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Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for the Asia Times.
Do the China-Pakistan pipeline shuffle
From port developments to fighter jet sales, strained US-Pakistan relations are benefiting China.
Last Modified: 27 May 2011 16:34
Gwadar is Pakistan's first deep water port; constructed with Chinese investment it will play a crucial role in moving Middle East oil to energy hungry China for decades to come [EPA]

China is adamant that the West "must respect" Pakistan's sovereignty.

The message was delivered during Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani's recent four-day visit to Beijing, which celebrated no less than six decades of strategic relations - involving, among other issues, nuclear collaboration and support over the ultra-sensitive Kashmir question. 

The Times of India reconstructed the message as a stark warning that: "any attack on Pakistan would be construed as an attack on China."

Chinese diplomacy dwells on too much sophistication for such a crude outburst; but even enveloped in red velvet, the message - in view of the non-stop US drone war over Pakistan's tribal areas, not to mention the "get Osama" raid in Abbottabad - was indeed a bombshell.

Whatever the merit of charges that Islamabad helps some Taliban factions - such as the Haqqani network in North Waziristan - the Pakistani politico-security-military establishment has had enough of being treated by Washington as a mere satrapy, or worse, a bunch of punks.

Pakistani popular opinion, from urban centers to tribal areas, roundly abhors Washington's drone war. And even before the Navy SEALS raid to get Osama the sordid Raymond Davis case was configured as the ultimate humiliation.
 
Davis, a CIA asset, shot two Pakistanis dead in broad daylight in Lahore; an American "extraction team" killed another one who was trying to save Davis from arrest; and then the CIA paid blood money to finally extract Davis out of the country. Sovereignty? What sovereignty? 

Strategic ports

There's frantic spin in the US especially among the right that Pakistan must be taught a lesson because it "harbors terrorists". The mighty conceptual leap would be for these righteous, misinformed, armchair warriors to advocate teaching China a lesson. 

Gwadar is an ultra-strategic deepwater port in the Arabian Sea, in Pakistani Balochistan, not far from the Iranian border and only 520 km away from the hyper-strategic Strait of Hormuz. Beijing financed close to 80 per cent of the construction of the port via the China Harbor Engineering Company Group. The port is currently managed by Singapore. The lease will end soon - and it will go to China.

Islamabad now wants the Chinese to build a naval base at Gwadar. That will be a monster geopolitical earthquake in a crucial node of "Pipelineistan" as well as the New Great Game in Eurasia.

Sleepy (for now) Gwadar has been building up for years as the key node of the IP (Iran-Pakistan) pipeline, which used to be the IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) or "peace" pipeline, before New Delhi got cold feet. For Washington, the prospect of a steel umbilical cord linking Iran and Pakistan has always been anathema.
    
What Washington wants - and has wanted badly since the Bill Clinton years - is the TAP (Trans-Afghan) pipeline, which then became TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India). Even millennial rocks in the Hindu Kush know TAP or TAPI will only be built when the war is over in Afghanistan, with the Taliban an inevitable part of the government.

In this ongoing, epic IP (or IPI) versus TAP (or TAPI) battle, what is never mentioned is that the winner after all may be... China.

New Delhi knows a pipeline crossing Afghanistan is, well, a pipe dream. But still it has not committed itself to IPI - in part because of relentless Washington pressure, in part because it does not trust Pakistan.

China, on the other hand, has already proposed itself for an IP expansion. This means that starting at Gwadar, another pipeline would be built, by the Chinese of course, crossing Balochistan and then following the Karakoram highway northwards all the way to Xinjiang, China's Far West.

Those who have already traveled the spectacular, 1,400 km-long Karakoram highway from Kashgar in Xinjiang, Western China, via the Khunjerab pass to, of all places, Abbottabad in Pakistan, know it for what it is - a graphic example of strategic Sino-Pak collaboration. Further on down the road, Beijing engineering will connect the Karakoram highway with a railway across Balochistan towards Gwadar.

Pakistanis involved with the development of Gwadar love to bill it as the new Dubai. Well, it might as well become Western Hong Kong.

No wonder Beijing's strategic analysts are tasting what could be the geopolitical equivalent of the finest shark-fin soup; the Chinese Navy positioned at the heart of the Arabian Sea, a stone's throw from the Persian Gulf; a great deal of its Middle East oil imports shipped to nearby Gwadar - and then by pipeline or railway all the way to Kashgar; and the Chinese economy profiting from extra gas supplied by Iran and, in a near future, Qatar.  

Keep on truckin'

It's not only China possibly winning a crucial "Pipelineistan" chapter plus an Arabian Sea base to add to its "string of pearls" network. In terms of its AfPak vulnerability, Washington may be contemplating a triple X defeat.   

For obvious reasons the Pentagon cannot use Chinese or Iranian seaports to supply no less than 100,000 US troops, 50,000 NATO troops and over 100,000 private contractors in Afghanistan - legions of mercenaries included - which dabble in over 400 military bases all across the country. Nearly 80 per cent of this monstrous quantity of supplies transit through Pakistan. And that means, essentially, Karachi.

So one cannot imagine the "kinetic military action" (White House copyright) in AfPak without a non-stop serpent of trucks leaving Karachi and entering Pakistan via Torkham or Chaman every single day.

All the stuff Kabul - and the immense Bagram Air Base close by - needs goes through Torkham, at the end of the fabled Khyber Pass. All the stuff Kandahar needs goes through Chaman, in Pakistani Balochistan, not far from Quetta, where Mullah Omar theoretically lives when he's not being pronounced dead by the Pentagon. 

The Pentagon of course could rely on alternative routes such as the interminable Northern Distribution Network (NDN) from Riga in Latvia to Termez in Uzbekistan, which connects via a bridge over the Oxus to Afghanistan. But NDN is not only long but also impractical; it does not allow too much cargo; and the Uzbeks forbid the transport of lethal weapons.  

As for the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, that's only for troops coming in and out, and for storage of jet fuel.

The bottom line is that Islamabad knows the Pentagon simply cannot conduct the AfPak war without the Karachi-Torkham (300 trucks/tankers a day) and Karachi-Chaman (200 trucks/tankers a day) routes delivering like clockwork.

So if you break the balls of the Islamabad establishment to a tipping point and Taliban networks will have a free hand at attacking US/NATO convoys to Kingdom Come. Compare it with Beijing acknowledging Pakistan's "contribution and sacrifices in the war against terrorism".

On message

Beijing actively helped Islamabad's nuclear weapons program. Next August, China will launch a satellite into orbit for Pakistan. Roughly 75 per cent of Pakistan's weapons are made in China. Soon 260 Chinese fighter jets will become the core of the Pakistani Air Force.

Even before Beijing delivered the message that Pakistan's sovereignty shouldn't be messed about, the Pakistani military had already delivered their own message.

It concerned that most photographed rotor of the stealth Black Hawk helicopter that crashed beside Osama Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. The Pakistanis threatened they would let the Chinese tinker with it - and that would certainly yield some ace reverse engineering.

It didn't happen. But still they didn't get the message in a Washington whose leeway over Islamabad is a strategic rent that goes basically to Pakistan's military. If the US congress would cut it - threats abound - there's no question Beijing would be delighted to make up the difference.

Washington may still have a sterling opportunity to get the message next month, when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meets in Astana, Kazakhstan. There's a strong possibility that Pakistan may be enthroned as a full member, upgraded from its current status of observer.

This means, in practice, Pakistan as a member of the still embryonic Asian answer to NATO. An attack on any NATO member is an attack on them all, according to its charter. The same would apply to the SCO. Ladies and gentlemen, draw your conclusions - and start dancing to the sound of the Sino-Pak shuffle. 

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times . His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

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