interest, and not silk on the trade route- will determine where China’s century can take us.