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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 November, 2003, 09:03 GMT
China keeps Pakistan guessing

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

"As close as lips and teeth" is how China always described its ties with its oldest friends. Apart from North Korea, the most frequently quoted example was Pakistan.

But during a visit to Beijing, President Pervez Musharraf has found that Pakistan may no longer be quite such a special friend of its major arms supplier after all.

Like North Korea, it looks like being a victim of China's newfound desire to be friends with almost everyone.

Pervez Musharraf (left) and Hu Jintao
China wants to reassure Pakistan their friendship is still special
In his first day of talks with the new Chinese leadership, General Musharraf had hoped to finalise an agreement for them to help him build a nuclear power plant - the second such facility to be built in Pakistan with Chinese assistance.

But there was no mention of it among the eight agreements signed after his talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday.

Diplomatic sources were quoted as saying that the two sides could not conclude a deal on the nuclear project and that negotiations were continuing.

Perhaps even worse for Pakistan's leader was the news that China is now preparing to hold joint military exercises with his country's arch enemy, India.

The Chinese and Indian navies will conduct joint operations in the Bay of Bengal later this month and their air forces are also considering joint fighter jet operations, according to reports in the Chinese state media.

China and Pakistan did hold unprecedented naval exercises of their own off the coast of Shanghai last month. And Beijing continues to reassure Islamabad that their friendship is "one of a kind".

But Pakistan is worried about the growing warmth of China's relations with India, said Professor Zhu Feng of the School of International Studies at Beijing University.

There is no doubt that General Musharraf's influence over the Taleban - and his presumed ability to help stem the tide of Islamic separatism - make him a friend worth hanging onto for China

"China still takes its traditional ties with Pakistan seriously, but it is trying to soften its old strategic alliance and encourage Pakistan to respond to India's moves towards peace," he told BBC News Online.

"China's original alliance with Pakistan was based on the threat to both countries from India and its allies. But since the end of the Cold War and the events of 9/11 such military alliances have weakened. China is now developing sound and healthy relations with India."

There are already signs that China has become more balanced in its position on the conflict between the two South Asian powers over Kashmir, said Raja Mohan, Strategic Affairs Editor of The Hindu newspaper.

"Over a period of time China will have to factor into its overall stance in the region its growing stakes in its trade, political and military relations with India," he said.

Beijing and Delhi resumed high-level talks last month to resolve their long-running border disputes in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, which led to war in 1962. Beijing media have also ceased to refer to another disputed territory, Sikkim, as being outside India.


And the trade relationship between the two Asian giants has become one of the fastest-growing in the world.

India, for its part, wants to make sure that the flow of nuclear and missile technology that China has allegedly been providing to Pakistan is halted for good.

India would like China to have the same restraining influence on Pakistan that it is now exerting on North Korea, Raja Mohan said.

Beijing has been nudging its old communist allies in Pyongyang towards nuclear disarmament talks with the United States and regional powers, as part of a more positive and engaging foreign policy style adopted by the new Chinese leadership.

China's diplomatic and economic influence is growing and it is no longer acting in a way that is openly confrontational, according to China specialist Michael Yahuda, professor emeritus of international politics at the London School of Economics and visiting scholar at George Washington University.

"It will not abandon Pakistan. It is playing a canny game, seeking to have the best of all worlds - and to a certain extent it is succeeding," he said.

Few observers believe China will apply the sort of pressure on Pakistan over the nuclear issue that it has on North Korea - however much the United States would like it to.

"Pakistan is very different from North Korea", said Jia Qingguo, professor of international relations at Beijing University.

Pakistani navy destroyer Babur
Pakistan's exercises with China show the relationship's strength

In his view, China will continue to maintain its close political and military ties with Pakistan.

After all, he said, other countries such as the United States and Japan are using their close relations with India in the same way, to counterbalance Chinese and Pakistani power.

But China does take concerns about non-proliferation seriously these days, as part of its more open, flexible and co-operative foreign policy, according to Professor Jia's colleague, Zhu Feng.

The deal to help build the latest nuclear plant will probably still go ahead, since it has already been agreed in principle and China has a long history of close military cooperation with Pakistan, he said.

"But China may be slowing things down by insisting on stricter compliance with international safeguards," he said.

Other sources say the whole deal may have stalled because of Chinese alarm at unconfirmed reports of Pakistani nuclear supplies to Saudi Arabia.

There is no doubt that General Musharraf's influence over the Taleban - and his presumed ability to help stem the tide of Islamic separatism - make him a friend worth hanging onto for China.

According to Chinese state television, the Pakistani president vowed on Monday to oppose terrorism as well as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which China accuses of seeking independence for the Xinjiang region in China's north-west.

Xinjiang's Communist Party secretary alleged in September that the group's members have trained in Pakistan and have links to al-Qaeda.

Pakistan, China forge closer ties
03 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
India and China boost relations
23 Jun 03  |  South Asia

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