Monday, August 1, 2011

China-Pakistan: Troubles Ahead? Opportunities for America?

When Americans assess the relationship with Pakistan, one of the motivators for continued engagement is the idea that if the US withdraws, the PRC will step in and that such a development would be bad for US interests in the region. This line of thinking has always stuck MILINT as naive. The PRC has a long established relationship with Pakistan that remains close irrespective of what the US does. Pakistan has enjoyed that unique position of being in the middle of two great powers - a position ripe for manipulation and profit. It has generally played that hand quite deftly. Yet as normality continues to lose its grip in Pakistan, the potential for increased tensions with China exist.

America is having a hard time convincing Pakistan to get its house in order for a variety of reasons: distance (physical, political, cultural), economic crisis at home, comparatively small military footprint WRT Pakistani territory, questionable will to seriously confront Pakistan and so on. China does not have any of those problems. If China assesses that the Islamist threat in its west is getting out of control and emanates from sanctuary in Pakistan, its old ally better look out. The Chinese wont care if its reaction (read: use of force) offends anyone in or outside of Pakistan, it wont be limited to individually targeted strikes against specific high value targets, and it wont stop, for financial, political or moral reasons until the job is done. This is yet another area where US and Chinese interests are coalescing. The question is will Washington grasp the opportunity and use it creatively?

Both China and the US share an enmity towards violent Islamist radicals. The NYT today has a story reacting to the events noted in MILINT
The city said Monday an initial investigation showed members of the group allegedly behind Sunday's attack had been trained in explosives and firearms in Pakistani camps run by the banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group advocating independence for Xinjiang. It offered no proof in the statement on its website. China says the group is allied with al-Qaida.
This presents a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that the Uigher represent a 'repressed minority' and that puts them on a smiliar moral plane as the Tibetans in the eyes of the idealist interpretation of US foreign policy. The opportunity is to balance idealist and realist impulses in US foreign policy for the greater good of US interests, which MILINT would argue resides in working with China against extremism in Pakistan. Does this raise the idea of Chinese COIN in Pakistan, 500,000 troops keeping order on behalf of the 'international community'... not yet. Perhaps never, although stranger things have happened in international relations (eg. support Saddam, attack Saddam). The bigger point is that the US and China might see ways to work together on Pakistan to change its current course. China is there, it has the money, it has endless numbers of boots ready to go on the ground, and the iron will to stamp out radical Islamists. Short term bottom line - the Pakistani's have yet another fire under their feet and if it challenges old relationships to some unknown tipping point then all sorts of possibilities open for others.

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