- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
On a visit to China almost a decade ago, I had a conversation with a Beijing-based Chinese foreign policy analyst. The subject of China’s relationship with Pakistan came up and the analyst laughed ruefully. Although he acknowledged Pakistan saw the bilateral relationship as a valuable friendship, he implied that was not how China saw it. China was in some ways reluctant, I gathered, even to be seen as cultivating a friendship with Pakistan. At the time, the idea of taoguang yanghui (hide your strength and bide your time) still held sway in China, and the Chinese government was not only wary of being seen as an international spoiler state but also siding with one. China saw no need to trumpet the relationship, and Pakistan needed China more than the other way around.
But a decade has made a difference. The bilateral relationship is important for both countries now. Last week, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made it a point to meet his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The rhetoric in China today openly and consistently refers to Pakistan as a good friend and supportive partner. What changed? The answer comes not only from the one factor that has always driven the relationship—India—but also from China’s own changing ambitions.
The China-Pakistan relationship was built in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian border dispute. With little hope of a China-India rapprochement on the border, India became a strategic concern for both countries. Cementing the relationship, in 1963, Pakistan ceded to China the Shaksgam Valley, an area claimed by India. China then provided Pakistan with arms, the materials to build its nuclear weapons program, and large amounts of economic aid. Yet, it never wholeheartedly embraced the relationship. There were many reasons for this.
For one, China never saw India as its equal or a predominant strategic threat. That dubious honor was reserved for the United States. Thus, in the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, China did not intervene militarily on Pakistan’s behalf. While it did at least publicly support Pakistan in 1965, it failed to do even that in 1971, despite Pakistan having played a role in the rapprochement between China and the United States. Additionally, China became deeply concerned about Pakistan’s reputation, somewhat to do with the country’s status as a nuclear pariah state after the international outcry about AQ Khan, but mostly for harboring and supporting Islamist terrorists. China’s Xinjiang province is home to the ethnic Uighur Muslim community.
China had long been concerned about Islamist militancy among the Uighurs, and their suspected ties with militants in both Pakistan and Afghanistan exacerbated this concern. Notably, China distanced itself from Pakistan during the Kargil war in 1999 and during the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008.
However, by the mid-2000s, two factors became important. The first was the shift in the U.S.-India relationship. Although the United States had, for a while, been talking about India as a counterbalance to China, it was their progressing military and economic partnership in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union that hammered this point home for Chinese elites. Stimson Center China analyst Yun Sun has argued that the timing of the Galwan Valley clash may have reflected Beijing’s concerns that, given Delhi’s deepening ties with Washington when its own ties with the United States were fraying, it could not afford to “indulge” Delhi on the border issue. The second factor was China’s ambitions regarding the international order. In 2013, President Xi announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a gargantuan multilateral infrastructure and investment project, to showcase the Chinese path of development. The cornerstone of BRI was the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While China had long given Pakistan infrastructure aid and support, CPEC was different. It contained a variety of initiatives—including infrastructure, energy, economic zones, and the development of a strategic port, Gwadar—and was worth a whopping $62 billion. Importantly, it was meant to be a strategic and economic connection between southwest China and Pakistan. In essence, the success and ambition of CPEC, a flagship project of BRI, was important to the success of BRI itself.
These two factors mean that Pakistan is now an important partner for China. The relationship raises the specter that India may, in the future, face a two-front war, a scenario that would have been implausible a decade ago. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and embassies in South Asia often tweet sympathetically about the relationship—including on topics such as Pakistan’s welcome of the Chinese-sponsored Global Security Initiative, China-Pakistan football matches, China’s flood aid, and pandemic cooperation. At an MFA press conference earlier this year, the spokesperson gushed that, “the bond of friendship and mutual assistance between the Chinese and Pakistani people is stronger than gold, and the two countries’ iron-clad friendship is deeply rooted in the people and boasts strong vitality.”
This is not to say the relationship is problem-free. China’s wariness about Islamist militants in Xinjiang and their links to Pakistani militants, its concern about Chinese citizens working in Pakistan who have been the targets of terror attacks, the sporadic opposition in Pakistan to CPEC projects, and China’s caution about weighing in on Kashmir (despite its recent condemnation of India’s abrogation of Article 370 and Wang Yi’s reference to the territory at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting) all continue to be sticking points. Yet this is no longer just a relationship, but a genuine partnership. India should take note.