May 23, 2001


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G Parthasarathy

The Zhu-Musharraf brigade

All of Pakistan's military rulers have invariably professed their commitment to improving relations with India, especially to gullible visitors from India. But their true sentiments about their neighbour are more accurately reflected in the views they voice to their own countrymen and to their Western and Chinese interlocutors.

The redoubtable General Yahya Khan constantly spoke of his determination to "crush India". Likewise, there is much that General Pervez Musharraf has said that would be a folly to overlook. He did, after all, proclaim to the English Speaking Union in Karachi in April 1998 that India is a hegemonic power and that low-intensity conflict with India would continue even if the Kashmir issue were resolved to Pakistan's satisfaction.

While General Musharraf's indiscretions as chief of army staff may be overlooked by some, what one cannot but take note of are his pronouncements after his overthrow of the democratically elected government and his assumption of office as head of government, with the unique designation of chief executive.

General Musharraf is the first Pakistani leader to justify support for the activities of Pakistani terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen on the grounds that their activities in Jammu & Kashmir are a jihad that every Muslim is bound to support. But the good general, who has all but openly announced his intention to use all possible means to become his country's next president, really gave vent to his feelings just after the recent visit of Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji.

Speaking at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on November 15, he proclaimed to an audience that included India's High Commissioner Vijay Nambiar: "Pakistan's security interests lie in maintaining a regional balance... and in this it would desire an active Chinese role. This role will remain vital especially in the changing geo-strategic realities. The end of the cold war has led to a change in global equations, leading to the emergence of regional hegemons or countries with hegemonistic tendencies. South Asia is a victim of regional hegemonism. This creates regional imbalance, which in turn, threatens peace".

Musharraf had earlier rubbished the proposed American Missile Defence programme with the words: "China and Pakistan share common views on all subjects. We are against any action that reinitiates a nuclear or missile race".

The Chinese delegation tried to downplay the military dimensions of the Sino-Pakistan nexus, and Prime Minister Zhu confined himself to generalities. It was, however, quite obvious even before he arrived that the Pakistanis were driving themselves to a frenzy in the hope that the visit would lead to a firm commitment from the Chinese to develop Gwadar port on the Makran coast in Baluchistan.

The port is of strategic importance, not only because of it being more distant from India than the existing naval facilities at Karachi, but also because access to the facilities in Gwadar will provide the capabilities for control of access to the strategic Persian Gulf.

China suddenly appeared on the scene as a prospective financier for this project just before Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharief. While the Chinese sought to focus attention on the economic dimensions of the project, Musharraf was far less circumspect. Just after his address in Islamabad on May 15, the editor of the Urdu daily Ausaf, Hamid Mir, posed a question to Musharraf on the Indian Navy and Admiral Sushil Kumar's visit to Israel.

Musharraf's reply was characteristically blunt and aggressive. He told Mir that India is trying to acquire nuclear submarines and planning to give a tough time to the Pakistani Navy. Turning to Naval Chief Admiral Mirza who vigorously nodded in agreement, Musharraf said that by giving the contract for construction of Gwadar to China, Pakistan would strengthen its trade with the Gulf and Central Asian countries. He then pointedly added that the main objective of letting the Chinese develop Gwadar port was that "as and when needed the Chinese navy would be in Gwadar to give a befitting reply to anyone".

Despite its protestations of innocence, the fact remains that China has consistently provided Pakistan with wide-ranging assistance to enable Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons and a wide variety of missiles, ranging from short-range M-11s to medium-range M-9s and intermediate range M-18s. It is significant that within two years of the path-breaking visit of Rajiv Gandhi to China in December 1988, China supplied M-11 missiles to Pakistan. Likewise, the ink had barely dried on the agreements signed during Narasimha Rao's visit to China when the Chinese moved ahead with the supply of M-9 missiles and ring magnets for Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme.

It is quite obvious that given its disputes and rivalries with several of its East and Southeast Asian neighbours and the aggressive postures it has adopted on its disputed maritime frontiers, China does not wish to see any tensions on its borders with India at present. But at the same time, its approach to our subcontinental neighbours and our friends in ASEAN indicates that it will spare no effort to contain India strategically. Its actions like continuing assistance for Pakistan's nuclear and missile programmes are quite evidently part of this policy.

In a recent book on the US-China-Pakistan nexus during the 1971 Bangladesh crisis, Pakistani writer Syed Aijazuddin draws attention to the "disdain" that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had for India. Zhou described Nehru's Discovery of India to Nixon by saying: "Yes, he [Nehru] was thinking of a great Indian Empire -- Malaysia, Ceylon etc. It would probably also include our Tibet."

While much water has flowed down the Ganga, Sindhu and Yangtze rivers since Zhou's comments, New Delhi would be well advised to get a better idea of Chinese thinking of internal political developments in India, even as it proceeds with its diplomacy to normalize relations with its northern neighbour.

Even a man as well read and sophisticated as Zhou Enlai appeared to show little understanding of the strength of our democratic institutions or the resilience of unity based on diversity. Do China's present-day rulers have a better understanding of the Indian polity?

Oddly, China broke its golden rule of steering clear of commenting on Pakistan's internal affairs for the first time, when Premier Zhu Rongji showered praise on Musharraf for promoting stability and economic development. This was distinctly odd, given the fact that even in the current financial year, economic growth in Pakistan is going to hover around 3 per cent, with the balance of payments crisis showing no signs of ending. Zhu's comments on this score received a strong rebuttal from Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan of Pakistan's Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy.

It is quite obvious from Musharraf's comments that apart from assistance to build Gwadar port, he expects further Chinese assistance for his country's nuclear and missile programmes. Given the state of its cash-strapped economy, Pakistan may also seek some Saudi financial assistance for the Gwadar project.

While China has provided Pakistan with some obsolete aircraft for its air force, it is quite obvious that without Western or Russian assistance China's capabilities in this field are limited and cannot be much of a source of concern to us.

But, given Musharraf's reference to "imbalance" in the subcontinent, one cannot but speculate whether he would not like Chinese assistance for the unsafeguarded Khushab plutonium reactor to be followed up with the provision of facilities to enable Pakistan to obtain more potent and powerful nuclear devices. Further, it is now evident that in coming years, China's demand for energy resources is going to lead to its increasing dependence on energy sources in the Persian Gulf.

A Chinese naval presence in Pakistan at the very entrance to the Persian Gulf as advocated by Musharraf is something that cannot be ignored either by Washington, Tehran or the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. These are issues New Delhi should ponder over and discuss candidly with its friends across the globe and in the course of its wide-ranging dialogue with China.

G Parthasarathy

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