The Chinese President’s decision to skip Islamabad from his tour does not mean that China is ready to dump Pakistan.
There is nothing to be excited about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to skip Pakistan during his forthcoming South Asia tour. Some might argue that it would have been a good time for Xi to land in Islamabad to show support for the country roiled by political uncertainty, but let’s be clear that the call to stay away does not reflect any change in relations between the two long-standing friends.
Xi is due to visit India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives later this month, trips during which he will test prime minister Narendra Modi’s keenness to improve trade ties between the world’s two most populous countries and reaffirm Beijing’s deepening ties with Colombo that has attracted vast amounts of Chinese investments in its infrastructure.
Ties between India and China have always been testy given the border dispute that saw the two go to war back in 1962. Frosty relations have thawed in recent years and trade between the two neighbours has grown, but there is still a long way to go before any degree of mutual trust can be established.
Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said this week that while Modi and Xi had established good relations when they met at the BRICs summit in Brazil soon after general elections in India, she also made it clear that Beijing had been delivered a strong message that it had to respect the “one-India policy (which means no claims on Arunachal Pradesh) given that New Delhi recognised Tibet and Taiwan to be part of China.
One thing India and its diplomats can be clear about is that his decision to skip Islamabad from his tour does not mean China is ready to dump Pakistan. Usually Chinese leaders club their visits to India and Pakistan, but all that a de-linking this time around could possibly do is give New Delhi temporary comfort that at this point it figures higher in Beijing’s priority than in the past.
China seldom takes a short-term view of the world, and has clearly defined its relations with other nations on the basis of its long-term goals and needs. A recent info graphic in Global Times, a Chinese government-run newspaper, provided a view of how Beijing divides its worldly ties.
China essentially follows four partnership models: creative partnership, comprehensive cooperative partnership, strategic partnership (of cooperation) and comprehensive strategic partnership (of cooperation). The difference, according to the newspaper, is that while cooperative partnerships are formed at a fundamental level, are bilateral in nature and focus mainly on politics, economics, science and technology and culture, the strategic partnerships can be both bilateral or multilateral and are based on benefits of national security.
While one would imagine that diplomacy and foreign relations are usually dynamic in nature and, therefore, likely to change depending on circumstances, in China’s case one can merrily assume that any shift will only be snail paced with little or no change in the foundation. Foreign policy, like so many other things in China, can be rather nuanced and small variations in definition of relationships can mean a lot more than what the world outside may understand.
So it is interesting to see that China clubs the European Union and most large European nations except Germany and Russia as those with which it has a comprehensive strategic partnership. With Germany it has an “all-round strategic partnership” and with Russia it is in a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination”
With India, Afghanistan, South Korea and Sri Lanka, Beijing shares a “strategic cooperative partnership”. That means it sees all of them through the same prism, an idea that may not appeal to India, but might go down well in Kabul and Colombo.
According to the Global Times, China’s ties with ASEAN, central Asian republics, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and some East European countries are seen to be one of “strategic partnership”, while those with Nepal, Congo, Bangladesh and some other key African nations fall under the head “comprehensive cooperative partnership.”
The emerging great power rivalry with the United States and the old, historic unhappiness with Japan has led China to define its relationship with these two very differently than those with other nations of the world.
It calls its engagement with the United States a “new model of major-power relationship”, which means Beijing definitely sees itself in league with Washington, an idea that obviously reflects on its relationships with other capitals. In short that means that while China is willing to engage with all, it doesn’t consider anyone a bigger rival than the United States. Countries such as India are, therefore, mostly marginal to China’s larger cause.
Similarly, its defines ties with Japan as a “strategic relationship of mutual benefit.” Given the huge bilateral trade and Japanese investments in China even as the two battle over a gory past, the definition makes sense.
Pakistan is the only country with which China has an “all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation.” In layman’s terms, it simply means that Beijing considers its relationship with Islamabad over and beyond its ties with all others. The phrase “all-weather” is key; China might be willing to shift gears either way in its relations with other countries, with Pakistan it will always be an even ride just as it has been for the past several decades.
Let’s not forget it was Pakistan that essentially helped Beijing open its door to the world in the 1970s, an event that has now propelled China to almost become the world’s biggest economy. China never forgets its friends and that’s a thought Pakistan can live comfortably with irrespective of whether it has a democratically elected government or army rule.
It’s also a thought India’s new government needs to keep in its mind while dealing with Beijing and Xi, the now all-powerful man in China.
Photo: Brian Yap