The Skeptics

China in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas?

Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman, relaying a story reported in Asia Times Online, wrote yesterday:

The plugged-in Asia Times Online reports that China wants to set up military hubs in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province. China’s reasoning will sound familiar to American ears: That’s where anti-Chinese terrorists operate. Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa abuts the restive, non-Han Chinese province of Xinjiang, home to ethnic Uighur separatists. With the People’s Liberation Army getting a foothold in tribal Pakistan, the Chinese reason, it can crush separatism, and make sure that terrorist factions can’t hide out across the border.

He continues further down:

The Asia Times Online story smells like a calculated Islamabad leak, especially since it comes on the heels of last week’s demand by Secretary of State that Pakistan cut off its terrorist proxies in the Haqqani Network.

Mr. Ackerman might be on to something. Characteristic of the U.S.-Pakistani partnership, if one can call it that, is its diplomatic one-upmanship. Something similar happened a couple years back when almost immediately after the Bush administration signed a nuclear-energy deal with India, China—which actively assisted the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program—announced it was exporting nuclear reactors to Pakistan and justified its decision on the basis of the U.S.-India deal. As Chris Preble and I wrote many moons ago, “It is also true that Pakistan and China have typically drawn closer whenever the US and India do the same.”

On the one hand, China’s alleged push into Pakistan via a military base in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas seems inconsistent with its sacred policy of noninterference.” On the other hand, China undoubtedly views Pakistan as a means for extending its geopolitical reach into South Asia—voilà, China’s heavy investment in Pakistan’s deep-sea port in Gwadar.

I also am skeptical about the veracity of the Asia Times story in that it is anything more than a calculated leak by Islamabad. But as an aside, Mr. Ackerman makes a telling remark about Washington’s reaction to the scoop: “You can expect some thumbsucking think-tank type to lament the decline of American power any minute now.” Well, we shall see. Many inside the Beltway also claim to want China to act as “a responsible stakeholder.” Let’s see how these same “thumbsuckers” react if and when Beijing starts to stick its stake where Washington doesn’t like.