U.S., Chinese Interests on Display in Karachi Raid

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As news emerged Monday about the attack on a naval base in Karachi, it appeared that Pakistan’s ally China might also be caught up in the mayhem. Some initial reports suggested that Chinese military personnel were being held hostage. That news was later denied by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. My colleague Omar Waraich’s story detailing the attack offers a more complete picture:

Seventeen foreign nationals had been trapped by the raid, including 11 Chinese engineers and six American contractors. They were there to help maintain the fleet of naval aircraft. The military policeman says that there was a tense standoff when the security forces arrived in the part of the base where the foreigners had been sheltering.

“At first, they didn’t know if our guys were coming to attack them or rescue them,” the policeman explains. After establishing their bona fides, the security forces moved the expats to a safe compound inside the base from which they were eventually driven away. “It’s good that they were taken in bulletproof cars because there was shooting,” the military policeman says. Once the foreigners were safe, intelligence chiefs back in Islamabad sighed with relief — this time, there would be no repeat of the headlines about foreigners killed that they saw in 2002, when 11 French engineers were slain here, in Karachi.

The successful rescue of the foreigners makes them a footnote to the Karachi attack, but a telling footnote.

The Americans and Chinese working at the base represent two powers vying for influence in the south Asian state. The U.S. is also represented by the two Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion aircraft the militants destroyed during the attack. The surveillance planes had been given to Pakistan by the U.S. Among the other aircraft on the base were Chinese-made Z9EC helicopters, according to the Pakistan-based Dawn newspaper. Given China’s history is a supplier of arms to Pakistan, it is hardly surprising that there would be Chinese personnel on the base, says Richard Bitzinger, an expert on Asian militaries and a senior fellow at a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They don’t necessarily have a large number of military personnel there,” he says. “But they have a large number of engineers and technicians.”

The attack comes just days after Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani wrapped up a trip to China, where he met with leaders in Beijing and celebrated the 60th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Gilani repeatedly spoke of Sino-Pakistani friendship during his visit. “China is, indeed, our true and most reliable friend and partner,” he told Chinese officials at a reception. “We are like one nation and two countries.”

That stands in contrast to Pakistan’s ties with the U.S., which have frayed following the May 2 assault by U.S. special forces that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Bin Laden was living in a large compound not far from an elite Pakistani military academy, raising suspicions in the U.S. that the terrorist leader may have had support from within the Pakistan military. Some U.S. politicians have called for a review of the billions in aid the U.S. gives Pakistan each year. Pakistan, meanwhile, has accused the U.S. of violating its sovereignty by dispatching two helicopters filled with Navy seals to raid bin Laden’s compound without prior notice to the government in Islamabad. Gilani didn’t explicitly criticize the U.S. during his visit, but he did pointedly say that, “In these turbulent times, the only voice of reason in international affairs is that of China.”

At the conclusion of Gilani’s four-day visit to China, Pakistani officials announced that China has agreed to provide 50 JF-17 fighter jets, which the two countries developed together. In addition, Pakistan has asked China to develop a naval base at the southwestern port city of Gwadar, Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar told the Financial Times. A base outside of Chinese territory would be a first for the People’s Liberation Army, and would mark a broad expansion of the Chinese navy to operate outside territorial waters. Two years ago the PLA Navy began patrols to combat Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. While on a visit to Washington, D.C. last week, PLA Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde suggested land raids against pirate bases, tough talk from a country that has traditionally emphasized non-interference in other nation’s affairs.

Sunday’s armed raid highlights the risks for all sides of involvement in the unstable region. Still, both the U.S. and China are unlikely to pull back. The U.S. needs Pakistan’s help in combating the Taliban and bringing stability to Afghanistan. China sees its friendship with Pakistan as a way to counterbalance rival India and maintain influence in the Muslim world. This time at least, the Americans and Chinese seem to have emerged unscathed.