China visits Pakistan as sands shift in the Mideast

The president of China, Xi Jinping, recently visited Pakistan

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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The president of China, Xi Jinping, recently visited Pakistan where he was given a welcome unseen by any global leader. The reason: President Xi came bearing gifts of $46bn-worth of investment in the country. To put the figure into perspective, it amounts to almost three times the total foreign direct investment received by Pakistan since 2008.

The money will go primarily towards building a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking the western Chinese region of Xianjiang to Gwandar port in Balochistan, south-west Pakistan, through a network of highways, railways and pipelines. China already effectively controls Gwandar port - one the most important deep sea water ports in that part of the world. But if the scheme succeeds, it may well raise the port’s prominence in international commerce and affect some of the established international trade routes, for example, affecting the volume of trade through the Straits of Malacca.

In effect, Pakistan will become well and truly entrenched in the Chinese sphere of influence

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

But quite apart the effect on international trade, this will give China easy direct access to the Indian Ocean and change the geopolitical dynamics of the region. For one, this will allow China to direct its trade away from waters controlled by its regional rival, India. This constitutes a coup for both the Chinese and for Pakistan, both of whom are aligned against India’s regional ambitions.

China’s influence in Pakistan

For another, this will entrench China’s influence in Pakistan. Already China is probably the only country in Pakistan that is trusted by all sectors in society. They can almost do no wrong, and with the new investment, potentially also boosting the local economy will only add to that. What it may also do is make Pakistan effectively economically dependent on this new, Chinese-built and -maintained infrastructure. In effect, Pakistan will become well and truly entrenched in the Chinese sphere of influence.

This at a time when the war in Afghanistan is dying down, and the U.S. is expected to be less involved in, and concerned about, Pakistani affairs. And as far as most people in Pakistan are concerned, not a moment too soon. The U.S. which is hugely distrusted in the country, and its policy on drone strikes, for example in the Swat Valley, has made it difficult even for natural supporters of the West to defend U.S. interests and concerns in the country.

This realignment away from the U.S. and towards China will have huge implications for Pakistan and the wider region. For one, it enhances China’s soft power and global influence. It may also, before too soon, completely redraw the map of the Middle East. For another, it may have unpredictable consequences for the U.S.’s relationship to the Muslim world, and its fight against violent jihadism and terrorism.

Power dynamic

Pakistan had been one of the staunchest U.S. allies in the Cold War. And in conjunction with the Saudi alliance, and the open hostilities with Iran, this meant that the U.S. had been traditionally allied with the dominant Sunni powers, with very little positive interaction with Shiite powers. Much of the recent history of the Middle East has been predicated on this power dynamic.

But now this is shifting rapidly. Pakistan will be out of the picture for U.S. interests soon enough. It is unlikely that the U.S. will maintain any kind of further interest in Afghanistan once they successfully retreat from the region. And now we are seeing the U.S. allied with the Shiite-administered Iraq at war against Sunni ISIS, and in effect fighting alongside Shiite Iran and even Shiite Syria.

For now the Saudi alliance endures, even as relations with Egypt and even Israel have been increasingly strained. And it is not clear that the U.S. has any understanding or comprehension of the seismic shifts that are taking place in the region. It is not clear anyone, certainly anyone in Western diplomatic circles, does.

And right now only one thing is clear. If these shifting sands ever settle, we have no idea what the region will look like. But what remains paramount is to make sure that we in the West, U.S. and Europe, do all we can to make sure that nuclear weapons do not get added to the mix. Pakistan must be kept out of wars, Iran must be brought into the international fold, and the Saudis must be persuaded to abandon talk of pursuing a nuclear program of their own.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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