Washington just got a golden opportunity to end its decade-long excursion into central Asia and deplete the power of its Pacific rival/banker, all in one fell swoop. The Chinese are seeking bases in the tribal regions of Pakistan, precisely where the U.S. fights its drone war.
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.
This is usually when Pakistan expects the U.S. to freak out over the spread of Chinese power and draw a line in the sand. When the Pakistanis threw a fit over the bin Laden raid, they publicly flirted with letting the Chinese see the wreckage of a secret U.S. stealth helicopter. They hug China close during periodic flare-ups with Washington, pointedly dubbing Beijing an “all-weather friend.”
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. And since the Pakistanis want China to build a naval base on its territory, the Chinese even have leverage to move into the tribal areas. You can expect some thumbsucking think-tank type to lament the decline of American power any minute now.
But if the Chinese really are headed to tribal Pakistan, then — as Chris Partlow once said to Marlo Stanfield on The Wire — this is one of those good problems.
Fighting for a decade in central Asia has a way of obscuring something basic. The center of that war lies in tribal Pakistan, which is battered by U.S. drone strikes, but the U.S. has fought an exhausting war in the larger area that it’s finding difficult to satisfactorily conclude. That gives the Pakistanis a huge amount of leverage to get U.S. aid — and, accordingly, a disincentive to actually fighting terrorism, lest the aid stop when the mission concludes.
This Central Asian preoccupation — 10 years of war that has cost the U.S. hundreds of billions — has redounded decisively to China’s advantage. The U.S. funded its central Asian wars not buy raising taxes, but by borrowing money from China, and it’s only now turning to the problem of how to reduce its crippling debt. Meanwhile, China, the world’s second largest economy, is ever more assertive in the Pacific, and is modernizing its military with its first stealth jet and anti-ship missile. (Although the U.S. is way more militarily powerful.)
Taken together, all this has U.S. policymakers declaring America’s long excursion in the Mideast and South Asia to be a distraction worth concluding in order to refocus on the vital Asia-Pacific region.
And here come the Chinese, ready to take on two birds with one stone.
Think about it. The Chinese entangle themselves in a region where the U.S. found itself exhausted in an inconclusive effort. Since it’s China’s backyard, the domestic and internal military pressures to keep fighting there will likely be great. China can batter the residual terrorist presence in tribal Pakistan — its brutal Army will kill U.S. enemies as well as its own, if history is any indication — and also experience the pleasures of dealing with Islamabad, selling it weapons, and being responsible for Pakistani security. Surely Beijing will enjoy an intransigent ally that rejects its advice while keeping its money. And if China really wants a larger role in global affairs, tribal Pakistan is the most advantageous place for the U.S. to pass the baton.
And since Pakistan often says it wants the U.S. to leave it alone, let’s see how it enjoys taking yes for an answer, and losing its American aid. The U.S. can still launch drone strikes into Pakistan as insurance — as it keeps for itself drone launchpads like Jalalabad or Kandahar during and after the Afghanistan troop withdrawals. Surely the Chinese will be generous patrons, since they’re rich and they like funding infrastructure.
Meanwhile the U.S. can draw closer with India — the subcontinent’s economic, technological and military superpower, which both Pakistan and China distrust — and its Southeast Asian friends like South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Singapore and increasingly Vietnam. The U.S. doesn’t even have to wage a cold war with China. It just needs to let the Chinese have the bases it says it wants in an armpit of the globe, covering our withdrawal from it.
Speaking of that cold war, there are many, many people in the U.S., China and Pakistan that want to see it proceed, whether out of paranoia or shortsightedness. From Washington’s perspective, a China-Pakistani alliance is a godsend, allowing the U.S. to cease its expensive, bloody Great Game in South Asia and letting a new player compete for a dubious prize. In the words of The Wire’s other great strategist, Marla Daniels: You cannot lose if you refuse to play.
Photo: Pakistan Defense Blog