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China Delves Into Regional Role

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the welcome ceremony for the Belt and Road Forum in May.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the welcome ceremony for the Belt and Road Forum in May.

The growing alliance between China and Pakistan has key ramifications for South Central Asia and also impacts regional and global coalitions. To discuss these developments, Radio Mashaal turned to former journalist and current Pakistani lawmaker, Mushahid Hussain, who heads the Defense Committee of the Pakistani Senate and is chairman of the Pakistan China Institute, an Islamabad-based nongovernmental organization.

As a leading expert on China's foreign policy in the region, he discussed the importance of Beijing-Islamabad bilateral relations, China’s role in regional peacebuilding, and the risks involved in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) -- Beijing’s multibillion-dollar series of infrastructure and energy investments in Pakistan.

RFE/RL: China’s foreign minister offered to facilitate talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Why now? What are China’s interests in the region?

Mushahid Hussain: China has had a proactive and positive involvement in Afghanistan and related issues, both bilaterally and within the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) that includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, and China. And this has been for the past four or five years.

China also helps the Afghan police and provides economic assistance. More importantly, in the context of the One Belt, One Road [project] -- the Silk Road Initiative of President Xi Jinping, Afghanistan and Pakistan are key partners.

Pakistan and Afghanistan both neighbor China. Whatever happens there has a direct or indirect bearing on China, and even its security, because Xinjiang Province borders Afghanistan.

China is perhaps the only country not carrying extra baggage in Afghanistan because it has no negative connotations. So China is in a good position to play the role of an honest broker or mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We welcome this role, just like the Afghan government has welcomed it.

RFE/RL: U.S. State Secretary recently Jim Mattis told a Congressional panel that it is important to have a regional approach toward the Afghan conflict. How do you interpret this?

Hussain: Mattis served in Afghanistan as a military commander and had a close rapport with the Pakistani military. Now U.S. President Donald Trump has given him this responsibility for the troop surge, which may be needed in Afghanistan.

A regional approach means they would have to cooperate with countries like Pakistan and China to resolve security and stability issues in Afghanistan.

In the past, [the approach] was more unilateral, based on the use of force and military might. This will now be multifaceted and multi-dimensional, on one level multilateral involving the region and multidimensional involving not just the use of force but also diplomacy and coordination.

RFE/RL: Mattis also said the U.S. will take steps to dry up Taliban support. What does this mean for Pakistan at a time when Islamabad is viewed by much of the West as a Taliban supporter?

Hussain: The Taliban has become what the Americans would call kosher as far as the U.S. and the international community are concerned. Only last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said they would be willing to allow the Taliban to open an office in Kabul. The Taliban already have an office in Qatar, where the United States has its biggest military base in the Middle East. The Afghan government signed an accord of national reconciliation with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was once seen as a warlord. His previous sins of omission or commission have been removed from the UN sanctions list.

Mushahid Hussain
Mushahid Hussain

​As the UN secretary general said on June 14 in Kabul, everyone realizes there is no military solution to Afghanistan. So there has to be some engagement. The American government now says they don’t consider Taliban as an enemy.

The situation has changed qualitatively in terms of U.S. policy and the approach in Afghanistan. Unlike immediately after 9/11, when the U.S. launched a war in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, they are now keen to engage the Taliban directly or indirectly [with the help of] of Pakistan or other countries.

RFE/RL: Now that China is taking a proactive role and the United States has a new approach, do you see any differences in the strategies?

Hussain: There is more compatibility of interests between countries like the United States and China -- and Pakistan, as well -- on the issue of Afghanistan than before. Because all countries have learned lessons from their mistakes. And one basic lesson is that, in Afghanistan, the use of military might alone is counterproductive.

The basic purpose is how to promote a peaceful settlement that includes all stakeholders, not just the Afghan government but also the Taliban and other fighting factions. Because now there is a new danger in the region: the so-called Islamic State. And the Trump administration has already seen that as enemy No. 1 in terms of terrorism and extremism. And that can be only combatted effectively when it is done collectively.

RFE/RL: There are reports of the QCG meeting again. How will it be different than their previous meetings?

Hussain: We made a sincere effort in July 2015 to bring the major warring partners to one table. We had the Murree meeting, a successful meeting of the QCG because for the first time the Ghani’s administration and the detractor, the Taliban, were brought to the same conference table with the support of the United States and China.

At the meeting in Astana on June 8 where Ghani and [Pakistani] Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met, they agreed the QCG should be revived and play an effective role. The timing is right because if there is peace in Afghanistan, there would be peace in Pakistan and likewise. Peace, security, and stability are inextricably intertwined between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: How is China dealing with internal opposition regarding its CPEC investments in Pakistan?

Hussain: On May 14 and 15, at the One Belt, One Road summit organized by Xi, Sharif had a high-power delegation including the chief ministers of all provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Two of these provinces have opposition governments -- not the same as the federal government -- and they were also onboard. So that shows a broad consensus in Pakistan that CPEC is good for the country and CPEC will resolve economic and infrastructure issues.

It is a boom at a time we need investment, and because of CPEC Pakistan has seen the highest growth in 10 years, mainly 5.3 percent, which was demonstrated in 2017. We expect it will be 6 or 7 percent in the next one or two years. So CPEC is seen clearly by the major political forces, the parliament, and also the parliamentary committee on CPEC that I chair as the way forward.

In the belt and road initiative, CPEC is the flagship project, and two of its projects have already been completed ahead of time.

RFE/RL: While China rejected the recent Pentagon report’s claim that Beijing is likely to seek military bases inside longstanding ally countries like Pakistan, do you see any possibility in the long term given the rapidly changing geostrategic alliances in the region and the desire of both to balance rising Indian power in the region?

Hussain: This report is baseless, absolutely speculative. We have strategic relations with China for the past 50 years. The question of Chinese bases in Pakistan does not arise. The Pentagon report is like the pot calling the kettle black because the United States has already surrounded China with almost 400 bases and other installations in Asia, and Pakistan is certainly not in this game of hosting their bases and neither has China ever asked Pakistan for bases.

RFE/RL: Do you see China as willing to include India in its CPEC investments in Pakistan?

Hussain: CPEC is all about the region, which includes Pakistan’s neighbors whether they are Iran or Afghanistan, and we have also said to India that they should be part of the process. But India is the only country in the region that did not take part in the belt and road initiative. So India’s participation, for the time being, is ruled out.

RFE/RL: How dependent is Islamabad currently on Chinese military hardware?

Hussain: We have multiple sources of defense equipment. China is one of our old partners, and China helps in the coproduction of defense equipment [like the] JF-17 fighter plane after America imposed sanctions on the F-16 plane.

Pakistan has equipment from the United States, Britain, France, and China, and we also try to buy Russian defense equipment. Pakistan has one of the most well-equipped and advanced defense production facilities in the third world.

Maliha Amirzada is a correspondent for Radio Mashaal.