Beyond India-Centricity--China and Pakistan Look West
This essay is part of a book review roundtable on Andrew Small’s The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.
The year since my book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics was published has been an unusually dramatic one in the Sino-Pakistani relationship. The launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Xi Jinping’s landmark visit to Pakistan, and China’s increasingly public role in the Afghan peace process all imply—as Daniel Markey notes in his essay—a partnership that has finally stepped out of the shadows. Yet despite its heightened profile, there is still much that remains opaque, from the details of the vast array of new infrastructure deals to the contours of Chinese policymakers’ thinking about strategy in the country’s western periphery. This comes through in the reviewers’ strikingly divergent assessments of the state of the relationship, its geopolitical context, and its likely trajectory. The disagreements are partly a reflection of the fact that we are each putting our limited pieces of the puzzle together in ways that imply quite different overall pictures.
Nonetheless, I would posit that a few clear trends are emerging, all of which have accelerated over the last year. First, there has been a consolidation of the shift traced over the course of the book from a relationship that was essentially India-centric to one in which Pakistan now plays a weightier role in China’s pursuit of a series of westward-facing policy goals. Second, after a decade in which Pakistan was in danger of being left behind, the country is finally proving to be a beneficiary of the new, China-driven geopolitical and geoeconomic context in which it finds itself. Third, this dynamic now encompasses opportunities and pressures that are likely to see the relationship both deepen and normalize, moving from a mythically elevated status—”higher than the highest mountain”—to somewhere closer to earth.
This puts me in a somewhat more optimistic position than the reviewers, who place greater emphasis on the emerging tensions in the relationship and the risks inherent in this new phase of Chinese engagement with the wider region. Those lines of analysis are also laid out in the book itself, which provides ample grounds for skepticism about the two sides’ economic projects and discusses many of the private disputes and frustrations that the Chinese side, in particular, has expressed. But I would contend that events in the last eighteen months have tended to reinforce the case set out in the epilogue: a convergence of different factors that include Xi’s assumption of power, the election of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) government, shifts in the structure of the Chinese economy, and the drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has put the relationship on a very different course from the one we saw during the era of Hu Jintao, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and Asif Ali Zardari. Although components of CPEC and other associated new initiatives may well fail, there are good grounds for thinking that they will at least fail better.
The central question to address is related to the book’s subtitle: what is the geopolitical context in which the relationship is now playing out? This is the issue on which the reviewers are perhaps most at odds. If the partnership is considered over a period of several decades, Andrew Scobell is clearly right to state that for China Pakistan has “declined in overall geopolitical significance” in contrast with the days when it was a “conduit to the Islamic world” and a “facilitator on the global stage.” As China has developed diplomatic ties with all but a small subset of states around the world, Islamabad’s brokering role has evidently faded. Equally, the normalization of China’s relationship with India and the subsequent expansion in economic relations between the two Asian giants have long threatened to place Pakistan in an even more modest role—a legacy friendship rather than one with real utility. John Garver goes much further, suggesting that as a result of fears that India will align with Japan, the United States, and Australia, Beijing has since 2013 adopted a “new management” of Pakistan, placing it on a “shorter leash” and urging the Pakistani army to rein in extremist groups. While Garver sees China as motivated partly by factors such as the rising terrorist threat in Xinjiang and concerns that militants might precipitate an India-Pakistan war, he also identifies a strong linkage between China’s handling of Pakistan and what he describes as a “friendship policy” toward India, as well as the more generally assertive turn that Chinese foreign policy has taken under Xi.
I would disagree modestly with Scobell and more substantially with Garver. While a contrast between the current relationship and that of the 1960s or 1970s sees Pakistan’s role in Chinese foreign policy diminishing, if the comparison is instead made with the relationship in the 1990s, or even that of a few years ago, there is a strong argument to be made that it is on the rise again. The temptation for China to trade off aspects of the relationship with Pakistan for the sake of better ties with India was at its zenith during the late Jiang Zemin era, when trade-centric economic diplomacy was closer to the heart of Chinese policy and a lasting friendship with India was a more plausible diplomatic prize. Some of these proclivities on China’s part—at least a level of caution about how India would react to certain initiatives with Pakistan—endured until the late stages of the Hu era, when the U.S.-India partnership was being consolidated. Hu’s second term in office was also the period in which tensions over Pakistan’s handling of extremist groups were at their peak. Killings and kidnappings of Chinese workers spiked, Uighur militants found safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and concerns about Islamist sympathies in Pakistan’s security services and the broader stability of the country started to rise. Even then, there was never a broad-based push by China to encourage Pakistan to pull back its relations with militant groups across the board, as Garver suggests. Hu’s administration was still monomaniacally focused on the Uighurs. The shift under Xi has not been a greater level of assertiveness over Pakistan’s domestic affairs; instead, it has been the provision of a substantial package of positive economic incentives in the shape of CPEC, which is entirely a Xi-era initiative.
There are some bilateral factors that have played into this development. The last eighteen months have seen Pakistan deliver enough to at least moderate Chinese concerns that the country was on a relentless downward slide. General security levels have improved, the Zarb-e-Azb operation has largely pushed Uighur militants out of their bases in North Waziristan, and the economy has seen a modest but tangible uptick. The Chinese government is also demonstrably more comfortable dealing with the PML-N government than with its predecessor, despite strenuous efforts made by the Pakistan People’s Party to push many of the same projects forward. But the really consequential shift during Xi’s tenure has been the greater seriousness with which China is taking its westward strategy. A number of the objectives of the multifaceted One Belt, One Road scheme converge in Pakistan, including the outsourcing of industrial capacity, the search for growth drivers in the Chinese interior, the push to build up new markets for Chinese exports, efforts to stabilize China’s western periphery and comprehensively address the threat of rising militancy, and plans for alternative transportation routes that diversify the usual maritime conduits. Markey rightly notes Islamabad’s “striking leverage over China’s ability to realize its grand trans-Asian schemes.” Pakistan is one of the few countries with shovel-ready projects on the scale envisaged, the political comfort level with China to attempt to absorb and push forward such an ambitious plan, ports that Beijing can expect to rely on, and an army that is both the historical source of much of the region’s militancy and an essential part of any solution to this problem. As a result, CPEC has become the flagship project of Xi’s flagship initiative.
China is actively seeking to decouple this westward-facing agenda from the competitive strategic environment elsewhere in East Asia and South Asia. Its aim has been to ensure that intensifying competition in one region does not spill over into areas where there are common interests. So far, Beijing’s heightened diplomatic activism and new infrastructure investment schemes have largely been embraced by the United States, which has long urged China to take on a greater level of responsibility in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the broader region. India is a trickier case, but here, too, Beijing’s view is that New Delhi should at least acquiesce to many of these new initiatives, and potentially even see some advantages accruing from them. Although it was impossible to portray Chinese support to Pakistan’s military capabilities as anything other than a threat to India, if Beijing is able to encourage Pakistan to pursue a more dedicated focus on economic objectives and regional trade linkages rather than a security-centric agenda, India is potentially the greatest beneficiary other than Pakistan itself. In this context, Chinese officials saw the postponement of Xi’s trip to Islamabad in 2014 as advantageous: when the visit finally went ahead in April 2015, it was the first in decades by a senior Chinese leader to occur without a stopover in India. Evidently Pakistan’s utility to China as a balancer in the region persists, but Beijing can credibly claim that the relationship now occupies a qualitatively different position in the grand scheme of Chinese foreign policy.
As Markey highlights, this new framework does pose some challenges for the “all-weather friendship.” Stated or unstated, India was the common focus for decades and provided the precondition for other forms of cooperation. Feroz Hassan Khan suggests that it was the “dependability of the partnership during times of isolation and need” that mattered more, but the partnership would neither have existed nor have been as trusted without India providing that shared strategic framework. With this backdrop, the fact that China and Pakistan did not always see eye to eye on tactics and strategy did not wholly matter. Scobell argues that my suggestion that China has rarely needed Pakistan to do anything vastly different from what it intends to do anyway is underwhelming, but this is the main reason that the friendship has endured so long. Pakistan’s most important function was to act as a counterweight, and it was only during episodes of excessive risk-taking, such as the Kargil War, that China felt obliged to push back hard. As China’s activism in its western periphery grows, and the relationship focuses on a new set of issues that include Afghanistan, infrastructure linkages in the region, and even domestic militancy in Pakistan itself, this shared strategic framework is absent. Some of the differences in outlook between the two sides, as Markey notes, are not minor, and there is no doubt that Beijing is already proving to be a “far more demanding and ambitious partner.” This has been evident on issues ranging from Chinese encouragement for Pakistan to conduct operations against Uighur militants in North Waziristan to Beijing’s push for Pakistan to get the Taliban to the table for peace talks with the Afghan government. Will these stresses place a level of strain on the friendship that it can no longer bear? And is Chinese policy now “fabulously costly and spectacularly risky,” as Markey suggests?
I think we at least have preliminary answers, some of which also touch on the critique raised by Meena Singh Roy that “China’s argument that its huge economic package for infrastructure development could bring about change in Pakistan’s social and economic makeup does not sound very convincing, given the past failures of large-scale U.S. and Western financial and military aid to the country.” Such comparisons between the levels of Western and Chinese economic support seem misplaced. Direct financial support, the bulk of which was provided to the Pakistani army, coupled with smaller volumes of aid focused on social development, is not the same as infrastructure investment. If the latter fails, it will fail for different reasons than the West’s efforts. The same is true politically. Chinese demands have been limited, and are likely to remain so. Beijing will press for a peace settlement in Afghanistan, which many in Pakistan and in the Taliban itself favor, rather than pushing Pakistan to rein in the Haqqani network or change its education system. The tendency is still to go with the grain rather than make demands that are liable to elicit a backlash. This is at times disappointing for the powers that would like to see China doing more, but keeping the relationship with Pakistan in decent working order is a higher-order objective for Beijing than any of these individual goals. In addition, even when there are aspects of discomfort, Pakistan gains far more from having its closest partner as the rising heavyweight power in the region than from any plausible alternative. The presence of a $46 billion carrot helps too. China is laying out—all at once—the package of benefits that can accrue to Pakistan if it is able to ensure a domestic and international situation that is sufficiently stable to make the investments possible. There is some degree of political consensus in Pakistan that this opportunity should be seized, despite concerns about whether the country has the capacity to do so quite as quickly as China would like. But if there are problems with specific projects, or the conditions for the investment do not obtain, the initiative will simply be scaled down. Either way, many of the principal beneficiaries of the supposed largesse will be Chinese companies. As risks go, CPEC is not especially egregious.
The greater challenge may actually be if a substantial proportion of the project moves forward. China’s standing in Pakistan, which includes persistently stratospheric ratings in opinion polls, has partly reflected its remove from everyday politics. Now Beijing is embroiled in battles over corridor routes, debates about the social impact of its investments, and criticism over the entrenchment of Punjabi economic privilege—all of this even before a new wave of Chinese workers arrives in Pakistan. The fact that economic ties had been limited to a weak set of trade links and a few grand projects meant that the more quotidian aspects of the relationship were kept to a minimum. My bet is that a great deal more will come out of CPEC than the most skeptical views suggest, which will make for a more balanced relationship but also one that is increasingly demythologized.
The final question is how to define the relationship. Khan understandably reacts against the connotations of the term “axis” in the title, but his analysis demonstrates the challenge of finding a more appropriate term for a partnership that is palpably more than just a “friendship” or “entente cordiale,” yet lacks the obligations of a formal alliance. Scobell describes the use of axis as “controversial” but “appropriate,” and Bruce Riedel’s elegant formulation in a review elsewhere—that, alongside the U.S.-India relationship, this will be one of the “dual axes…central to the global order in our times”—frames the term in the neutral sense in which it was intended.  This debate about terminology is not an idle one. While Pakistan is a unique case in Chinese foreign policy, the coming years are likely to see China developing more relationships that resist ready classification: partnerships with a heavy security component and attendant political expectations but without mutual defense obligations. I have been struck in the last year by references in Chinese sources to the China-Pakistan relationship being a “model to follow.”  That will be difficult. But this view is another indication that this oddly resilient friendship, whose descent into acrimony or irrelevance has been consistently predicted, remains in surprisingly good health.
I will conclude by adding that I am very grateful to the reviewers for their kind comments and thoughtful analysis. For all the growing interest in the China-Pakistan relationship, material on it remains relatively thin, and their essays are an important contribution to correcting that deficit.
 Bruce Riedel, “ ’The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics,’ by Andrew Small,” Lawfare, February 25, 2015, https://www.lawfareblog.com/china-pakistan-axis-asias-new-geopolitics-andrew-small.
 See, for example, Liu Zongyi, “China Remains Faithful Partner of Pakistan,” Global Times, December 28, 2015, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/960904.shtml; and Yan Xuetong, “China-U.S. Competition for Strategic Partners,” China-U.S. Focus, October 29, 2015, http://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/china-u-s-competition-for-strategic-partners.
Andrew Small is a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program.
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