The Strange Tale of Sino-Pakistani Friendship

The Strange Tale of Sino-Pakistani Friendship

by Daniel S. Markey
January 25, 2016

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

Andrew Small’s The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics delivers a comprehensive assessment of one of the world’s most consequential, peculiar, and poorly understood bilateral relationships. Small weaves together his own interviews and travel observations with extensive use of other histories and narratives that touch on various aspects of China-Pakistan relations but, as he rightly observes, have thus far failed to deliver a full and up-to-date version of the story.

Small’s book took a half-dozen years to write, but its timing is nearly ideal. He concludes his history by observing that “the China-Pakistan axis is almost ready to step out of the shadows” (p. 181). It is now quite safe to remove the caveated “almost” from his phrase. China’s new One Belt, One Road initiative—the grand scheme to extend and improve interconnectivity throughout China’s western periphery through massive state-led investments—is finding its most important test case in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, where, according to Pakistan’s probably inflated accounts, China has pledged $46 billion in new investments over the coming years.

The China-Pakistan Axis is truly one of a handful of books that must be read by professionals seeking to understand Pakistan’s past or hoping to catch a glimpse into its future. And as China’s own fate becomes more intertwined with South, Central, and West Asia, the book will be an increasingly vital resource for serious China hands as well. As Small correctly notes, the study of relations between China and Pakistan is “something of an intellectual orphan, falling between a variety of regions and disciplines” and is complicated by the reality that it “encompasses some of the most sensitive areas of the two sides’ national security policies” (p. 5). To put it bluntly, most China scholars have not bothered to give much thought to Pakistan, while most South Asianists are ill-equipped to contemplate Beijing’s strategies, motives, or capabilities. Those who are interested must crack into the realm of tight-lipped security services, an especially tough task on the Chinese side.

Small ably bounces between strategic perspectives, having spent sufficient time in Beijing, Islamabad, and Washington to build networks of reliable expert sources. He avoids ideology and dogmatism, rendering different perspectives in a dispassionate effort to understand them rather than to mount moralizing critiques. He does, however, pause to debunk myths, such as the claim that 11,000 Chinese troops were deployed to Pakistan’s north (p. 6), and punctures grand illusions like the notion that either Gwadar port or the Karakoram Highway has ever demonstrated any serious prospect of commercial success (p. 101, 106). Small also offers a steady flow of insider tidbits that demonstrate his grasp of the wider political processes at work, such as how Sino-Pakistani defense ties “ensure buy-in from some of China’s highest ranking party and military families” (p. 108), and wades into controversial and sensitive topics, including China’s troubled policies in Xinjiang (p. 72).

The book’s historical account of Sino-Pakistani ties is useful as a stage-setter for present circumstance, mainly because Small reminds the reader of the many twists and reversals in the region’s geopolitics. The very closeness between Beijing and Islamabad has its roots in the 1959 Lhasa uprising that hastened the death of good relations between India and China (p. 21). With the spirit of “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers) buried, China and Pakistan teamed up to support a range of insurgencies within India, such as the Nagas and Mizo (p. 77). Later, Small recounts how Pakistan was the handmaiden for some of the most sensitive military and intelligence cooperation between China and the United States during the Cold War (p. 36) as well as the more widely recognized cooperation to fund the Afghan mujahideen (p. 123).

Small also delves into China’s many—often dimly perceived—links with the Afghan Taliban before and after September 11. He describes, for instance, how China’s ambassador to Pakistan was the first senior representative of a non-Muslim state to meet Mullah Omar in late 2000 (p. 129), how Donald Rumsfeld blindly rebuffed Chinese offers of intelligence assistance immediately after September 11 (p. 130–31), and how China then went on to supply arms to the Taliban for their insurgency against NATO and Afghan forces (p. 134).

Throughout this sometimes wild and counterintuitive tale, it is often difficult to escape the utter strangeness of the Sino-Pakistani relationship. China, the enormous, nominally Communist, and broadly secular state—with its modern origins in revolutionary guerilla warfare and its more recent experience of spectacular economic success—simply has almost nothing in common with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The latter is a historically ineptly managed state dominated by a Western-oriented class of feudal and military leaders who sit astride a vast, poor, and poorly educated nation that for many reasons has become increasingly alienated and violent. But Small cuts past the evident cultural and religious chasm to focus on the inner core of the Sino-Pakistani linkage: security. For whatever their differences, the fact remains that China delivered essential nuclear weapons and missile capabilities to Pakistan. Pakistan, at least for the first several decades of their relationship, usefully distracted neighboring India and helped insulate China from the western Islamist threat. Small usefully elaborates the details of all these dealings.

So China, the ultimate realist state, and Pakistan, the ultimate security rentier state, have found mutual benefit from their decades of loosely coupled cooperation. And that looseness seems an essential part of the story to date, for there is no formal alliance between Islamabad and Beijing. This has permitted less than perfect harmony in Sino-Pakistani policies at numerous important milestones in the relationship, such as in 1971, when China stood by as Pakistan lost half its country in war. Small questions whether China would be with Pakistan in its hour of need and finds a consistent answer from 1971 to the present: “only up to a point” (p. 16). Yet the looseness of the Sino-Pakistani coupling is a mutual one. Pakistan does not treat China as a true ally either. For example, in September 2001, when Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf received the “with us or against us” ultimatum from Washington, he did not even pause to call Beijing (p. 131). In short, Pakistan and China have delivered in important ways for each other, but not in every way, and their priorities and preferences have never been perfectly aligned.

That said, Small leaves no doubt in his book’s tantalizing epilogue that China’s growing power and ambitions are leading the country to play an increasingly active, rather than passive, role in its western periphery, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This shift has been partly driven by—and has further exposed—the limits of depending on Pakistan’s military and intelligence services as a guarantor of China’s security against Islamist militants (p. 91).

China’s far greater activism in and around Pakistan is already stirring a bit of discomfort among Pakistanis, who Small describes as missing the “free hand”—the loosely coupled relationship—they have long enjoyed (p. 162). In Afghanistan, for instance, Small sees that China does not share all of Pakistan’s priorities or perceptions. China cares more about stability and less about India. It is also less optimistic about prospects for engineering a deal with the Taliban (p. 162). These, I would suggest, are not minor differences.

In my own interviews with Pakistani military officers, I have more than once heard a clear reluctance to allow Pakistan to fall too far under China’s sway. Their preference, as I take it, is less to be the junior partner in a tighter Sino-Pakistani alliance than to enjoy the generous affections of both Beijing and Washington for as long as possible. As a totemic example, the new JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft jointly produced with China is considered a serviceable option, but not one that can hold a candle to the U.S. F-16. And that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

With this backdrop of potential Pakistani strategic disquiet and hedging comes Small’s observation of Islamabad’s striking leverage over China’s ability to realize its grand trans-Asian schemes like the One Belt, One Road initiative. He writes that “the politics rely on Pakistan” (p. 179), pointing to the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan, Indo-Pakistani stability, and security within Pakistan itself. But if this is the case, if Beijing is truly so vulnerable to Pakistan’s vicissitudes, then we must ask whether China is in the process of trading a frustratingly inadequate but relatively cheap policy of passivity in its western periphery for a fabulously costly and spectacularly risky policy of overactivity, committing itself to an early down payment in Pakistan.

Can Pakistan, despite its faults, offer a friendship to China that will bear the stresses likely to be imposed by a far more demanding and ambitious partner in the years to come? Small writes, “Beijing would prefer to have a longer list of candidates, but when it evaluates whom it can consistently expect to find in its camp, there is a single name that recurs” (p. 181). He notes that while China has some misgivings with Pakistan, “friendship, the one commodity that Pakistan can offer China more convincingly than any other country, matters far more to Beijing than it used to” (p. 181). I suspect even this assessment of what Pakistan can offer China will seem too rosy in hindsight. No matter, The China-Pakistan Axis offers readers ample material to reach their own conclusions on this and many other important issues.

Daniel Markey is a Senior Research Professor and Academic Director of the Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also an Adjunct Senior Fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad (2013).

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