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Pak Army Chief in China: Between US-India Ties & Beijing, Bajwa Is on Thin Ice

No one likes a debtor, especially when it starts to court someone else.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Pak Army Chief in China: Between US-India Ties & Beijing, Bajwa Is on Thin Ice
i

Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa is in Beijing, being photographed with General Zhang Youxia, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission of China, which is a nice thing at any time for the Army Chief of a small, rather shaky country. It's even nicer, however, when the Army Chief concerned is reeling under a ‘Twitterstorm’ of #BajwaHasToGo , which accuses him of being a US stooge.

It could be coincidental. This storm began shortly after the Chief, while responding to a question on the relationship with China, said that Pakistan did not follow ‘camp politics’ and that 'the best' weapons were from the US. That couldn’t have gone down well with China, already uncomfortable with Islamabad’s inability to pay its dues. No one likes a debtor, especially when it starts to court someone else.

Snapshot
  • Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Bajwa recently met General Zhang Youxia, even as he is reeling under a ‘Twitterstorm’ of #BajwaHasToGo , which accuses him of being a US stooge.

  • China is already uncomfortable with Islamabad’s inability to pay its dues. No one likes a debtor, especially when it starts to court someone else.

  • General Bajwa swore ‘rock solid’ backing of China, no matter how the international situation changes, even as reports noted Chinese unhappiness with attacks on its nationals in Pakistan.

  • The meeting takes place at a time of a solid US ‘Indo-Pacific’ outreach, even as Australia alleged a dangerous interception by Chinese aircraft of its own warplane on a recce mission.

  • Recent reports noted clashes between Pakistan army personnel and locals in Gilgit Baltistan, as the government appears to have secretly leased out mineral-rich areas in Hunza to China.

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The Apex Body Meets

The General is in China to head a tri-service body of high-level officers for the meeting of the Pak-China Joint Military Cooperation Committee (PCJMCC). This Apex Committee is the highest body in military cooperation, with two sub-committees that include joint cooperation Military Affairs (JCMA) and Joint Cooperation Military Equipment & training (JCMET). Between these two, it covers almost every aspect of bilateral cooperation, which has been steadily increasing in recent years.

Not that the relationship wasn’t close, to begin with. Way back in the 1970s Pakistani officials claim that they helped China set up a centrifuge plant at Hanzhong in central China, sending “135 C-130 plane loads of machines, inverters, valves, flow meters, pressure gauges”. In return, China gave “15 tons of uranium hexafluoride (UF6)”, a feedstock for Pakistan’s centrifuges that eventually allowed it to test its first nuclear bomb.

Defence Cooperation Perks Up ...

A more intensive relationship may be traced back to the visit of General Wei Fenghe, Minister for National Defence and State Councilor, a top-ranking position after the Vice-Premiers. That visit occurred in December 2020 even as the standoff between India and China at Ladakh continued. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed, whose content was never revealed. But it was speculated that it would involve new intelligence-sharing protocols. Islamabad awarded him the ‘Nishan-e-Imtiaz’, a mark of honour, and announced yet another round of air exercises.

As graphs indicate, Pakistan has increased its buying of Chinese equipment, including the J-10CE aircraft, which the Chinese military spokesman described as correcting the "security imbalance' in the region. He couldn’t possibly be clearer. Pakistan receives other less obvious benefits in its defence capability. Way back in 2018, Pakistan was the only country that was given access to the military service of the Beidou satellite system.

In other words, while US analysts and Pakistani-inspired stories ‘blame’ closer US-India ties for ‘driving’ Islamabad into Chinese arms, the fact is that this predates the whole ‘Indo-Pacific’ relationship by decades.

Certainly, as relations sour with the rest of the world, Pakistan may have suddenly become a bit more valuable.

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… Even as the Economy Runs Down

Alongside all this military gung-ho is the financial embarrassment facing Pakistan. Quite apart from securing a $4.2-billion debt relief in March this year, it has asked for a similar rollover to another $2-billion of deposits from China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) loans. These were meant to provide budgetary support and have been residing in the State Bank books since at least 2016. Oddly, the Pakistan Finance Ministry ‘forgot’ to add these amounts to its total debt, which will now rise to $24 bn the next fiscal year, including International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans of $3 billion.

This is going to make things more than just difficult in terms of convincing the international lender to mark up its lending to the requested $8 billion. With the currency sliding even further to an unprecedented PKR 203 to the dollar, the Finance Ministry has admitted that it may need to “reverse some of the budgetary measures” to secure the IMF’s nod for the budget.

A Munificent Defence Budget

This leads one to the next obvious question: the munificence of the defence budget, which is reported to have gone up by 6.5 per cent. That’s quite a hike. It gets worse when you consider the budget figures reported by Finance Minister Miftah Ismail. The federal government's total expenditure is estimated at Rs 9,502 billion, out of which debt serving will be Rs 3,950 billion. There will be Rs 1,523 billion for defence and Rs 550 billion for civil administration expenses. Rs 530 billion are allocated for pension, which is separate from the defence allocation. Even if the pensions are not taken into account, that’s a huge chunk of total government expenditure (27.43 %) of an already depleted purse.

However, there are some interesting details. Pay and pensions appear to have gone down considerably, rather a different trend from that of India, and receipts from defence at about PKR 30 million are considerable.

Such detailing seems to be on-demand from the IMF. The 2019 budget, for instance, says nothing at all about pensions. In sum, however, if the IMF is going to frown on the increased debt burden, there is a likelihood that defence expenditure will be axed. Budget-driven uncertainty was apparent most clearly in the stock market as it plunged more than a thousand points"

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

That‘s probably where China comes in. Beijing has been far from enthusiastic about a bail-out and has so far refused an increase in the currency swap arrangements from the current $4 billion to about $10 billion. Meanwhile, the statement by the Chinese side isn’t exactly enthusiastic, noting that “China is willing to strengthen communication, reinforce cooperation, deepen pragmatic exchanges with Pakistan, and properly deal with the complicated factors in the regional situation, so as to push the mil-to-mil relations for further development”.

General Bajwa, in his turn, swore ‘rock solid’ backing of China, no matter how the international situation changes, even as reports noted Chinese unhappiness with attacks on its nationals in Pakistan.

The meeting takes place at a time of a solid US ‘Indo-Pacific’ outreach, even as Australia alleged a dangerous interception by Chinese aircraft of its own warplane on a recce mission. Pakistan may be a less-than-muscular ally, but it is a neighbour who could perhaps create a diversion in the east should it become necessary.

But Beijing doesn’t deal in ‘perhaps or maybes’. Recent reports noted clashes between Pakistan army personnel and locals in Gilgit Baltistan, as the government appears to have secretly leased out mineral-rich areas in Hunza to China.

The area is famous not only for its rare gemstones but also for Molybdenum, Niobium, and Neodymium, among other strategic’ resources. As the financial crunch settles in and the mob demands his blood, Bajwa and his men may quite literally find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Pakistan    China 

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