The importance of Pakistan to Japan

18.11.07 Publication:

In 1938 the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, justified his attempt to ignore Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the central European state of Czechoslovakia by describing the issue as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”. A year later, Britain was at war with Germany, and Chamberlain had to resign in disgrace to be replaced by Winston Churchill. Yet the feeling that foreign wars and disputes are remote from domestic concerns, involving strange, unfamiliar, faraway places, remains widespread, and many of those places feel especially far away from Japan. Why should Japanese people be interested in, or concerned by, recent events in Pakistan, for example?

The aim of this article is to answer that question, to argue that what has been happening recently in Pakistan could in fact be surprisingly important for Japan. These arguments hold true for many countries to which Pakistan feels remote, not just Japan. But they are especially valid for any significant country in Asia, because of the way in which great-power politics are evolving in that region.

On our television screens, Pakistan looks a strange and confusing place. Following the dismissal of the Supreme Court and imposition of emergency rule by the country’s military leader, General Pervez Musharraf, the most prominent pictures have been of demonstrations by smartly dressed lawyers, who are fighting police and holding up banners written in English, and often witty English too. The main opposition politician who is under house arrest is a rather glamorous woman, Benazir Bhutto, who sounds as if she should be living in an English castle rather than in dusty, troubled Pakistan.

Yet in this same country, suicide bombers recently attacked a political rally held by Ms Bhutto, killing more than 130 people. In the large mountainous area along the country’s border with Afghanistan, the government exerts little control over people who live in almost the same way as they have for centuries. Somewhere in those mountains are thought to be hiding the leaders of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, including Osama bin Laden himself.

Meanwhile, the huge western province of the country, called Baluchistan, is in a state of near civil war. Many of the towns of that province are also centres of Islamic fundamentalism, so the disorder in Baluchistan is making it harder for General Musharraf’s government to control Islamic militants in the rest of the country, including the suicide bombers who attacked Ms Bhutto’s rally.

Pakistan is clearly a troubled place, with a strange mixture of ancient, tribal practices and modern, westernised activities that are in part the legacy of British colonial rule over India, of which Pakistan formed part until it was separated in 1947. That colonial history tells you why British people might be interested in events in Pakistan. But why is it important for anyone else?

The usual answer is twofold: that Pakistan under General Musharraf has been a vital ally for the United States ever since September 11th 2001 in the so-called “war on terror”; and that since 1998 Pakistan has been a nuclear-weapons state, so that it would be especially damaging if control of that state were to fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda or other Islamist terrorists.

Those answers are correct, but incomplete. Pakistan has been an important ally for America during its war in Afghanistan next door, and that war is continuing. Pakistan has also been the base for terrorists who have carried out or helped to organise bombings in Europe, so that European countries are keen that its government should continue to co-operate with them by trying to capture and punish such terrorists and by providing information.

But Pakistan promises to be even more important than that. Imagine that terrorists, linked to Al-Qaeda, succeed in carrying out another attack on American soil comparable to that on September 11th 2001. How would America respond, either under President Bush or his successor? The likely answer is that it would launch a new effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the other Al-Qaeda leaders. In 2001 that effort led America to Afghanistan; next time, it would lead it to Pakistan. The big unknowns are whether the government of Pakistan itself would support that effort, or whether it would oppose it, leading to an American invasion against its wishes.

The next big war involving the United States could well take place in Pakistan. But one also needs to think about the wider set of international relationships in which Pakistan is intertwined. It has fought frequent wars against India, but to most outsiders that has looked like a local, or even domestic quarrel, even if nuclear weapons now make it more scary. Who, though, has been Pakistan’s other long-time ally, apart from America? The answer is China.

It was China that helped Pakistan develop nuclear weapons by providing technical assistance during the 1970s and 1980s, assistance that also indirectly supported North Korea’s nuclear programme. China has also provided other military support and financial aid. China has no affection at all for Islamic terrorists, for it is afraid of separatist insurgencies in its own Muslim areas. But what if the Pakistani army, under a new leader following a resignation by General Musharraf, were to break off ties with America? Who would it turn to for support? The most obvious next ally is China.

China has been increasing its aid and other contacts with many South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. China has long had a policy of supporting countries that have disputes with India, with the aim of weakening India’s influence in the region. Now India’s fast economic growth is making its influence increase rapidly. Japan has, since the time of Prime Minister Mori, been strengthening its own ties with India in order to balance the power of China and to persuade India to get more involved in broader Asian affairs.

The power game between America, China, India and Japan—Asia’s four great or emerging powers—now stretches across a far wider area than ever before, which makes faraway countries like Pakistan more important than ever before. A stable Pakistan, led by a legitimate friendly government preferably after democratic elections: such an outcome is now directly in Japan’s interest. The alternatives—war, further instability, a move towards China—are all far worse.