Tuesday, March 19, 2002

A Chinese general makes a quick stop in Islamabad, signs a couple of agreements and goes home. Routine or momentous?

The traveler was Gen. Xiong Guangkai, deputy chief of staff for intelligence and arguably China’s most important military figure. He first came to public notice in January 1996 when the New York Times reported his offhand threat to incinerate Los Angeles with nuclear weapons. Los Angeles is more valuable to America than Taipei, he told a former Clinton defense official. The general may well have given the “Go” signal to North Korea’s Taepodong I missile test in August 1998. Another Xiong visit, this time to Pyongyang, preceded the test by a few weeks. The multistage North Korean missile passed over Japanese territory and demonstrated an ability to strike parts of the United States.

The general is very good at what he does. Cultured, multilingual, as China’s top military spy, he cultivates Americans who think they are influencing him, instead of the other way around. Recently, he arranged to have a career military intelligence officer assigned as the top PLA officer at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. In the past, regular PLA staff officers have been the Defense Attaches here, but now Maj. Gen. Chen, from the PLA’s Second (Intelligence) Department, is Gen. Xiong’s man in Washington.

Putting Gen. Xiong’s signature, and not that of some lesser figure, on the agreements sends a number of important signals. First, it confirms to the Pakistani military the high regard Beijing has for them. By the same token, it sends a warning to countries in the region, primarily India and the Gulf states. Given the importance to Beijing of its military relations with Pakistan, having Gen. Xiong take the lead probably means he will at least survive, if not prosper, under the new Chinese Communist Party leadership changes later this year.

There were two agreements announced in Islamabad on March 12, a “defense cooperation” agreement and a “defense production” agreement. Allied intelligence services are undoubtedly going full bore to find out the details “Cooperation” against whom? Does this mean a de facto alliance? “Production” of what? Typically Chinese agreements of these kinds are multiyear and, typically, there are secret protocols, in the manner of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.

In January 1990, Iran and an element of the Chinese military signed a 10-year “defense technology transfer agreement.” This led to an aggressive, and lucrative, proliferation of chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear technology, ballistic missiles and advanced conventional weapons (cruise missiles) transferred from Beijing to Tehran. The Clinton administration was forced to sanction Chinese military companies several times for this illicit trade. At her confirmation hearing in January 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even admitted to Sen. Robert Bennett, Utah Republican, that Chinese military companies were selling germ warfare equipment to Iran.

Pakistan’s strategic weapons program simply would not exist without vigorous Chinese participation. Beijing has been instrumental with regard to the nuclear fissile materials, weaponization and the ballistic missile delivery system. Following on from the Iranian example, there is much more in the PLA inventory that could be transferred to make South Asia an even more dangerous place ballistic missile upgrades, biological warfare equipment and technology, cruise missiles, chemical weapons equipment and technology, information warfare techniques and so on.

One wonders how Pakistan will pay for the new Chinese arms and military technology increase taxes on the people of Pakistan or some other way? Pakistan wants renewed access to Western military hardware. Export control officers in Western countries will wonder if anything transferred to Pakistan will remain in country or if it will be passed to Beijing in part-payment of Pakistan’s arms debts.

The PRC is clearly the biggest winner here. It cements the relationship between the PLA and the Pakistani military officials who run the country. If, as many Indians believe, the PRC has a Grand Design to surround and strangle India, these agreements certainly would further such a plan. Much as the Gulf might like to show Islamic solidarity to Pakistan, forward-looking officials there must be equally concerned about the long-term implications of these agreements.

Pakistan and the Pakistani people are just as clearly the biggest losers. After September 11 and with the military cooperation regarding Afghanistan, the Americans had looked for a course change in Pakistani politics. We had hoped that Pakistan’s political and military leadership would see the wisdom of a sharp break with the past. Pakistan should be tying its future to the world grouping of moderate and democratic countries, not aligning itself with the likes of anti-democratic regimes in China, North Korea, Burma and Cambodia.

In Goethe’s classic, “Faust,” a proud and ambitious man sold his own soul to the Prince of Darkness in order to gain power on earth. President Musharraf has pledged the future of his entire country to Gen. Xiong.

William C. Triplett II, a defense specialist, is completing a book on Taiwan.

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