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Chinese Arms for Pakistan

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—China is plunging headfirst into the politics of Central and South Asia. Last month the People’s Republic quietly dispatched five shiploads of unassembled new combat aircraft and other air-related weapons and equipment to Pakistan, the Pakistan News Service reports. The article, by the usually reliable news agency, is based on sources that include “senior Pakistani officials.”

This comes as India and Pakistan continue facing off over the disputed Kashmir region. The nuclear rivals have been talking war and exchanging limited fire for weeks. China’s latest shipment narrows the gap between the Indian and Pakistani air forces. Though it’s not known how many aircraft Pakistan got, it had an air force of 340 planes, compared to 730 planes for India.

Before Christmas, China also sent Pakistan defense weaponry through the Korakram highway that links the two countries. These shipments come amid reports China has shifted its troops along the Indian border. The republic has warned Israel not to sell AWACS planes, which it manufactures with the U.S., to India for fear of upsetting the region’s balance of power.

Both China and Russia have been maneuvering desperately in the wings as the U.S. continues to project military power in Afghanistan and its neighboring states. President Bush has said American forces are there for the long haul, which probably means years. Russia is worried the U.S. will cut into its historic sphere of influence in Central Asia, which for years was part of the Soviet Union, and undermine Moscow’s current control of oil being shipped out of the Caspian Sea. Right now, Russia either owns that oil outright or gets a handsome fee for allowing the big international petroleum companies to haul it across Russian territory.

China has other interests. First, it is close by, with one semiautonomous province slicing into Central Asia. More important, China already is importing large quantities of petroleum, and these imports are expected to rise steadily over the next few years until it becomes one of the largest, if not the largest, consumer of Middle Eastern oil. Oil and gas from the Caspian Sea almost certainly will find its way to China, either through a long (and expensive) pipeline connecting the areas, or—more likely—through shipments from Persian Gulf ports.

While the immediate intention of the Chinese weapons shipments is to help maintain parity between the two budding nuclear powers, they once more point up just how tenuous U.S. economic interests in the region are. The U.S. won’t deal with Iran, forcing American companies to pay incredible costs to pump oil around that nation. Meanwhile, other consumers jump at the chance to take petroleum through there. In the end, this could force the American-based companies to do more and more business through international consortia or from subsidiaries based abroad, all the while lessening U.S. political influence.