The Dragon and the Pachyderm

August 28, 2010 at 9:07 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , )

Pakistan is in dire straits, literally and figuratively. Things didn’t always go well for Islamabad and they haven’t been well for a long time. Pakistan has been in the middle of some quite unstable regions of the world but it has also itself to blame for much of that instability and tension.

The concept of Pakistan is one of the strangest to come out of the decolonization process. Like many African failed states Pakistan is not a nation; never to have existed before, never to have fought before, its citizens patriotism grounded on religion and geopolitics alone. This is not a good recipe for success and Pakistan’s shameful economic underperformance when compared to other emerging nations is proof. If true that many new states such as Canada or Australia thrive in spite of their weak national identity and historical precedent, it is also true that states such as these are more the exception than the rule. Pakistan like many African or Latin American countries, is devoid of any collective memory or administrative tradition that can hold the state together in times of need. Everything about Pakistan seems the product of arbitrariness: from the shape of its borders, the location of its capital, the composition of its people, the form of its government or the very name of the country. Nothing was organically constructed, all of the country’s features having been decided on the negotiating table and implemented top-down in a megalomaniac social engineering endeavour. The economic performance of Australia and Canada is mostly due to small populations living in wide resource rich territories and an ethnic population largely made up of protestant Europeans with their productive mentality. Pakistan is the paradigmatic example of the planet’s general opposite, a weberian insult in name as well as in essence.

After so many decades of political instability and military defeats, Pakistan won’t disaggregate now, but the light national coherence that Islam, the military establishment and Pakistan’s geopolitical allies provide, can only help it to a certain extent. Many analysts of Yugoslavia would look at Pakistan and call it a disaster waiting to happen. The past few years, one must admit, have been particularly strenuous. America’s tensions with the Islamic world have exposed Pakistan’s inclinations for the sponsoring of terrorism bringing it the contempt of the international community, India’s economic success has left its inferiority complex and Indophobia even more exacerbated, NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan has destabilised the Northwest Frontier Province and brought a home grown insurgency to but a few kilometres from Islamabad, Pakistan’s Afghani strategic depth is all but lost, India backed or otherwise Baluchistan is momentarily rebellious, America’s and Europe’s rapprochement with democratic India has relatively deprived Pakistan of western FDI and reliable sources of technology, the international community’s lobby for a democratic government has given Pakistan a weak and unstable leadership and last but not least the massive floods will demand massive investment, will cause widespread popular discontent and will require decades to recover from.

It is against this backdrop that we must put emerging China at play.

The Indian Ocean rim is the home to what strategists call the shatter-belt: a region of juxtaposed political, economic and strategic interests which a shifting world order is yet to balance. The flow of Persian Gulf oil to the East through the Indonesian straits, to the west through the Red Sea, the regional power politics in the Indian subcontinent, in Eastern Africa, in Indonesia, in the Indochina peninsula and of course, the interests of the external powers. Historically the Indian Ocean rim was never dominated by local powers for the continental character of these polities always made sure that the strategic emphasis was on land disputes and not naval ones. We can thus explain the Arab trade routes stemming from the Arabian Sea, the Ming dynasty’s influence projection armadas and the European colonial empires in modernity. What local naval power there was, was largely confined to coastal rivalries. Then and now, capable fleets are to be found in the Ocean’s northern and north-eastern rims – Australia’s and South Africa’s capabilities being a historical oddity. Indonesia’s big fleet is always poised to act in its own territory being tasked to prevent any insular uprisings. It must also serve as a centripetal counter-weight to regional rivals Malaysia and Australia as well as any potential external force. Africa cannot sustain a naval military establishment and the Middle Eastern states always use their navies with their own regional concerns in mind. This leaves Delhi and Islamabad as the only naval forces prone to project power in the Indian Ocean rim. But Pakistan’s troubles make it unlikely that it will dare challenge India’s primacy any time soon.

Conceivably, only China can now help preserve an anti-India orbit within the Ocean. In addition, there are several indicators that point to a possible Chinese naval deployment in the near future. First and foremost, China is in the process of finishing the infrastructure that will allow it to keep the Indian Ocean from becoming an Indian lake. Facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and perhaps even in Sri Lanka along with plentiful goodwill towards China make sure that Beijing’s vessels can soon be welcomed. China’s recrudescing assertiveness in the South China Sea demonstrates that Beijing is leaving its non interventionist stance, to take a more active role in Asian affairs.

The issue of China’s economic growth is also an important factor since it is not guaranteed that this growth can continue indefinitely. In the case of a slowdown or the bursting of a financial bubble for instance, the Chinese government may face heavy domestic criticism. In this scenario, the more accommodating Chinese foreign policy pundits might find it hard to argue in favour of interdependence and lose ground to the more belligerent pundits – mostly voices within the Chinese military establishment – which favour a hard power approach. In the last few months these voices have been stronger than usual. As has been observed in the past, as far as Beijing is concerned domestic opinion counts more than any other. It is not impossible that the Chinese leadership might put strategic issues in the agenda in order to minimise the popularity loss deriving from economic malaise and in this case Beijing would naturally prefer a smaller challenge like India than the big challenge of the American and Japanese control of the ‘first island chain’ and Taiwan.

In modern times the only external powers to have attempted and failed at projecting power into the Indian Ocean were Japan and the USSR. During World War II Japan was able to go as far as to bomb Darwin and to attack India and Sri Lanka with a carrier task force in the Andaman Sea. The USSR kept a squadron of the Pacific Fleet in the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb with logistical help from local client states and the Vietnamese base of Cam Ranh Bay.  Japan failed because it couldn’t hold off the US Navy while keeping the war going in the west and because it had virtually no allies in the rim. The USSR failed because its supply lines were too long and the American presence too strong for its naval force to have a significant impact. China does not ail from these predicaments: its allies are numerous, the US Navy is otherwise distracted with the Middle East as well as in process of downsizing its assets and India’s navy is not as pervasive as to not be checked by a Chinese rival presence.

Hence the future of a Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean may be closer than expected and the first glimpse the world had with the deployment of a frigate task force to the Somali waters in an anti-piracy mission may be the prelude to something more ‘significant’.


  1. dptrombly said,

    Good post. One quibble – China is still in some trouble geostrategically vis-a-vis India. Access to the Indian Ocean still has to go through Malacca or else passages under the sway of Australia, which, if the recent white paper is any indication, is still very much concerned with maritime geopolitics.

    It’s also worth noting that Japan seems to be rolling back the influence of Article 9 by expanding the requirements of maritime self-defense. They’re opening their first post-war overseas base in Djibouti. So we may be closer to a truly multipolar equilibrium in the Indian Ocean.

    • M. Silva said,

      Multipolarism indeed.

      As for China’s weaknesses: it is precisely because China’s rivals dominate the Indian Ocean and China’s allies cannot balance them by proxy that I believe the Chinese will have to become more involved sooner or later.

  2. Que Me said,

    One thing the Chinese have is money. Their economy is strong and they are spending more and more on ‘defence’ which is scary.

  3. Shameel Baloch said,

    “But Pakistan’s troubles make it unlikely that it will dare challenge India’s primacy any time soon.”

    Are you kidding yourself? Pakistan is always challenging India. It did so in 1998 when it responded with nuclear tests of its own, it did so in 1999 when it had India by the balls in Kargil. It did so again in 2002 when India mobilized for war hoping that it would scare Pakistan into backing down. Pakistan responded by mobilizing for war itself. After an expensive and pointless stand-off, India backed down.

    And what Indian primacy are you talking about? India has a lower standard of living than Pakistan. 700 million Indians live on less than $1 a day.

    You’re an Indian and, therefore, clearly biased against Pakistan.

    • M. Silva said,

      First of all, thank you for your comment.

      I am not Indian and haven’t the slightest clue how you could have inferred such a thing.

      You are right about everything you said; in fact I would go as far as to say that Pakistan’s very raison d’être is to challenge India.

      I was however discussing geopolitical power projection in the Indian Ocean. During the Cold War Pakistan tried to use its navy to somehow check Indian naval primacy. Today however, Islamabad has little resources to spare, to allow its navy to keep doing this.
      Which is why I believe China will have to step in if it wants to prevent India from becoming the undisputed naval power of the Indian Ocean.

      As far as the economy goes, however poor India may be, it still has a much larger budget than Pakistan…

  4. M. Silva said,

    VIEW: Choosing sovereignty over servitude —C. Christine Fair

    What does it mean for a state to be sovereign? Apart from exercising monopoly of force and writ of law more or less homogenously over the state territory, one of the most important elements of state sovereignty is the ability to pay its own bills. While Pakistan is making strides in the former, it has made no progress in the latter

    Pakistanis are outraged by US Ambassador Munter’s reported assertion that the US government is entitled to influence Pakistan’s internal affairs in exchange for US assistance. The US is Pakistan’s largest source of economic support either directly or through international financial institutions. These funds enable the government of Pakistan — if not the state — to survive.

    Pakistanis naturally resent this situation because they have no leverage in Pakistan’s relationship with Washington and thus are beholden to Washington’s diktat. They are right: this funding renders Pakistan answerable to the US taxpayer (e.g. me) rather than Pakistanis (e.g. you).

    But this anger towards Washington is misplaced. Pakistanis should ask why it is that their state — including its massive, nuclear-armed military — requires outside assistance on the scale it does when Pakistan in fact has considerable national wealth.

    Pakistan is not a Somalia. Why is that neighbouring India can pay its way, having transformed itself from an aid-receiving to an aid-granting state, while Pakistan must grovel at the table of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral and bilateral donors? Indeed it is India’s financial success that has drawn global capitals to its doorstep seeking to sell India’s state and central governments weapon systems, surveillance technology, power plants, and other needed infrastructure and commodities needed and demanded by the growing country and its millions. It is India’s growing economic heft that gives it leverage in the strategic partnerships it forges — including those with the US and Israel.

    There is no reason why Pakistan cannot step out of the shadow of its servitude and into the light of sovereignty. After all, Pakistanis are hardworking and proud patriots.

    What does it mean for a state to be sovereign? Apart from exercising monopoly of force and writ of law more or less homogenously over the state territory, one of the most important elements of state sovereignty is the ability to pay its own bills. While Pakistan is making strides in the former, it has made no progress in the latter.

    To free Pakistan of international meddling, Pakistan’s political leaders need only to subject themselves and their patronage networks to an agricultural and industrial tax, a move which Pakistan’s leadership has steadfastly avoided throughout the state’s entire history. Of course, it must improve income tax compliance too.

    Given this refusal to expand its tax net, the state relies upon an admixture of international assistance and punitive and regressive domestic sales and income taxes to pay its bills. Sales taxes are especially regressive because they affect the poor far more than the wealthy. Government servants — whose income tax is deducted from their wages — and other honest income tax payers pay their way while the wealthy agriculturalists and business elite abscond. Bangladesh has a better tax compliance record than Pakistan.

    The sad truth is that Pakistan’s elites –many of whom sit and have sat and will sit in parliament—have chosen to subjugate their country for their own personal accumulation and preservation of wealth. This should be the focus of public outrage: not Washington’s expectation that its massive investment in Pakistan yield some return for the interests of its taxpayers.

    Some readers of this missive may counter that China and Saudi Arabia help Pakistan without such expectations. These cherished myths are rubbish.

    What has China done for Pakistan? It did not help Pakistan in any of its wars with India in 1965, 1971 or the Kargil crisis of 1999, when it took the same line as the US and even India. It did little to help Pakistan in the 2001-2002 crisis with India and it even voted in the UN Security Council to declare Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) a terrorist organisation in 2009 in the wake of the Mumbai terror outrage.

    The roads and ports and other infrastructure that the Chinese are building in Pakistan principally benefit China. Pakistanis are an afterthought. The Chinese obtain contracts on favourable and profitable investment terms, use their own employees, and contribute little to the local economy ultimately to build projects that facilitate the movement and sales of cheap (but also dangerous and poorly crafted) Chinese goods and products into and through Pakistan.

    It is a sad fact that China uses Pakistan for its foreign policy aims as well. It provides Pakistan nuclear assistance and large amounts of military assistance to purchase subpar military platforms in hopes of sustaining Pakistan’s anti-status quo policy towards India. By encouraging Pakistani adventurism towards India, Beijing hopes that India’s massive defence modernisation and status of forces remain focused upon Pakistan — not China. China wants to sustain the animosity between India and Pakistan but it certainly does not want an actual conflict to ensue as it would then be forced to show its hand again — by not supporting Pakistan in such a conflict.

    What about Saudi Arabia? The increasingly broke US citizen provided more assistance to Pakistan’s flood victims than Pakistan’s Islamic, oil tycoon brethren in Saudi Arabia. While the US government has not figured out how to give aid in a way that minimises corruption and maximises benefit, Pakistanis should note that at least the US tries to do so in contrast to Saudi Arabia, which simply abdicates.

    Saudi Arabia does fund madrassas, albeit of a highly sectarian variety. Yet, Pakistan does not need more madrassas. In fact, the educational market shows that Pakistani interest in madrassa education is stagnant while interest in private schooling is expanding. Unfortunately, those madrassas and Islamic institutions that Saudi Arabia does support have contributed to a bloody sectarian divide in Pakistan that has killed far more innocent Pakistanis than the inaccurately reviled US drone programme a thousand times over.

    In short, Saudi Arabia too uses Pakistan to isolate Shia Iran and to promote the dominance of Wahabiism over other Sunni maslaks (sub-sects) and over all Shia maslaks. Pakistan has paid a bloody price for the Saudis’ assistance.

    There is no such thing as “friends” in international relations. Any country will help Pakistan because it expects that doing so will advance its interests, not necessarily those of Pakistan and its citizenry. Pakistan will never be free of the “nok” of donors until it raises its own revenue from its own domestic resources.

    There is another important reason why all Pakistanis should pay local and federal taxes according to their means: it is the bond that ties the governed to the government. When the state extracts taxes from its citizenry, the citizens demand services in return. When the government fails to perform at either local or federal levels, the citizens have the opportunity to vote the miscreants out of office. The incoming elected officials learn, over the course of several electoral cycles, to be responsive to the voters, not dismissive of the same. Within constitutional democracies, payment of taxes is the most important mechanism by which citizens exert control over their government.

    If Pakistanis genuinely want to toss off the yoke of financial servitude and gain a genuine stake in their government, they should stop howling at the US government. Instead, the street power mobilised to support a flawed law and a murderer should be redirected to policy issues that are critical to the state’s survival. And rest assured, financial sovereignty is one such issue.

    The writer is an assistant professor at Georgetown University, Peace and Security Studies Programme. She can be reached by

  5. M. Silva said,

    I warned:

    China Exporting Submarines For Pakistans Nuclear Triad

    From the June 2011 issue of FORCE magazine, an Indian National Security and Defense magazine, comes this remarkable article.

    Pakistan’s efforts to have a sea-based minimum credible nuclear deterrent vis-a-vis India took a significant step forward last month when the state-owned, Wuhan-based China State Shipbuilding Industrial Corp (CSIC) ferried the first Qing-class conventional attack submarine (SSK) to Shanghai to begin a year-long series of sea trials, which is likely to include the test-firing of three CJ-10K submarine-launched, 1,500km-range land attack cruise missiles (LACM) capable of being armed with unitary tactical nuclear warheads. Called the Qing-class SSK, it is a variant of the Type 041A Improved Yuan-class SSK, which is also due to begin its sea trials later this month.

    It is now believed that the contract inked between CSIC and Pakistan early last April (see FORCE April 2011, pages 16-17) calls for the CSIC’s Wuhan-based Wuchang Shipyard to supply six Qing-class SSKs, all of which will be equipped with a Stirling-cycle AIP system and will be able to carry up to three nuclear warhead-carrying CJ-10K LACMs each. The double-hulled Qing-class SSK, with a submerged displacement close to 3,600 tonnes, bears a close resemblance to the Russian Type 636M SSK, and features hull-retractable foreplanes and hydrodynamically streamlined sail. The first such SSK was launched in Wuhan on September 9 last year, and a total of three such SSKs are on order from China’s PLA Navy as well. The AIP system for the Qing-class SSK was developed by the 711th Research Institute of CSIC. R&D work began in June 1996, with a 100-strong team of scientists and engineers led by Dr Jin Donghan being involved in developing the Stirling-cycle engine, while another team led Professor Ma Weiming of China’s Naval Engineering University began developing the all-electric AIP system. The two projects entered the production engineering stage in 2007, with the Shanghai Qiyao Propulsion Technology Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the 711th Institute, becoming the principal industrial entity charged with producing the AIP system. Incidentally, the Qing-class SSK’s all-electric propulsion system is a derivative of a similar system that was developed about a decade ago for the PLA Navy’s six Type 093 Shang-class SSGNs and three Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs.
    For those who got lost in the trade speak, basically China is exporting submarines specifically designed to deliver nuclear weapons. The submarines will be armed with cruise missiles designed, built, and delivered by China to Pakistan intended to launch Pakistan nuclear warheads.

    The most troubling part of this article is that it is very probably accurate. The article is worth reading in full, as it also claims China is giving the Pakistan Navy two Jiangkai I-class Type 054 frigates.

  6. The Devil We Know said,

    […] balance of power in the Indian Ocean rim has been degrading for some time but China’s recent decision to sell submarines to Pakistan threatens to further […]

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