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South Asia: Chinese Troops In Pakistan Signal Warming Relationship

Presidents Musharraf (left) and Hu in Islamabad in November (epa) PRAGUE, December 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For Beijing to send ground troops to a foreign country for military maneuvers is sufficiently rare to arouse interest. Is it merely a practical act of military cooperation, or could it reflect a process of increasing Chinese influence and presence in South Asia?

Soldiers wearing the uniform of the Chinese People's Liberation Army are not a usual sight in the Pakistani garrison town of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.

But it became a reality this week as some 200 Chinese soldiers arrived for the "Friendship 2006" counterterrorism exercises with Pakistani units.

Hu-Musharraf Prelude

It is one of the few occasions that Beijing has sent ground troops -- as opposed to peacekeeepers -- to a foreign country. It also comes just weeks after visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed on closer military cooperation.

As independent security analyst Rizvi Hasan-Askari puts it, the joint exercise has both military and political significance.

"Both sides can learn from each other, especially Pakistan, because the Chinese have wide experience of warfare in mountain areas where the terrain is difficult, and also of military action in snowbound areas," Hasan-Askari says. "And Pakistan can learn these techniques from them, and also give [the Chinese] some of the techniques they have developed over the years within Pakistan. So it's a mutually beneficial exercise."

Any extra expertise on operating in difficult terrain is sure to be welcomed by the Pakistani Army. Islamabad is under constant criticism from Afghanistan over its failure to clear their wild border area of Taliban insurgents and Al-Qaeda terrorists.

Hasan-Askari says that politically the joint exercises are significant because they signal the growing relationship between Pakistan and China -- particularly in defense and security issues.

He notes that the two countries have been cooperating militarily since 1966, but that joint exercises only began in 2004, when Pakistani troops visited China for the first time. The current exercises are the follow-up to that occasion.

Strategic Context

Behind the immediate military and political considerations, there is the larger question of strategic aims.

While Pakistan has long been closely allied with China, India in recent years has been moving toward the United States.

Senior security analyst Christian Le Miere of Jane's information organization, says there seems to be a growing polarization of South Asia between India and the United States on the one hand, and China and Pakistan on the other.

"If we take the nuclear field, for instance, the Indo-U.S. [civilian] nuclear deal which was agreed in 2005 and which has just passed through [the U.S.] Congress, stands in marked comparison with the recent agreement between China and Pakistan to develop Pakistan's [civilian] nuclear industry," Le Miere says.

But Le Miere says that this tendency toward bipolarization is "somewhat tempered" by India's recent further rapprochement with China, which blurs the lines of any neat theory of alignments. There is also the fact that Pakistan has emerged as an ally of the United States in the war on terror.

Illustrating India's growing links with China, President Hu and Indian leaders agreed in November to aim at doubling their already high level of trade by 2010. Hu also called for New Delhi and Beijing to go beyond that and develop a strategic partnership.

International Concerns

Analysts do not foresee that India will be troubled by the presence of People's Liberation Army troops on Pakistani soil.

At an opening ceremony for these exercises, Chinese commander Major General Liu Ming Jiang went out of his way to emphasize that: "The exercise will not be directed against any third party. It will not threaten the interests of another country."

But Le Miere says much depends on how far things advance in future.

"If it develops into a firmer security alliance between Pakistan and China whereby any conflict involving India and Pakistan would lead to Chinese involvement, that would be of concern to New Delhi."

Turning to the question of whether closer military cooperation with China might compromise Pakistan in human rights terms, analyst Hasan-Askari says he does not believe so.

For instance, just as Pakistan has troubles along its border with Afghanistan, China has difficulties near its border with Pakistan. That's because of the persistent separatist movement by the ethnic Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority living in China's far northwestern Xinjiang Province, bordering Pakistan.

"Pakistan is not involved in that kind of problem, the only thing Pakistan does is that it does not allow the Uyghurs to cross over to Pakistan, in the same way it discourages Islamic militant groups in Pakistan from going over to China. Both countries -- China and Pakistan -- monitor that border carefully so that unauthorized cross-border movement doesn't take place," Hasan-Askari says.

The Chinese troops now in Pakistan will be holding their exercises over the course of the 10-day period that began on December 11.