Where Is the China-Pakistan Relationship Heading–Strategic Partnership or Conditional Engagement?

Where Is the China-Pakistan Relationship Heading--Strategic Partnership or Conditional Engagement?

by Meena Singh Roy
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 book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics provides a fascinating account of the Sino-Pakistani “all-weather friendship,” covering various facets of this relationship. This is a substantial contribution to the existing debate on the subject. Small very eloquently explains both countries’ perceptions and understandings of each other and reveals the complexities and conditionality of the bilateral relationship. An additional strength of the book lies in the author’s use of primary sources to substantiate his various arguments. Yet while the book covers various aspects of China-Pakistan relations, in my view this relationship can at best be characterized as strategic and instrumental in nature.

The China-Pakistan partnership is one of the long-standing relationships in the region, one that continues to grow stronger in an era that is witnessing significant changes at the regional and international levels. However, Beijing’s approach and strategy to engagement with Islamabad has changed over the years as China’s economic and military influence continues to grow. Recently, ties have been further deepened by China’s huge financial commitment to infrastructure development projects in Pakistan as part of the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is connected to Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative. China views Pakistan as an important neighbor with a geostrategic location, having land-route access to the Persian Gulf and occupying an important position in the Islamic world. Pakistan’s key role in facilitating normalization of relations has also been acknowledged by the Chinese leadership. Former Chinese president Hu Jintao’s statement that “China can give up gold but not its friendship with Pakistan” [1] and President Xi Jinping’s statement that “China and Pakistan are good neighbors, good friends, partners and brothers” and that “the friendship between the two countries is deeply rooted and unbreakable” [2] are indicative of China’s long-term commitment to Pakistan. This aspect of the relationship is well captured in The China-Pakistan Axis

The first chapter of the book looks at India as a key factor in the formation of the China-Pakistan friendship during the early years. Here, Small provides a comprehensive account of how the relationship developed between the two countries over three crucial wars (the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, and the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War). The book rightly argues that

    China and Pakistan have never been treaty allies and their armies come from such radically different traditions that the two sides have often talked past each other on matters of strategy. But after Pakistan’s devastating defeat (in 1971), China helped the country to develop a set of military capabilities to ensure that it would never face the same fate again. (p. 3)

To enhance Pakistan’s military capabilities, China fully backed and supported Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions through close cooperation, making Pakistan the only nuclear weapons country in the Islamic world. The central motive was to neutralize India’s nuclear weapons.

The second chapter presents a fascinating narrative account of this nuclear cooperation. Small depicts China’s role in helping Pakistan obtain nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles by supplying not only technology but also the necessary expertise and materials, including highly enriched uranium. Small correctly notes that “if the military relationship lies at the heart of China-Pakistan ties, nuclear weapons lie at the heart of the military relationship” (p. 29). But the most interesting dimension explained in the book is what this relationship actually has meant both for the Pakistani military and for its Chinese counterpart. When Pakistani foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto traveled to China in 1965 to tell leaders there that India had built a plutonium plant and ask them to help Pakistan build a similar one, China suggested that Pakistan get assistance from Canada. The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant subsequently became operational in 1973, one year before India’s nuclear test. When Pakistan’s clandestine program was discovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Bhutto instead turned to A.Q. Khan for help with enrichment, using the latest European design from Urenco. And then China saw the advantage of cooperation with Pakistan to improve its own enrichment capabilities.

The third chapter of the book provides an in-depth analysis of China’s dilemma on how to deal with Pakistan’s military adventurism against India, very aptly capturing the real essence of Sino-Pakistani relations. As Small notes, “even as the Sino-Indian relationship has improved, India’s rise as a potential competitor to Beijing has further reinforced the original rationale for its partnership with Pakistan” (p. 4). In the past, China often did not provide the kind of support that Pakistan wanted during conflicts with India and instead tried to defuse crises in cooperation with the United States. A case in point is China’s refusal to provide military or diplomatic support during the Kargil conflict. Small explains China’s conditional support for its supposedly all-weather friend by noting that “the most significant backing that China provides does not come in the midst of the latest crisis, but from the steady, long-term commitment to ensure that Pakistan has the capabilities it needs to play the role China wants it to” (p. 61). India thus will remain the central pillar of the Sino-Pakistani relationship despite the changing geopolitics of Sino-Indian, U.S.-Indian, and Sino-U.S. relations. Even with Beijing’s improving ties with New Delhi, India continues to bind China and Pakistan. Small very aptly describes this aspect of the relationship when he writes that for China “whatever the ebbs and flows in its bilateral ties with New Delhi, Pakistan’s utility as a balanced, potential spoiler, and standing counterpoint to India’s ambitions has never gone away” (p. 65). He goes on to note that China would like to see the India-Pakistan relationship exist in a state of managed mistrust” (p. 54).

There are many anecdotes in The China-Pakistan Axis that help explain the complex yet strong bond between the two countries. One of the book’s most interesting passages is its discussion of how the Islamicization of the Pakistan Army reveals an often overlooked ambivalence in China’s approach toward Pakistan. It is here, in chapter four, that the limitations of Sino-Pakistani ties are most visible. China has always relied on Pakistan to manage the threat of jihadi forces affecting its own territory. Pakistan’s relevance for China in this regard is twofold: first, Pakistan is China’s conduit to the Islamic world; and second, Islamabad is useful for countering the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region where Beijing is struggling to fight the Uighurs and their linkages to the extremist forces present in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and (now with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in West Asia. The importance of Xinjiang for China’s internal security is immense: it is one of the world’s top unexplored oil basins and also has coal reserves crucial for China’s energy security. Moreover, China has a large arsenal of nuclear ballistic missiles located in the region, along with twelve army divisions and six air force bases. In addition, Xinjiang functions as a buffer between China and Central Asia. These factors will continue to enhance Pakistan’s relevance for China and make “a strong, capable Pakistan…an asset to China in its own right” (p. 3). China’s adventures and misadventures in dealing with Islamist forces are well documented by Small.

Readers, however, are left with some unanswered questions. First, are economic relations between China and Pakistan win-win? The fifth chapter argues that the strategic dimension of their cooperation in grand economic projects continues to provide momentum, but it does not explain the commercial rationale of the relationship. Though Small refers to economic relations between the two sides as being traditionally weak—that is, a problem to fix rather than a source of strength—this issue needs more attention. In fact, 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.

A second question that merits attention is whether Sino-Pakistani relations will have any positive impact on relations between India and Pakistan. Third, and more important, the role of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea in building Sino-Pakistani relations is worthy of attention. Analysis of Chinese concerns about Pakistan’s relations with both Saudi Arabia and North Korea would be of great value because these ties could significantly influence future trends in Asian geopolitics. In addition, China has now decoupled India from Russia and is facilitating Russian arms sales to Pakistan. Growing ties between Russia, Pakistan, and China are likely to establish a new front of cooperation in Asian geopolitics. Finally, the concept of a potential trilateral U.S.-India-China relationship could have been examined further.

Overall, however, The China-Pakistan Axis is a very useful contribution for helping unravel the complexity of Sino-Pakistani relations. This strategic partnership, despite its conditional engagement, is likely to grow in the future.


[1] Syed Hasan Javed, Chinese Soft Power Code (Karachi: Paramount Books, 2014), 33.

[2] Javed, Chinese Soft Power Code, 33. </

Meena Singh Roy is a Research Fellow and Coordinator of the West Asia Centre with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, India.

About Asia Policy

Asia Policy is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal presenting policy-relevant academic research on the Asia-Pacific that draws clear and concise conclusions useful to today’s policymakers. Asia Policy is published quarterly in January, April, July, and October and accepts submissions on a rolling basis. Learn more