The USA is withdrawing from Afghanistan without achieving its major strategic aims; one of which was the containment of China. The operation in Afghanistan has cost the USA trillions of dollars and the loss of thousands of soldiers, yet it is withdrawing and leaving behind a trail of destruction in its wake. The stakes of the USA in Afghanistan were very high; nothing short of ruling the world in the next century. The main contender for the top slot, China, was observing very closely every step the USA was taking in Afghanistan. While the USA was busy spending trillions of dollars in the pothole of ‘graveyards of empires’, China was steadily making headway in every field from economy to technology and emerging as a new superpower.
Some economists are predicting that China has already become the global powerhouse economically, and is expected to surpass the USA as the world’s biggest economy by 2025. Militarily, China is still lagging but with increased spending on weapons technology, especially in its Naval power, it’s a matter of time that China can project its military might as well. The development of military bases in the South China Sea and the standoff between India and China in the Himalayan region proved that China is ready to flex its muscles at any time to safeguard its strategic interests.
The USA is in no mood to take this lying down and leave the superpower status without giving a fight. Though she has to leave Afghanistan in sheer humiliation, yet is trying to achieve its strategic aim of containment of China through other means. The Philippines has provided the urgently needed space to the USA and has shocked the world by restoring the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the USA. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in the presence of USA Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had formally announced the decision of restoration of VFA in a joint press conference held last Friday, 30th July 2021. The VFA is an agreement that allows the USA military aircraft and vessels free entry into the Philippines and operates from the Philippines. Restoration of the VFA is being considered a big move in the region and a signal to China of a renewed commitment of the USA for denying the dominance of the South China Sea to China, through which as much as $3.3 trillion in global trade passes annually.
China’s claim to the South China Sea within its famous Nine Dash Lines saw a blowback when China lost a landmark arbitration case at the International Tribunal at the Hague where the court ruled it as invalid. Besides, the USA has time and again made it clear that it does not accept China’s hegemony over the South China Sea and has offered all kinds of help to countries that have maritime territorial disputes with China. This is a clear and dangerous threat to China as the majority of its oil and gas supplies pass through the South China Sea that is crucial for China to run its industrial base. As a result, the Chinese see the South China Sea as essential to their survival; the thing is it is important to other neighboring countries including the USA as well. That’s why this whole dispute is not going away in foreseeable future. Rather its militarization and escalating war games between two of the world’s largest militaries is making experts believe that chances of confrontation are more likely than ever.
In addition to the maritime frontiers dispute, China also has land border disputes with powerful and competing neighboring countries like Russia and India thus making China vulnerable from that side as well. Another problem China is facing is that the major areas that are generating wealth for China are the handful of Eastern and Southern Provinces, whereas the Central and Western Provinces have lagged far behind in progress. Average annual incomes in the Western region remain much below the national average. Therefore, China has ramped up incentives to develop Central and Western China. However, feeding these areas through the South China Sea becomes a logistic nightmare.
Faced with these challenges, China started planning to expand its strategic space by heading West. Here comes the importance of the Pak-China relationship. Pakistan can serve as a crucial bridge as well as an alternate supply route between China and Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, from where China buys the bulk of its energy needs. This is why China is willing to pour vast amounts of resources into the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Likewise, Pakistan has realized that the USA has always been a fair-weather friend and has always dumped her at crucial junctures; whereas China has always given high strategic importance to Pakistan in its economic and military development. Military relations between China and Pakistan date back to the early 1960s and remain strong, as both countries view India as a regional rival. In recent years China has emerged as the main supplier of military hardware to Pakistan and the two countries have cooperated in the development of several weapon systems, such as the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet. A recent Pew Research Centre surveying the public opinion shows that 84 percent of the Pakistani people held a positive view about China, compared to 16 percent for the USA.
Lastly, the development of Gawadar port, as a part of the CPEC project, along with the development of Special Economic Zones and Gwadar Oil Terminal City is a step in the same direction where China can ensure that she can counter China’s containment policy of the USA. In addition to the alternative energy supply route, Gawadar can also provide China with a crucial naval presence in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf if and when China decides to project military power in this region so that uninterrupted energy supply for its industrial base is ensured. CPEC thus can safeguard China’s regional, as well as global interest by providing a land route that can guaranty China’s energy and trading needs are met, even if the access to the South China Sea is blocked by rival powers.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Manchester, UK. [email protected]