Questionable Deals in a Volatile Region

October 27, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on October 27, 2008.

Pakistan secured China’s help to build two new nuclear power reactors in mid‐​October, though China declined to commit to helping bolster Pakistan’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves. It seems no coincidence that this nuclear deal comes just a few weeks after the ratification of the long‐​stalled US‐​India nuclear agreement.

One of the more dangerous contingencies that the US‐​India nuclear deal was supposed to avert was an upwardly spiralling arms race between India and Pakistan. Does the China‐​Pakistan nuclear deal imply the emergence of two contending great power blocs in Asia — the US and India on one hand, China and Pakistan on the other? Western policymakers should not hyperventilate — at least not yet. Pakistan and China have always enjoyed warm relations. It is also true that Pakistan and China have typically drawn closer whenever the US and India do the same. It is no accident, therefore, that the Pakistan‐​China summit occurred shortly after the US and India extended their strategic partnership into the nuclear arena.

No one knows where deepening co‐​operation between China and Pakistan over civilian nuclear power might lead. But the strengthening of bilateral military ties between the US and India and between China and Pakistan could create more knots in an already tangled regional security situation. For example, China has invested an estimated US$1.16 billion in the Pakistani port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. The port can handle bulk carriers, and is less than 400km from the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil passes.

In future, if China decides to dock one of its vessels at Gwadar, it would fit within Beijing’s declared effort to extend port access from the South China Sea through the Malacca Strait, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Arabian Gulf.

Those individuals and groups who pushed the US‐​India nuclear deal on the grounds that it would lead to a reduction of tensions in South Asia, or who believed that an alliance of the world’s largest democracies — the US and India — would effectively check China, are likely to be disappointed. India will not play the role assigned to it, meekly bowing to US pressure and balancing a rapidly rising China.

An instance of India’s willingness to disregard Washington’s wishes is New Delhi’s continued warm relations with Tehran. The Indians welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for an official state visit in April, despite complaints from Washington.

One hopes that US lawmakers thought through the complex interplay between Pakistan, India and China as they hurried the US‐​India nuclear deal through Congress this past month. Warnings that tension between India and Pakistan remained high, and could grow worse, were largely ignored.

Lawmakers judged the benefits of the deal would outweigh its risks. But what are the consequences if they guessed wrong?

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