Pakistan and China have enjoyed mutually beneficial and cordial relations since 1951 when diplomatic ties were formally established.

Mainly, the pragmatic and farsighted approach of the early leadership of the two countries paid the dividends. The mature decisions that were taken such as lending recognition to China by Pakistan and amicable boundary demarcation in 1962 etc. are the convincing reasons behind this friendship which is fair weather, ‘deeper than the oceans’ and ‘higher than Himalayas’.
The relationship stood the test of the time during various crises such as Sino-India war 1962, wars of 1965 and 71, Brass Tack military adventure of India and May 1998 when both the countries tested their nukes. By exploding the nuclear devices, Pakistan was compelled to pick up the gauntlet thrown by India to match the newly introduced nuclear dimension in the balance of power (BoP) that existed between both the countries. Given the numerical superiority of Indian army and the conventional weapons that it possessed, clearly the BoP between India and Pakistan was already precarious. It was ignored by the West that Pakistan would be at strategic disadvantage if it had not matched the suite and the heavy hand of the US and the international community failed to distinguish the culprit. However, even at that stage, China supported Pakistan’s position and severely criticised India of nuclearising the region.

Alas! Our miseries have always been compounded by our misadventures such as the Kargil episode. India used our strategic blunder to its own advantage and emerged as a responsible nuclear state by displaying restraint and portrayed Pakistan as an aggressor that sparked the crisis despite of former’s benign intention of establishing peaceful relation as was envisioned in Lahore Declaration 1999. The world became convinced that while India was mature enough to behave like a responsible nuclear state, Pakistan’s brinkmanship could have escalated into a nuclear Armageddon. That point onwards, Pakistan started getting discriminatory treatment. For instance, despite being non-signatory of NPT, a country specific exemption was made for India to offer civilian nuclear deal (123 Agreement). This is unprecedented. Pakistan is now trying to seek the same from China however it is not yet clear if Pakistan’s expectations would be timely honoured.

At present, Sino-Pak relations are undergoing another test mainly because the region has become a hotbed of global politics. China is rising and the United States want to at least delay the rise ‘if not altogether putting a full stop to it. The reasons are not far to fetch. China’s rapid economic growth has enabled it to challenge the US supremacy. Therefore the US want to preserve or at least insulate its unipolar status from erosion to whatever extent possible.

As usual, the US administration has developed innovative ideas to promote its interests. It is supporting India – without showing any respect to the world opinion (123 Agreement a case in point) – to challenge the Chinese hegemony in the region and strengthening defence ties with Japan and South Korea. On the other side, Chinese are investing their bucks with the SCO block, of which Pakistan is an observer and are also normalising their ties with India. This game is popularly known as US policy of China’s containment. This equation is incomplete without Pakistan. This is the point where our mutual relationship with China comes to point. In order to understand the substance of Sino-Pakistan relationship, it is pertinent to trace the continuation from when it first evolved.

Pakistan was among those countries that recognised the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) in 1950s. It remained China’s steadfast ally in the 60’s and 70’s during the latter’s isolation. Internationally, Republic of China with Taipei as its capital (present Taiwan) was recognised as China. Even at the UN Security Council the permanent seat was occupied by Taipei and not by Beijing. Primary reason was the struggle between communism and capitalism as the US administration until Nixon came to power, never had relations with mainland China.

Henry Kissinger and arranged his secret trip to Beijing. That point served to break the isolation of China and the Sino-US relations kick started with exchange of ping-pong teams.
The US never recognised mainland China as the true representative until 1971 when Pakistan offered its good offices to the then National Security Advisor of President Nixon, Mr. Henry Kissinger and arranged his secret trip to Beijing. That point served to break the isolation of China and the Sino-US relations kick started with exchange of ping-pong teams. It may also be kept in mind that Pakistan introduced resolutions in the Security Council in support of lending recognition to mainland China but thoughtfully, the same was kept pending by the US.

Currently, the power play in the region is quite interesting. For Pakistan, China acts as a dependable guarantor of its national security against India ‘something that it desperately wanted from the US when it signed the SEATO and CENTO in 1954 and 55 but discarded after it felt betrayed during the two wars. China on its part views Pakistan as a fair weather and a low cost ally to off balance India. India is the only country in the region that has problems with all its neighbours.

Kashmir is the stumbling blocking between Pakistan and India. In this context, Afghanistan crisis and the resulting end game has added further complexity. The US wants to withdraw from the mess it created like it did in 1988 after the Soviet forces were defeated by the then mujahideens! In the words of Mr. Joe Biden, the US forces will withdraw ‘come hell or high-water’. However, the Taliban regularly display their prowess by targeting high-value targets in Afghanistan including the parliament that they are not defeated. The tale goes on and on.

Currently, the US want to focus on China and it also want India to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan so that the same may not be filled in by Haqqani network that the US believe is under Pakistan’s control. This goes against the interests of Pakistan which wants to have in place an independent and truly representative government in Kabul that is also willing to have friendly relations with all its neighbours including Pakistan. At this point the interests of the two countries diverge.

Pakistan and the US/ISAF are hardly on the same page. The relations with the US are at its lowest ebb. This situation is dictating difficult and often conflicting choices to Pakistan. For instance, Pakistan had to stop the NATO supplies over the border incident but it is reviewing its decision against the popular will of the people who want to keep the supply suspended. Other differences include drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal agencies and the entire exit strategy of the US.

India is the only country in the region that has problems with all its neighbors. Kashmir is the stumbling blocking between Pakistan and India. In this context, Afghanistan crisis and the resulting end game has added further complexity.
China on its part has numerous new considerations to take into account while maintaining the cordial relations with its southern neighbour and meeting its ambitious demands.  The foremost among them is to ensure that its trajectory of economic growth remains unaffected. In this context, since the US and Europe are its biggest markets therefore it cannot afford to ignore the mood in Washington and Brussels. Therefore, it is reluctant to finance the IPI gas pipeline project succumbing to Washington’s pressure. Moreover, China is fully aware that conflict in the region in any form particularly one that involves India, will give additional opportunities to Washington to gain foothold. Due to this, China is normalising its relation with India and trade between both the countries is booming.
The crux of the entire debate and the interplay of national interests of the involved stakeholders is that the growing US-Indo nexus is exerting a strain on the Sino-Pak relations. However, if time comes and a choice is given between the US and China, Pakistan is likely to opt for the latter. But at present it doesn’t seem that there has to be a choice. The recently held SCO summit, in which Pakistan was accorded an unusual warm welcome, signifies that the bloc is willing to pull an unpredictable US ally into its fold.

In the new matrix, we have new opportunities waiting to test our wisdom and approach. A wise course of action for Pakistan would be to engage in cooperation and strengthening of trade ties like China is doing even with its adversaries. Conflict, particularly with the US, will harm Pakistan more. Also Pakistan needs China more than vice versa. Therefore instead of leaning heavily on any external support, Pakistan needs to be self-reliant. The fears in the minds of our friends and foe alike that Pakistan uses terrorism as an instrument of state policy needs to be removed adequately.

The US cannot afford to ignore or even delay the pullout given the election year in Washington and its economic conditions. By working together with the US, Pakistan may get solace in having a friendly political and administrative dispensation at Kabul and not the one that is controlled by Islamabad. Testing seriousness on the part of the US would be highly risky and thus inadvisable. The timing of Panetta’s visit to India and Afghanistan and his tone reflects the US mind-set.

China is Pakistan’s time tested friend but Pakistan has to exhibit that instead of applying social and cultural concept of friendship at international level and thereby taking sides in the power struggle, it is ready to set itself for revising its national security paradigm and adopt a more realistic and dynamic posture towards major players. A lesson needs to be learned from China that robust and sustainable economic growth may be set as the top notch priority. After all, at the end of the day, achieving prosperity and higher standards of living for the citizenry is the benchmark of success.

By: Waleed Farooq

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