There is a notion that if you are a diplomat, you always remain one. That is not exactly true. Richard Holbrooke’s account of the Afghan war has just appeared and he turns out to be a first-rate renegade. Now, how many countries would have a Holbrooke who dared to dissent (albeit secretly)? China never had one.

Which makes the reported remarks by the former Chinese ambassador to Pakistan Zhang Chunxiang at a media briefing in Beijing highly significant. Ambassador Zhang reflected the thinking in Beijing.

Succinctly put, Ambassador Zhang just stopped short of pointing finger at India for funding anti-China activities in Pakistan by extremist groups. He seemed to echo the long-standing Pakistani allegation that Indian intelligence is funding the separatist movement of Baluchi nationalists in Pakistan. Specifically, he held such terrorists “bought by some foreign countries” responsible for the 2004 attack on Chinese engineers who were working on the Gwadar Port project. The Indian security analysts may have their own thesis as to why Pakistan’s rebels are attacking Chinese projects, but Zhang obviously thinks it is subterfuge.

Ambassador Zhang said: “Those perpetrators were actually paid by some countries to commit the crime. It is difficult to investigate. There are some countries behind (the attack). I do not want to name them on this occasion. You know it, I know it. Everybody knows it.”

Delhi, of course, cannot take exception to what the senior Chinese diplomat said, because he never actually singled out India — and indeed he used the plural sense hinting at more than one single country — but the intriguing part is the timing of his “plain-speak”. he brought on to the table something out of Smiley’s world hardly a fortnight before the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China.

Delhi should take comfort that Ambassador Zhang would have had in mind more than one “foreign devil on the Silk Road” – to borrow the title of Peter Hopkirk’s famous book on the Silk Road history of southern Xinjiang. The intelligence services of many countries – the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, India, Afghanistan, Japan and so on – will be closely monitoring the progress of the Silk Road projects in Pakistan in the coming years. And, at least some of them would have interest in thwarting the historic Chinese thrust to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean via Gwadar Port, which, if it is allowed to succeed, will transform the geopolitics of the entire region phenomenally and will be seen as detrimental to their own regional strategies and core interests.

The fact is, Pakistan has become one of the most coveted real estates in global politics today, seen against the backdrop of the US-Russia confrontation, the US-China rivalry, the US’ containment strategies against Russia, the removal of sanctions against Iran, the evolution of NATO as a global security organization, the energy politics of Central Asia, the role of Islamist groups as geopolitical tools, the “Malacca Dilemma”, etc. apart from several regional “hotspots” – Kashmir, Xinjiang, North Caucasus, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan (Iranian and Pakistani provinces alike).

Unfortunately, the Indian commentators are wearing on their sleeve their deep disquiet and zero-sum mindset over the Silk Road projects in Pakistan. Evidently, they hate the sight of the Sino-Pak relationship being enhanced to such dizzying heights, which could damage India’s aspirations to be the preeminent power in the South Asian-Indian Ocean region.

A commentary titled China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: Prospects and Issues, attributed to a leading think tank in Delhi (linked to India’s ruling party) on the eve of Xi’s Pakistan visit made no bones about the hostility with which China’s Silk Road projects are being seen in India. To be sure, the build-up of Gwadar Port rankles like nobody’s business. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor running through the Karakoram rubbishes India’s claims over the territories of the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and the Northern Areas of Pakistan.

Again, another Delhi think tank belonging to the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (which mentors the Modi government) held a function coinciding with Xi’s visit to Pakistan where a separatist figure from Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region held forth propagandistically against the Silk Road projects coming up in the Northern Areas.

A Pakistani columnist in a leading Lahore daily writes, “India will keenly watch how this surge of Chinese investment shapes Pakistan’s economy. It is likely to employ all means at its disposal to impede the speed of these projects, and would also try to disrupt some of these. Indian media coverage of President Xi’s visit was rather negative.”

It is not difficult to see that Ambassador Zhang’s outburst was not exactly out of context. His words implied a pre-emptive warning to foreign devils who might be conspiring against the Silk Road projects in Pakistan.

However, Beijing has good reasons to worry about the formidable security challenge threatening the implementation of the gigantic “Belt and Road” projects that have been unveiled during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Pakistan, which involve an estimated Chinese investment of $46 billion.

Again, it’s much more than a matter of the money involved. The prestige of the “Belt and Road Initiatives” (which is unmistakably attributed to the leadership of Xi himself) is at stake here. And the Pakistan project is the Silk Road’s debut.

Islamabad very well understands the high stakes involved, which explains the extraordinary move on its part to assign a designated division of the Pakistani army’s special forces for the protection of the Chinese personnel working on the Silk Road projects.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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