August 15, 2011

China Spying Pakistani Opening

The events were so synchronized that a conspiracy immediately jumps to mind. Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), doesn’t have much credibility these days, either with foreign governments or its own people. The U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout created two equally unpalatable choices: the agency-within-a-state knew of his presence in Abbottabad, or else was ignorant of a suspicious compound outside the Pakistan Military Academy.

Linked with many insurgent and separatists groups across South Asia, the ISI has made itself into a conspiracy magnet by regularly operating in Jammu and Kashmir, Balochistan and Afghanistan.

The latest attack in Kashgar, an oasis city in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, appears a simpler matter of geopolitics, only with the twist of bin Laden thrown into China and Pakistan’s relationship. As Pakistani officials usually do after an attack claimed by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha boarded a direct flight to Beijing to express Islamabad’s “full support” against terrorism. ETIM’s sources remain questionable; some observers believe the group fronts for Beijing in order to solidify Xinjiang’s takeover and keep the U.S. at bay. The more probable explanation is that Beijing uses the group, which bases itself out of Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), to slander the indigenous Uyghur movement and their legitimate grievances against the Chinese state.

On top of political and economic marginalization, Uyghurs in Kashgar and Ürümqi, the regional capital, are witnessing rapid destruction of their heritage sites.

Attacks claimed by ETIM fighters normally allow Islamabad and Beijing to reaffirm their “all-weather” relationship, especially the political and military spheres. Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, praised Pakistan for its “outstanding contribution to battling terrorism,” a line that would surely provoke laughter (and anger) in Washington and New Delhi. This time, though, the situation was cut more black and white. Contrary to the total meltdown in U.S.-Pakistani relations following Abbottabad, Pakistan and China have reached a zen-like state of geopolitical alignment in South Asia.

As if to demonize them for being so close, U.S. officials have now revealed that Islamabad allowed Chinese engineers to access the downed helicopter from bin Laden’s raid. After qualifying themselves with “probably,” one official says that Washington was “certain” of an exchange after intercepting the invite to Beijing. The official, billed as “close to the CIA,” said the White House, “explicitly asked the Pakistanis in the immediate aftermath of the raid not to let anyone have access to the damaged remains of the helicopter,” adding this “doesn't make us happy.”

While revenge has obviously been served to Washington through its main competitor, sharing military technology isn’t a new activity between Pakistan and China. Having exploited the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to secure its initial nuclear stockpile from Beijing, a dying gift from Mao Zedong, Islamabad entered into joint-production to create many of its fighter aircraft, tanks and artillery. So it’s not surprising that Islamabad would return the favor after being floated by China’s technological and industrial supremacy. U.S. officials claim that Beijing’s engineers returned with samples of stealth helicopter’s skin and other wreckage, which could be of great value in China’s high-tech race against America.

Nevertheless, the revenge angle poses a basic question on the future of Pakistani-Chinese relations. Beijing is already taking over Pakistan in typical Chinese fashion: with patience. As Washington wakes up every day wondering which way Islamabad will lean - President Barack Obama’s national security council is now discussing its latest response - Pakistan’s all-weather relationship with China hums in the background. Economically speaking, trade between the two countries has risen to $8.7 billion on the way to a higher goal.

“Our trade at the moment is nine billion U.S. dollars, we want to enhance it to 15 billion U.S. dollars with the expansion of two years, and this is doable,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, who toured China with Premier Wen Jiabao in May. “We are moving in the right direction.”

Pakistan is currently America’s 57th largest trading partner, at $5.4 billion in total goods traded during 2010. Meanwhile Beijing is busy building up Pakistani cities, notably Gwadar, in a long-term strategy to gain coastal and oil access.

Some observers doubt that China can bear America’s load if military/economic aid was completely severed, but Beijing may be able to scrounge up $5-7 billion in strings-free bills. For now the Chinese have been content to let Washington do the heavy lifting, yet this arrangement would quickly react to a U.S. vacuum. The overarching question, given Pakistan and China’s long-standing history, is whether bin Laden’s raid produced a strategic shift. For many years U.S. policymakers claim to have learned from history’s mistakes, pledging not to abandon Pakistan after Afghanistan’s latest war finally ends.

Has Islamabad finally concluded that its servile relationship Washington must be terminated, to be phased out over an extended withdrawal? Is Beijing preparing to exploit a ripe opportunity? Is sharing the remains of a helicopter mere revenge, or will bin Laden’s raid prove to be a watershed moment in Chinese-Pakistani relations, the moment when Beijing decided to takeover from Washington?

All strategic interests point in that direction.

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