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August 7, 2020

Future economic diplomacy


August 7, 2020

Plutarch once remarked, “Prosperity is not an accurate scale – adversity is the only balance that weighs friends”.

If we use this scale to calibrate the loyalty, sincerity and commitment of our friends, China ticks all the boxes. Understanding our national development needs, President XI Jinping, in 2013, made the CPEC offer that Pakistan accepted with gratitude. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has so far made steady progress. It’s original investment value in 2013 was $46 billion but current forecasting figures show that it will exceed $100 billion in 2025 and $150 billion by the year 2030.

Pakistan’s other powerful friend, the US, gave around $8 billion during the 1980s and promised $18 billion for 2002-11 – but transferred less than 50 percent of that. If we add all financial transfers that the US has so far made to Pakistan, the total amount remains well under $20 billion. But, to receive this amount, Pakistan’s material loss, only during the last two decades, has exceeded $100 billion – let alone the loss of over 70,000 precious lives whilst fighting the US war in Afghanistan and other armed conflicts in the region.

The US administration is not happy with Pakistan receiving the Chinese investment on CPEC – despite the fact that President Xi hasn’t demanded of Pakistan to fight any armed conflict alongside China. The US State Department is constantly urging Islamabad – pressuring at times – to withdraw from CPEC and instead opt for opaque US development solutions.

It has been a daunting task for Islamabad’s security mandarins, and practitioners of economic statecraft at MoFA and MEA to maintain the strategic wedge between a coercive ally saying “you’re with us or...”, and a benign neighbour that has stood firm with Pakistan in adversity. More than 220 million Pakistanis unanimously agree that China has proved it’s true friendship by standing with them on key issues like Kashmir, FATF, counterterrorism, regional security, national progress/prosperity, and CPEC.

There is a national consensus in Pakistan that CPEC is indispensable to the nation’s future, and staying sturdy alongside China is essential for the fruition of CPEC. We are obliged to demonstrate a fullest trust and confidence in our tested friend – the rest all is fiction.

After having extensive interaction in recent years with senior Chinese officials, I have arrived at the conclusion that Islamabad can no longer afford its long-pursued diplomatic ambivalence – oscillating between Washington and Beijing.

The current Pakistani political leadership will have to pick sides on the amaranthine principle of ‘in pursuit of national interests’. In this age of strategic uncertainty, staying with tested friends will guarantee our progress, stability and security. But to achieve that, Pakistan will have to clearly define and diligently pursue for the next ten years (2021-2030) what I regard a grand strategy for ‘Security through Prosperity‘ (STP).

I would first like to refer to the recent policy statements made by two most important members of US President Trump’s defence/security team – Secretary of Defense Mark Esper; and the CENTCOM chief, General Kenneth McKenzie.

General McKenzie, while making his Posture Statement on US NDS (National Defense Strategy) before the House Armed Services Committee, on March 10, focused on the challenges facing the security and defence of the Middle East and South Asia. He alluded to Iran as an existential threat in the region. He reassured that the security of Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea was being looked after well by US NAVCENT in Manama (Bahrain), USAF in Al-Udeid (Qatar), and the US Joint Task Force at Camp Lemonnier (Djibouti).

General McKenzie also expressed concern over China’s fast growing sphere of influence in the Arabian Sea – both commercial and military. He boasted that 90,000 troops under his command and two aircraft carriers – USS DD Eisenhower and USS HS Truman – were good enough to counter the maritime security challenges posed by Russia, China, and Iran. What a lofty claim.

Mark Esper, on completing his first year at the Pentagon, presented on July 21, his vision for the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific region and the US regional allies – Japan, India, Down Under, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. He summed up his vision in three points: preparedness; strengthening partnership with allies; and promoting a networked region. He emphasised that the US shares it’s values, history and economic ties with regional allies and partners. He bragged about three US aircraft carriers – USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz – calling them as bulwark against China’s militarism in the South China Sea and further to the Pacific Ocean. How complacent?

By setting up a naval base at the Port of Doraleh in Djibouti – the PLAN (PLA-Navy) has secured its greater maritime interests from the Gulf of Aden to the Suez Canal. This futuristic move by the CMC (Central Military Commission) has safeguarded China’s commercial and military interests even beyond the next decade.

What China needs now – and which I’m sure the CMC/PLAN leadership is already planning – is to enhance its naval presence in the Persian Gulf. By acquiring commercial rights in Gwadar, under the CPEC banner, China has already anchored deep and firm in the Arabian Sea. Before completion of the planned highways and railways from Kashi to Gwadar, China needs to set up key naval bases in the Persian Gulf. Starting from the Gulf of Oman (Arabian Sea) to the northern terminus of the Persian Gulf – there are eight seaports that are of immense strategic significance.

China needs to set up at least four major naval bases in the Gulf. In this regard, Pakistan and China should form a joint naval/maritime force – PPRNF (PN-PLAN Regional Naval Force) – to ensure smooth running of CPEC operations beyond 2030. Iran must be invited to join as the PPRNF‘s founding member to ensure that all friendly commercial vessels are operating safely and freely through the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean – as guaranteed by Article 87 (1)a of the UN Freedom Of Navigation law of 1982.

To safeguard the commercial and maritime interests of IPP-RNF (Iran-PN-PLAN – RNF) in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea (through Suez Canal), Turkey should also join as a founding member of this maritime regional force. After Turkey has joined, this will become TIPP-RNF. Further to that, it’s quite likely that Russia becomes a member of the elite TIPP-RNF club, to benefit commercially as well as militarily – vis-a-vis it’s Eastern Mediterranean fleet. As soon as that happens, the TIPPR-RNF will become a formidable force by 2030, protecting the commercial rights of its members and ensuring their maritime security.

Instead of wasting precious time and energy on India through silly verbal confrontation and war of words, we should be proactive. We have the nuclear weapons, effective means to deliver them, and our NCA/SPD are fully trained/capable. If there was any strategic depth in Modi’s India, the Pentagon would have rescued India’s Northern Command at Doklam (2017) and Pangong (2020).

Now we need a wider and prescient vision for 2020s – in order to take CPEC from Gwadar to the Horn of Africa, and to the Mediterranean, through the Red Sea. For this, we need to launch a comprehensive and far reaching programme for modernisation, up-gradation and expansion of the Pakistan Navy. While we plan and launch the PN expansion/modernisation, we must include Iran and Turkey in an interoperability realm.

We as a nation-state, should stick to CPEC and see how we can benefit optimally from the China-Iran $400 billion investment. That said, a natural Pak-China-Iran triangle is a true embodiment of Victor Hugo’s eschat –“No force can stop an idea whose time has come”.

The writer is a London-based analyst on South Asian and Middle Eastern security.