Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif began a six-day official visit to China on Monday in an attempt to shore up support for his country in the ongoing crisis with India over Kashmir. Sharif made the trip on the invitation of China's Premier, Zhu Rongji, and was scheduled to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and parliamentary leader Li Peng after holding in depth talks with the Premier concerning the Kashmir situation and economic and military cooperation between the two countries.
Sharif's visit to China, the second this month by a high level Pakistani official, comes in the midst of Pakistan's growing international isolation over the Kashmir dispute. The United States recently broke with its traditional neutrality in the Pakistan-India divide over Kashmir and called for Pakistan to withdraw its troops from the Indian claimed portion of the territory. Pakistan has however, held fast to its claim that it has no troops in Kashmir and that insurgents in the area are freedom fighters battling for Kashmir's right of self-determination. But Pakistan has so far been unable to convince key international players of its position. A meeting of G8 leaders in Cologne -- while failing to directly confront Pakistan -- called for a withdrawal from Kashmir of the "infiltrators" in what was widely viewed as a condemnation of Pakistan's role in the conflict, according to a June 20 BBC report.
Despite a recent series of American negotiation efforts in the conflict, the hard-line taken by the United States has not forced a capitulation from Pakistan, which considers the U.S. perspective "narrow," according to a June 28 Agence France Presse report. The support for India shown by America and key industrial countries, has serious repercussion for Pakistan. Not only is international opinion essential for what has become as much a propaganda war as a military conflict; but Pakistan depends on financial assistance from western donor countries. According to a June 16 BBC analysis by Alastair Lawson, Pakistan has significantly less money to spend on the conflict -- estimated to have already cost Pakistan $4 billion -- and as a result of the 1998 imposition of U.S. sanctions following Pakistan's nuclear test, is in danger of defaulting on its foreign debt. And the Washington Post reported Sunday that the United States could use its influence on the IMF to hold up a $100 million loan to Pakistan should Pakistan not heed U.S. advice in this situation.
While support for Pakistan has been forthcoming from several smaller countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has yet to receive support from a power with regional clout. So Pakistan will look to garner support this week from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which began its annual meeting Monday in Burkina Faso. According to Pakistan's The News, the OIC is scheduled to vote on a draft resolution "expressing solidarity with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and support for the just struggle of Kashmiri people for their fundamental Human Rights including the right of self-determination."
China and Pakistan have had a friendly relationship for the past several decades and China is Pakistan's largest supplier of military aid. The two countries have been largely united in their opposition to India. China shares a border with both India and Pakistan and it occupies a portion of Kashmir previously administered by Pakistan. India accuses China of occupying some 20,000 square miles of its territory. In fact, China and India went to war in 1962 over this disputed region. Furthermore, India accuses China of supplying Pakistan with the technology and materials to build nuclear weapons.
But China has so far maintained its distance in the latest Kashmir dispute. Although China reaffirmed its friendship with Pakistan during a June 10 visit by Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, China shortly thereafter reestablished long frozen ties with India and pledged itself to future cooperation with India.
Based on the timing of China's decision to warm relations with India, it could be construed that China is sending a not-so-subtle message concerning its desire to be supportive of India, a country whose regional economic and political strength is something China cannot ignore. However it could also be the case that China is attempting to play the role of regional powerbroker, remaining semi-aloof and diplomatic in the affair.
A report in Monday's Times of India suggests that China may have vested interests in becoming the peace-broker in the conflict and not siding directly with Pakistan. According to the Times, China faces unrest from Muslims in its Xinjiang Uighur province and is reluctant to sponsor Muslim "militants" fighting for what is regarded as self-determination. Also, according to the Times, China does not desire international -- specifically U.S. -- mediation in the conflict and fears that such mediation "may eventually lead to foreign interference in China's own troubled spots like Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan."
Sharif however remains optimistic of what a statement from Pakistan's Foreign Ministry web-site calls Pakistan's "time tested" and "all-weather friendship" with China. In a statement quoted by Pakistan's official Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), Sharif declared, "We are determined to join hands with our Chinese friends." Although Sharif has said he would "underscore the urgency for a just and final settlement of the Kashmir dispute" in negotiations with China, the trip could be aimed more at broad economic and diplomatic cooperation rather than immediate support for the Kashmir crisis.
As the pressure for peace talks mounts, it is unlikely that China will lend any more support for Pakistan in the Kashmir crisis. According to a report by BBC analyst Jannat Jalil, "China had not offered, nor had Pakistan requested, any support." It seems unlikely that Sharif will pressure China into a more direct offer of support. Rather, the specifics of the visit will perhaps concentrate on the more long-term issue of Pakistan's desire for continued military assistance and economic aid. Pakistan's News Network International (NNI) said Monday that the broad goal of the present visit concerns the two countries' "resolve to enter into 21st century in a strategic partnership." In the light of Pakistan's international isolation and China's own domestic issues, a strategic partnership from China's perspective would most likely preclude direct support for Pakistan in the present Kashmir crisis.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com