Byline by M J Akbar: Many degrees of separation
Uncertainty is the chaotic force-multiplier of insecurity. That is the only explanation, if there is one, for a curious statement made by Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani. When Gilani clambers aboard, he does tend to go overboard with a consistency that is clearly becoming a comfort to foes and an embarrassment to friends.
Pakistan's foreign policy is guided by professional diplomats who have, in a sense, no option except to be exceptional, given the scale and continuity of the challenges they face. But when politicians rush into space where diplomats fear to tread, there is a lot of cleaning up to do for the service.
Gilani topped off a four-day visit to China with a claim that will surely enter the history books. Pakistan and China, he said, were "like one nation and two countries". We shall not discuss the fine distinction between nation and country, except to note that the Prime Minister could have easily interchanged the terms without significant loss of meaning in his personal political dictionary. For mere outsiders, a question is inescapable: has Pakistan re-positioned itself as the new Hong Kong?
Beijing has not let us know whether it has accepted this generous offer by the world's most powerful Islamic republic to become an associate member of the world's most important atheist state. But it has given a "back-present" to Gilani of 50 fighter jets, which may or may not be a symbol of shared nationalism.
Perhaps there was a spirit of competitive genuflection in the Gilani delegation. His defence minister Ahmad Mukhtar told media on his return to Islamabad that his government had gifted an entire naval base to China, at Gwadar, on the mouth of the Gulf. His exact words left no room for confusion: "We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar." He added that China had been invited to manage the port's commercial operations as well, despite the fact that a Singapore company has a multi-decade contract for doing so. When Mukhtar gets generous, Singapore become irrelevant.
Similar passion and clarity were missing in the Chinese response. Jiang Yu, a spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, responded with a far less dramatic "...I have not heard of it. It's my understanding that during the [Gilani] visit last week this issue was not touched upon." Since the time of Confucius the Chinese have given us so much wisdom that it is perfectly likely that they, rather than the Americans, warned the world that there is nothing called a free lunch, or indeed a free naval base.
Pakistan has sought to outsource its security from its inception. This was understandable, since fear of a larger neighbour was a logical outcome of partition from India, which could not, and cannot, accept a two-nation theory inspired by the thesis that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together in one country. But the premise has taken a total somersault from what it was in the 1950s. The meaning of security has altered completely. The threat to Pakistan is not India-centric any longer. India has become a status quo-ist power. It will not surrender any part of the geography it possesses, but it does not covet any more land, in Kashmir or elsewhere. India has not engineered the daily havoc that is Pakistan's narrative of 2011. India did not mastermind the attack on the naval base in Karachi. This is the first, but fourth such attack on the Pak navy, and military authorities have picked up and are interrogating their own navy personnel to find out more about previous assaults. Pakistan's crisis emanates from a civil war with organised militias who have launched a "jihad" not only against the United States and India but also against their own homeland in the belief that they can capture power in Islamabad and use the state's assets, including its nuclear capability, for their own ends. Such ends could easily include the "liberation" of China's sole Muslim-majority province, Xinjiang, from Beijing. As evidence being currently given in the Headley trial in Chicago proves, many of these "jihadis" have been nurtured by intelligence operatives in the Pak military who thought that such volatile double and triple games would never backfire.
Such contradictions have strained Pakistan's relationship with its oldest benefactor, America, to breaking point. Gilani's excitable formula is explicable only as an anxious attempt to switch security from an American umbrella to a Chinese net, if the relationship with Washington goes belly-up. History tells us that China is sophisticated enough to manoeuvre through nuanced degrees of separation or proximity. China's policy towards lands south of the Himalayas is unlikely to be either open-ended or inflexible. Tactically, it will play with options. But its strategy will be guided by China's security interests, not Pakistan's.
The bottom line is a basic law of international relations. A sovereign nation cannot purchase security in the marketplace. Otherwise, it may remain a nation but it will be neither sovereign nor stable.