An enduring feature of international relations in contemporary times has been the high level of bilateral connections between Pakistan and China. Initially, they were strange bedfellows; one a socialist state and the other a Muslim-majority nation. Yet, driven by perceived mutual common interests they managed to achieve such close proximity that the relationship now appears to have become deep-rooted, multi-dimensional and sustainable. Since establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries, China and Pakistan have developed an all-weather friendship which is based on equality, brotherhood and overall cooperation. In Pakistan, China is ‘the most beloved of all nations’; a fact further proved by a recent Pew Survey of Pakistan’s public opinion which showed that 84 per cent of Pakistanis had a favourable view of China and 16 percent of the US. That says it all!
Former Chinese president Hu Jintao once described this relationship as “higher than the mountains and deeper than the seas”. Recently, the incumbent President of China Mr Xi Jinping told Pakistanis that in China, Pakistan is known as “a sincere and reliable friend”. Obviously, China-Pakistan friendship is deeply felt in the hearts of our two peoples. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has matched the poetic parlance by describing this relationship as “higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey”.
The history of relations between China and Pakistan goes back to the period when merchants, pilgrims, scholars and diplomats travelled on camels or horsebacks through the Silk Route from one country to another. During the period of colonialism, however, contacts between the peoples of Pakistan and China were restricted at both official and non-official levels. Following the first aggression against China in 1856 or the Opium War —as it is better known — China’s foundation as state was seeped. Consequently, chaos and confusion prevailed in China for a long period.
Evolution of Relationship
“Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize New China. Ever since our diplomatic relations began in 1951, we have enjoyed mutual understanding, respect, trust and support and our friendship and cooperation have flourished. We are truly good neighbours, close friends, trusted partners and dear brothers.”
(President Hu Jintao, Islamabad, 24 November 2006)
The People’s Republic of China was created on October1, 1949. Although both countries had nothing common in history, socio-political systems and ideologies, yet Pakistan recognized China on January 4, 1950, and established bilateral diplomatic relations on May 21, 1951 following negotiations with Pakistan’s first Charge d’ Affaires who had arrived in Beijing in April 1951. The first Chinese ambassador to Pakistan went to Karachi in September 1951 and Pakistan’s first ambassador to China arrived in Peking (Beijing) on November 1, 1951.
Pakistan was also among those countries that opposed the United Nations resolution which recognized China as an aggressor in the Korean War. Since then the two countries have carried out multi-dimensional cooperation in varied fields. Despite unstable international situation over the years, the China-Pakistan friendship always remained strong and vibrant.
Phases of China-Pakistan Relations
The Sino-Pakistan relations before the dismemberment of the country in 1971 into two states — Pakistan and Bangladesh — can be divided into four phases. The first phase started from 1951 to 1954 in which the relations were at modest level and were limited to trade and occasional official visits by leadership of and delegates from both countries. Second phase started after Bandung Conference of 1955 in which the exchange of talks and goodwill increased to a higher level. Most of the enthusiasm was shown by the Chinese side rather than Pakistani side. Third phase started from 1962 to early 1973 in which the trend of relations was downwards. The fourth phase started in 1973.
· First Phase (1951-1954)
During early years, Sino-Pak diplomatic relations remained cold. This was due to the fact that Pakistan chose to align with the US in international relations while China, with its Communist ideology decided to join the USSR. Ziad Haider in an article entitled “Could Pakistan Bridge the U.S.-China Divide?” published in Foreign Policy magazine on March 25, 2013 writes:
“Initially, Pakistan perceived China as a threat due to its Communism.”
During this phase of Sino-Pak relations, the boundary between the two countries was undefined and Chinese claimed certain areas of Hunza and Gilgit as their own and it was shown through their maps. When seen in regional context, throughout these years, China’s relations with both India and Pakistan moved on an even keel.
· Second Phase (1955-1962)
The second phase in this relationship started in 1955 after Bandung Conference, also known as Asian-Africa Conference, which took place on April 18–24, 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia. At the Conference came the first high-level contact between Pakistani and Chinese leadership which clarified mutual doubts, particularly those arising out of Pakistan’s entry into SEATO and CENTO. It was there that Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Muhammad Ali Bogra, made clear to his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, that Pakistan’s membership in both blocs was not directed against China but against India. He also assured the Chinese prime minister that if the United States took aggressive action against China, Pakistan would not become a party and it would remain neutral as it did in the Korean War. Premier Zhou Enlai mentioned in his speech to the political committee of the Afro-Asian Conference that Pakistan was not against China and had no fears that China would commit aggression against it. As a result, mutual understanding was reached, following which a number of visits were made between the two sides. The most significant of them were those of Pakistani Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in October 1956 and of Premier Zhou Enlai’s reciprocal visit to Pakistan in December the same year, both being the first at the highest level. It is important to note here that Chinese were very cautious in moving forward with Pakistan as is evident from the fact that during his 1956 visit to India and Pakistan, President Zhou Enlai tried his hands at balancing when he spoke with equal fervour of ‘Hindi-Cheeni Bhai Bhai’ and ‘Paki-Cheeni Bhai Bhai’.
In the following years, policies adopted by Pakistan were not conducive for improving relations with China. For instance, in July 1957, H. S. Suhrawardy visited the United States. The joint communiqué issued after the meeting between the two sides stated that the US president and the Pakistani premier had agreed that “international communism continued to pose a major threat to the security of free world”. The downward trend in Sino-Pakistan relations continued through the initial phase of military takeover in Pakistan in October 1958. The situation became so precarious that when in July 1959, a group of Hajis from Taiwan stopped over at Karachi, met Pakistani religious leaders, made statements and speeches, and had a meeting with Pakistan’s foreign minister, Manzur Qadir, the Chinese called it a serious provocation and in a press note on July 21, 1959, charged the Pakistan government of stepping up its following of the US plot to create two Chinas.
Moreover, in September 1959, border skirmishes between Pakistan and China broke out on the Hunza border. Chinese MiG planes, in violation of Pakistani airspace, flew over this area a number of times. In retaliation, Pakistan sealed its borders with Xinjiang in November 1959, and moved the Gilgit Scouts up to the China border.
· Third Phase (1962-73)
Later, such events took place in early 1960s that China and Pakistan started seriously thinking about taking a fresh look at their policies vis-à-vis each other. The emergence of Sino-Indian hostility and the resultant Sino-Indian War of 1962, Pakistan’s disappointment with its Western allies, New Delhi’s refusal to accept Pakistan’s proposal for joint defence of the Subcontinent, and USA’s support for India against China were the major events in this regard.
In March 1962, Beijing intimated its willingness to hold talks with Pakistan on the issue of demarcation of the Sino-Pakistan border. In the beginning, negotiations moved at a very slow pace, but the Sino-Indian conflict of October 1962 added impetus to the border negotiations. Subsequently, a border agreement was signed on March 2, 1963. The final agreement was signed by foreign ministers Chen Yi for the Chinese side, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for the Pakistani side.
The agreement was moderately economically advantageous to Pakistan, which received grazing lands in the deal, but of far more significance politically, as it both diminished potential for conflict between China and Pakistan.
The then foreign minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, played an instrumental role in bringing Pakistan and China closer and in turning their relationship that would later become an ‘maxim’ in the international relations. Speaking to the National Assembly in 1962, he said:
“I should like to make it clear beyond all doubt that we have friendly relations with the People’s Republic of China and that nothing will be permitted in any way to endanger those relations. Our relations with China are an independent factor in our foreign policy and not contingent on any other. In the best interests of Pakistan, we shall maintain the spirit of goodwill, friendship and cordiality with the great People’s Republic of China. I declare that our friendship with China is not tainted by any form of bargain or barter. It is steadfast amity between two neighbouring Asian States.”
The delimitation of the border between Pakistan and China actually became the catalyst for much-needed improvement of ties between them, and resulted in high levels of economic and military collaboration.
The most significant event of this crucial phase was the Indo-Pak war of 1965. During this war, China not only provided Pakistan with all-out political support but also issued stern warnings to India. When the US abandoned Pakistan in this hour of trial by halting arms aid, China stepped in to help the country in bolstering its armed forces. In the wake of the 1971 crisis between Pakistan and India, China again provided economic, political and moral support to Pakistan to overcome the traumatic situation that had emerged as a result of the separation of East Pakistan. In 1972, China used her first-ever veto in the United Nations Security Council to hold back the recognition of Bangladesh as a gesture of support to Pakistan.
During these years, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) became the first non-Communist airline to land on Chinese territory. Pakistan also played an important role in restoration of China’s membership in the UN.
The then US President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took advantage of Pakistan’s close relationship with People Republic of China to initiate secret contacts that resulted in Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in July 1971 after visiting Pakistan. These contacts resulted in Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and the subsequent normalizing of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
· Fourth Phase (1973-present)
India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and this gave a new dimension to the strategic balance in the region and a fresh impetus to expanding Pak-China defence cooperation. Moreover, with the advent of reformists in China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 heralded a new era. The reformists placed economic development of China as their foremost priority. In that direction, they introduced sweeping reforms both internally and externally. The reforms had a substantial impact on Sino-Pakistan relations which, since then, have been witnessing both quantitative as well qualitative changes in political, economic and strategic areas.
Moreover, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 also opened a new chapter of consultation and collaboration between China and Pakistan. The two countries were in total agreement that the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan posed a great threat to the security of the entire region and prepared to coordinate their policies to face the challenge. Support to Pakistan’s security was the major feature of China’s Afghan policy because they wanted to honour their oft-repeated commitments. Regarding recent developments in Afghanistan, China and Pakistan have a close understanding of each other’s point of view.
By the 1980s, Pakistan had become the most trusted ally of China. Throughout the 1980s, Pakistan-China relations continued to develop into a comprehensive relationship. Although there was a visible shift in the Chinese stance on Kashmir, Pakistani policymakers believed that China’s improved relations with India would act as a restraining factor on Indian belligerency towards Pakistan.
Pakistan also supported China on all issues important to Chinese national interests such as sovereignty over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet and issues relating to human rights and democracy. China always appreciated and counted on Pakistan’s strong support as a trusted friend over all these issues at international forums.
In 1992, Deng Xiaoping stepped down as Chairman of the Central Military Commission in 1989, and retired from the political scene in 1992. The post-Deng leadership also continued to follow his guidelines. China adhered to the policy of strengthening and stabilising its relations with all countries of the region.
Throughout the 1990s, Pakistan remained under US sanctions and China was the primary source of Pakistan’s military hardware procurements. During this period, Pakistan-China defence-related cooperation also substantially increased. Then in May 1998, Indian nuclear tests destabilized the strategic balance in South Asia. As a prelude to these tests, the Indian defence minister and prime minister described China as a long-term security threat. While commenting on the Indian assertion, the official Chinese media reported that “India’s explosions have sabotaged the fragile trust built up with Beijing over the past decade.” Following the Indian nuclear tests, Sino- Indian relations suffered a severe setback. Deterioration in Sino-Indian relations reinforced Pakistan’s importance in China’s South Asia policy.
China expressed its understanding of Pakistan’s compulsion to go nuclear. It gave Pakistan the confidence to re-establish the strategic balance in South Asia by conducting its own nuclear tests.
On Kargil Crisis, however, China maintained absolute neutrality by emphasizing a bilateral resolution of the issue through dialogue. Shortly after the Kargil episode, by the end of 2001, Indo-Pakistani tension again escalated, bringing the two nuclear rivals to the brink of war. On this occasion, China stressed upon both Pakistan and India to resolve their dispute through peaceful means. Beijing adopted multi-channel diplomacy to defuse the tension and stressed the need for the international community to take a more balanced and unbiased approach to the problem.
Pak-China Joint Statement, issued in Islamabad on December 19, 2010 on the conclusion of Premier Wen Jiabao’s historic visit to Pakistan, highlighted the following points:
1. It is important to deepen the China-Pakistan all-weather strategic partnership;
2. China-Pakistan relations have gone beyond bilateral dimensions and acquired broader regional and international ramifications;
3. Friendship and cooperation between Pakistan and China serve the fundamental interests of the two countries, and contribute to peace, stability and development in the region and beyond; and
4. The two sides will enhance their strategic coordination, advance pragmatic cooperation and work together to meet the challenges in pursuit of common development.
Later, the 2005 Pakistan-China Treaty for Friendship and Cooperation and Good Neighbourly Relations also proved to be a key instrument as it enables both countries to strengthen their strategic, economic and cultural relations.
The Current Scenario
At present, China is investing heavily in Pakistan. In contrast to the US, China is viewed by Pakistan as a reliable, “all-weather”, non-interfering, supportive strategic partner. While the US is looked on with suspicion, Beijing is treated as a time-tested, trusted friend. The undercurrent of common interests and objectives implies that Pakistan and China face the same friends and foes. One common adversary, India, still remains the germane reason for Sino-Pak alliance. In fact, China and Pakistan continue to create partnerships based on countering the possible rise in influence of other powers in the region, including India, Russia and the United States. The role of Gwadar port is expedient in this regard. Attacks on Chinese workers inside Pakistan, and violent extremism in Xinjiang province that has been linked to safe havens inside Pakistan, remain thorny issues in an otherwise rosy alliance. However, there appears to be a tacit understanding that “outside involvement,” including but not limited to the US and India, aimed at containing Pakistan-China collaboration is a likely source of disturbance.
During President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in April 2015, the two countries agreed to elevate their relations to an ‘all-weather strategic cooperation partnership’, enriching the Pakistan-China community of shared destiny and ensuring the perpetual continuity in friendship from generation to generation.
China while appreciating Pakistan’s consistent and staunch support on issues concerning China’s core interests, reaffirmed its support and solidarity for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Pakistan.
Pakistan will have to factor in China’s global perspective while formulating its future policy and expectations. There is also a lot that our leaders need to learn from the sophistication of China’s foreign policy. Despite US strategic convergence and growing support to India’s role at the regional and global level, China remains unruffled and poised. China-Pakistan relations that are based on mutuality of interests seem destined to grow. Pakistan should, however, remain sensitive to the complexities that surround this relationship and factor these in.