Keeping Pakistan as a Balancer While Courting Indian Friendship

Keeping Pakistan as a Balancer While Courting Indian Friendship

by John W. Garver
January 25, 2016

This essay is part of a book review roundtable on Andrew Small’sThe China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.

Andrew Small’s analysis of recent developments in Sino-Pakistan relations in his book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics is insightful and persuasive. Small’s central thesis, as I understand it, is that around 2013 China significantly shifted its policy for managing its vital relationship with Pakistan. Motivated both by the metastasis of Islamic extremism across the region and by deepening understanding of the impact that a possible India-Pakistan nuclear war would have on that spreading extremist cancer, China set aside its earlier policy of noninterference in Pakistan’s “internal affairs.” It began urging Pakistan’s leaders to rein in extremist groups, not only those mucking around in China’s Xinjiang region (which Beijing had long warned Islamabad against), but even within Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beijing recognized the diminishing utility of secret side deals worked out with extremist groups in years past. Such deals simply did not work as well with the new generation of extremist leaders—a conclusion attested to by the more frequent attacks in Xinjiang and on Chinese interests in Pakistan. Beijing also signaled to Islamabad that its support for Pakistan in a future confrontation with India would be conditioned by Pakistan’s role in provoking that confrontation. This “shorter leash” was an attempt to dissuade elements in the fragmenting Pakistani state from again condoning terrorist attacks on India that threatened to trigger Indian retaliation and thence an India-Pakistan war that could further destabilize the entire region.

This new approach expanded diplomatic common ground with the United States in countering the spread of Islamic extremism and the disintegration of the Pakistani state. Derivatively, Beijing attempted to mediate a search for political accommodation in Afghanistan and adopted a more relaxed view toward the U.S. military presence there. “Lord, make them [the Americans] leave, but not yet,” became the new Chinese mantra, Small suggests.

Scholars will need to test Small’s thesis of a major shift in China’s Pakistan policy through further primary research. But at a minimum, the book’s clear, thoughtful, and empirically substantiated argument has advanced our knowledge of an important issue. Small posits two primary factors driving the shift in China’s Pakistan policy: (1) greater fragmentation of the Pakistani state and use of Pakistani territory as a base for Islamist operations, and (2) a rethinking of the implications of a possible India-Pakistan nuclear war.

Regarding the first factor, the growing frequency of violent Uighur protests in both Xinjiang and major Chinese cities outside Xinjiang, combined with extremist attacks on Chinese citizens in Pakistan (e.g., construction crews refurbishing the Karakorum Highway, academics conducting research, or women operating massage parlors) indicated to Beijing that China’s traditional reliance on Pakistan’s military and political elites to minimize such incidents was simply no longer effective. The new generation of extreme Islamist leaders is more ideological and less pragmatic than the older generation, with whom a deal might stick. The collapse of states such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya, together with the looming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the prospect of renewed civil war there, caused China to give much greater emphasis to internal security concerns arising out of its deeply rooted “Uighur problem.” In short, these concerns increasingly influenced China’s management of its “all-weather” relationship with Pakistan. The spread of terrorist movements in the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia also threatened to undermine the ambitious transport-building programs of the “new Silk Road” designed to draw those lands into China’s economic sphere and foster stability through faster economic growth.

Regarding the nuclear factor, Small persuasively argues that, starting with the Kargil confrontation of 1999, Beijing recalculated the region-wide destabilizing effects of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. Refugees could flood Central Asian countries abutting Xinjiang and into that region itself. Such a flood of refugees might total hundreds of millions, possibly including much of Pakistan’s population. Anger and hatred would accompany displacement, further fostering extremism. The consequences of Chinese association with such a nuclear war could be immensely adverse for China—especially if the war arose out of another Pakistan-based terrorist attack against India that could be linked to the Inter-Services Intelligence. All these factors have resulted, Small persuasively demonstrates, in a considerable narrowing of China’s toleration of destabilizing actions by Pakistan—even while Beijing continues to support Pakistan’s comprehensive national power as a balance against India. In particular, Small’s close examination of Chinese policy during the Kargil crisis is pathbreaking.

My quibbles with Small’s book involve a call for broader perspective both at a lower domestic politics level of analysis and at a higher great-power system level of analysis. At the domestic level, if one looks beyond Sino-Pakistani relations, it becomes apparent that the early 2013 shifts in China’s Pakistan policy that are discussed by Small were part of a broader package of more assertive policies, rooted in a Chinese recalculation circa 2008 that the global balance of power had shifted in China’s favor as the West sank into deep economic crisis. When Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, he mandated more proactive foreign policies befitting a more glorious and great China—an initiative sloganized as the “China dream.” In the East China Sea, Chinese vessels increasingly challenged Japan’s control over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy warships maneuvered nearby while Japanese and Chinese nonmilitary state vessels confronted each other within the islands’ twelve and twenty nautical mile zones. In the South China Sea, China began large-scale efforts to construct artificial islands hosting military facilities. Along another quadrant, in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program Beijing set aside its earlier low-profile and low-risk approach and instead undertook an active, public, and high-profile effort to mediate between Iran and the United States in an effort to reach a comprehensive solution to the stalemate. According to Beijing’s explanation of this new policy, it wanted to avoid an Iran-U.S. war that would destabilize the Persian Gulf region. [1]

All these more proactive policies seem to have been rooted in an effort by Xi to foster a stronger spirit of Chinese nationalism—one befitting his own more authoritarian rule and thus legitimizing the regime. The shifts in China’s Pakistan policy outlined by Small may well have been part of a package of more assertive foreign policies driven by Xi’s “dream” of a more powerful and glorious China.

At a higher international level of analysis, the Sino-Pakistani axis needs to be situated in the rivalry between China and Japan, India, and the United States. Small sketches quite well Pakistan’s traditional role as China’s hedge or balancer against India. He discusses quite ably China’s changing calculus in that triangular Pakistan-China-India equation. Japan, however, does not figure into Small’s calculations. (Only three pages are listed in the index under “Japan.”) In fact, Beijing is deeply concerned that India will move into alignment with Japan as Tokyo throws off its post-1945 military limitations under Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. A steadily intensifying maritime rivalry is already underway between China, on the one hand, and Japan, India, and the United States, on the other hand, over control of sea lines of communication (SLOC) between the Bal el-Mandeb and the Hormuz Strait in the west and the Malacca Strait in the east. [2] A chronic Chinese fear is that India will join the United States, Japan, and Australia to “pin” the PLA Navy into the western Pacific and out of the Indian Ocean, rendering vulnerable China’s SLOCs across that ocean. Chinese apprehensions became acute when Shinzo Abe began his second period as Japan’s prime minister in December 2012. In this context, “friendship” diplomacy toward New Delhi is a key Chinese trope to counter India’s drift toward participation in the Japan-U.S. “anti-China coalition” being peddled (or so Chinese analysts believe) by Washington and Tokyo. I suspect that if one looked, one would find strong linkages between this friendship policy, on the one hand, and Beijing’s new management of Pakistan, on the other.

What is needed is a book that situates the China-Pakistan-India triangle in the contemporary rivalry of global powers—that is, a sequel to Bhabani Sen Gupta’s masterpiece The Fulcrum of Asia, which analyzed this triangle in the context of the Cold War. [3] Perhaps such an update might be Small’s next undertaking.


[1] For further discussion, see my chapter “China and the Iran Nuclear Negotiations: China’s Effort at Mediation of the Iran–United States Conflict” in the forthcoming book China and the Middle East (working title), edited by James Reardon-Anderson.

[2] Mohan Malik, ed., Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific: Perspectives from China, India, and the United States (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).

[3] Bhabani Sen Gupta, The Fulcrum of Asia: Relations Among China, India, Pakistan, and the USSR (New York: Pegasus, 1970).

John W. Garver is a Professor Emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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