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The Taller Than Mountain, Deeper Than Ocean Friendship - Notes on a China-Pakistan Love-in

24/04/2015 16:08 BST | Updated 23/06/2015 10:59 BST

On a world globe if you trace your finger due south from Gwadar, the port on Makran coast in Pakistan's far west, it ends up, uninterupted by land, in the vast pale blue of the Arabian ocean. From Gwadar sea travel is permissible in any number of directions - into the southern hemisphere, up the cul-de-sac of the Persian Gulf, to India and Sri Lanka, but most interestingly to the east African coast.

China has been busy in Africa for decades, once, during the Cold War selling arms and competing with the Soviets for anti-west alliances, more recently for the extraction of raw materials. Copper, bauxite, and now farming is part of its economic development portfolio. According to a report in the Economist (Empire of the sums, August 2014), there are 100 million Chinese in Africa, doing things as various as running brothels in Liberia, engineering projects in Mali, copper mines in Zambia and farms in Mozambique. It is thought that China's Export-Import Bank made $62.7 billion in loans to African countries between 2001-2010, some $12.5 billion more than the World Bank, but those figures may be conservative. What is certain is that China, and the Chinese, are held in some resentment by ordinary people for ruining the eco-systems and environment, overturning the rights of small landholders, flouting local laws, adding to corruption and empowering undemocratic regimes.

From China's point of view extracting raw materials has come with the difficulty of transporting it back to its homeland ports. There was the long sea journey through the Malacca Straits; there are the stand-offs with the US and Japan in the south China seas with periodic scraps over the Spratly Islands, and an increased US fleet presence in the area since June 2012. (Leon Panetta announced at the time that by 2020 around 60 per cent of the US fleet would be deployed in Asia Pacific waters.) Earlier this month Beijing accused the US of hypocrisy over Obama's comments that China is using its "sheer size and muscle" to intimidate other nations in the south China seas.

Against this background China has offered a package of $46bn to Pakistan for road, rail, electricity, gas (and defensive) development. The port of Gwadar, facing straight into the vastness of the Arabian sea, is to be linked to the Karakorum Highway via road and rail networks, as a designated "corridor". So the logistics of Africa trade in raw materials becomes many times easier for China.

Gwadar, with a history that includes foreign suzerainty, can probably take it. A 10km by 2km ocean facing block of land known as Koh-e-Bahtil, reached by a long spit with bays on either side, it is one of the oldest settlements on the Makran coast. The Portuguese built a trading and defensive fort there in the sixteenth century, as they did in the collection of islands that became Bombay, but abandoned it in 1581 and set fire to the city. Bombay was ideally located to become a prosperous mercantile and trading centre, Gwadar, out on a limb and facing the dusty Arabian peninsula was not. In the eighteenth century it was under the control of the Khan of Khalat, who conceded it to the brother of the Sultan of Muscat - the nearest Arabian kingdom to the Makran coast - under whose dominion it remained until Pakistan bought it back in 1957, for the equivalent of £3 million.

But there are questions about the rest of the China package. The route of the "corridor" from the Karakorum reaches Islamabad and then instead of heading straight down in a westerly direction via Mianwali, Dera Ghazi Khan, Larkana (rail offshoot to Sibi), Sehwan Sharif and into Balochistan, instead does a loop around Lahore - close to the Indian border - to Multan, Bahawalpur (Pakistan airbases), Sukkur, before reaching Karachi and heading west to Gwadar.

Back in the 1960s the Karakorum Highway (KKH) was about opening up geographical and economic links between China and Pakistan, over and through the Himalayas, but one of its motors, after the 1962 China-India war about borders, was geopolitics and military. China and Pakistan formed a fairly steady alliance against India until the Soviets moved into Afghanistan in 1979, when the friendship was supplanted by Saudi and American aid. The alliance had always been exploited to America's advantage. When Nixon and Kissinger wanted to break the ice with China in the early 1970s, they used the Pakistan diplomatic corridor; in return, and by means of quid pro quo, they turned a blind eye - and encouraged - the Pakistan military's disastrous and unlawful action in Bangladesh, which resulted in 300,000 civilian deaths.

The China deal this time also looks contrived. It is a plus that Pakistan receives infrastructure development money, because for the last 40 years that has also come from the Gulf, and on the condition that the country be subverted ideologically (and would host extremist groups and the Taliban).

The control that the oil-rich Gulf has held over Pakistan may finally begin to shift. The gas pipeline from Iran into Pakistan - so long forbidden by US administrations who insisted Pakistan take its gas, improbably, from Kazakhstan (Tough US warning on Iran gas pipeline, Dawn, March 2012) and the warning of "consequences" to Pakistan by Hillary Clinton is now forgotten, perhaps because the deals in post Nato "withdrawal" Afghanistan have had to include Iran, China and Pakistan. But when there was a China flurry in Pakistan three years ago, an American diplomat let slip on twitter that China would have investment rights in Sindh from 2014 and the $46bn package from China to Pakistan could not have happened without a shift in US geo-strategic policy. The US may have done a deal with China over Pakistan: that they could further open up Gwadar and trading routes south, because that eased tension for the US in the South China Seas.

But within Pakistan the deal is still, on balance, most likely to benefit the defence establishment. Four Chinese submarines, presumably for Gwadar, have been arranged on a neat financial package for the Pakistan military. Recent figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute figures for 2004 - 2014 show that Saudi Arabia's defence spending has increased by 156 per cent, China's by 201 per cent. Plus Internet censorship technology blocks more in China than in Pakistan at present, but there are some who would like that to change. There should be real concern for Balochistan, Pakistan's poorest and most deprived province, still fighting for its right to be heard and not to be harassed by the military, should part of the package of China's $46bn to Pakistan include lessons in the suppression of the Tibet people and the economic plunder of their land and damage to the eco-systems.

It is also true that $46bn in global terms is not a great deal. The war in Afghanistan cost $1tn. You would encourage the Pakistanis to grab it and run, and know that they can close the infrastructure "corridors" at a time when it suits them. But it's possible that the Pakistan military may use the China package to their own advantage: to suppress Balochistan, to nestle more prominently against the border with India.

None of this anachronistic behaviour will do any good. The most devastating blow Pakistan could inflict on any of its historic "aid" donors - the United States, Saudi Arabia, China - is to come to peace, and allow economic development, with India. It will happen in time anyway. Why not sooner rather than later?

Between 1947 and 1970 Pakistan had a modest foreign debt of just $3bn and was one of the world's best users of foreign loans. The impact of Gulf oil money from 1974, matched by the US from 1979, was devastating for Afghanistan and for democracy in Pakistan, since it favoured Pakistan's military. The civilian, foreign-funded projects of the 1990s including the Islamabad-Lahore highway and the yellow taxi scheme were beneficial, but vast sums disappeared in kickbacks.

Mostly, for the quality of life of 190 million citizens, when only a fraction of aid ever goes on healthcare, education, the China deal is not good. Pakistan's democratically elected government will have to fight every step of the way to prevent environmental damage, and to protect human rights and internet freedoms. But a small welcome development for Pakistan, after Saudi Arabia's Wahabbism, is that China's religious ideology is capitalism.