Intensifying China-Pakistan Ties

Intensifying China-Pakistan Ties

Summit-level meetings between Pakistani and Chinese leaders this week and a new civilian nuclear power deal underscore intensifying relations between these allies, though China is also signaling growing concerns about Pakistan’s stability, says expert Andrew Small.

July 7, 2010 10:21 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari is on a six-day trip to China that began July 6. Zardari is meeting with China’s top leaders, and on Wednesday the two countries signed pacts on cooperation in agriculture, healthcare, justice, media, economy, and technology. Both sides also vowed to step up joint efforts against terrorism. But while the relationship between the two countries is strong, it’s shadowed by Beijing’s concerns about Pakistan’s security threat and its impact on Chinese investment and personnel in Pakistan, says Andrew Small, an expert on China-Pakistan relations at the German Marshall Fund for the United States. Small adds that China might make deals with various militant groups inside Pakistan to ensure safety for its assets and workers. As for China’s plan to build two nuclear power reactors in Pakistan, Small says it is likely Beijing will ignore international nonproliferation guidelines to go ahead with the deal.

What agreements or announcements are we likely to see coming out of President Zardari’s visit?

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These trips had become relatively routine--soon after assuming office, President Zardari announced that he would visit China every three months, a commitment that he’s largely stuck to. The visit will again be dominated by Zardari’s push to attract Chinese investment and boost trade ties, which are still the weakest element of the relationship. But aside from the fact that it’s a full state visit, the unusually high interest this time around is largely connected to the nuclear deal.

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[I]n private, Chinese analysts are quite clear that [nuclear deal with Pakistan] is a strategic tit-for-tat [in response to U.S-India nuclear deal] and it’s a very worrying portent if this is going to be China’s approach to the nonproliferation regime in future.

The nuclear deal, in which China plans to sell two new civilian nuclear reactors to Pakistan, is seen as violating the rules set by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), of which China is a member. What are China’s options? Will it proceed with the sale to Pakistan or follow the U.S.-India example and seek a special exemption?

The indications so far are that China will ignore the NSG guidelines and simply claim that the deal is part of the exemption for prior Sino-Pak civil nuclear cooperation--the power plants Chashma 1 and 2, which were "grandfathered" as conditions of China’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. No one accepts this argument, though. Beijing has been testing the water to see how other countries--and particularly the United States--react, but so far seems to think that it won’t encounter serious pushback. There is little appetite in Beijing for going through the sort of process that the United States undertook at the NSG for the India deal.

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The United States has expressed concern over the nuclear deal and has asked Beijing for details. How damaging is this deal for the nonproliferation regime? Are there any real options available to Washington, which is seen by some as the culprit for bending the rules for India?

The United States expressed concern in the past, but official reaction to the actual conclusion of the deal has been relatively muted, and many in China think it will stay that way. Aside from the obvious gaps between the Indian and Pakistani proliferation records, the major difference between the Indo-U.S. and Sino-Pakistan deals is that there has been no attempt on China’s part to secure an international consensus behind it, nor to extract any concessions from Pakistan vis-à-vis proliferation issues.

The United States and other countries are perfectly entitled to require Beijing to go through the same tough process if it expects to move ahead with the deal while remaining a member of the NSG. But the Chinese also believe that Washington needs Beijing’s support on issues such as Iran at the moment and will be unwilling to mount serious resistance to the deal. Moreover, in private, Chinese analysts are quite clear that this is a strategic tit-for-tat [in response to U.S-India nuclear deal], and it’s a very worrying portent if this is going to be China’s approach to the nonproliferation regime in future.

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Pakistan and China have often referred to their relationship as one that has stood the test of time. What are current priorities on each side in the relationship?

Beijing is somewhat skeptical in general about civilian rule in Pakistan and is more comfortable with military governments, which they perceive to be more stable.

The traditional elements of the relationship are still very much alive--China supports Pakistan as a counterbalance to India, and military cooperation is uniquely close. If anything, this matters more now, as India’s path to great power status--and to deeper ties with the United States--grows more assured. Islamabad looks to Beijing for economic support and diplomatic protection, acting in turn as a political ally in the Islamic world and in international organizations. China expects Pakistan to play an active role in containing the threat from militant groups to Xinjiang. Chinese companies are given privileged access in Pakistan and opportunities for major strategic projects such as ports and pipelines.

The newer concerns on Beijing’s side are the security of Chinese personnel and assets in Pakistan, and the broader consequences of internal instability. For Pakistan, the push for Chinese investment in an array of economic sectors is much higher than it has been in the past.

What is China’s relationship with Pakistan’s current civilian government?

Beijing is somewhat skeptical in general about civilian rule in Pakistan and is more comfortable with military governments, which they perceive to be more stable. Chinese diplomats and military officers will quite openly say that they miss [former Pakistani president and army chief] General Pervez Musharraf. And even though China enjoys good relations with all the political parties in Pakistan, it has often found the [ruling] Pakistan People’s Party too pro-Western for its taste. President Zardari in particular had a frosty start to relations with Beijing when he assumed the presidency. They have improved since then but still couldn’t be described as close.

Chinese workers have increasingly become targets of militant groups inside Pakistan since 2007. Has this affected how China perceives its interests as well as the security threat inside Pakistan?

China has leaned hard on Pakistan to protect its workers, and there have been moments of real tension when Beijing has felt that Islamabad’s response was inadequate--particularly during the Lal Masjid incident [the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where Chinese workers were kidnapped by extremists in 2007] and the kidnapping of Chinese engineers in Swat.

Senior Chinese leaders such as President Hu Jintao have been very directly engaged in the situations, adding to the pressure. China at points has threatened to pull funding and to withdraw its workers from the country. Needless to say, this has at points made for a far more fraught relationship than in the past. China has become more concerned about the security threat in Pakistan, but it has largely relied on its traditional approach--leaning on the Pakistani government to do more to protect its people--rather than addressing some of the systemic conditions that are leading to these threats growing.

What kind of cooperation is there between the two countries on fighting militancy inside Pakistan?

China has provided some practical support to Pakistani operations--equipment, provisions for internally displaced persons during the Swat campaign, and so on. During the time of Zardari’s visit, the two sides’ militaries will be conducting their third set of joint counterterrorism exercises in Ningxia [Chinese province]--the timing pointedly crossing over with the anniversary of the riots in Xinjiang last year. To the extent that Pakistan asks for China’s help on the threat of militancy, it has evidently been willing to provide it. But the bulk of military cooperation is still focused on India, and China evidently has little desire to get too much caught up in or associated with broader internal campaigns aside from the crackdowns on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and Turkestan Islamic Party, the Uighur militant groups.

In your latest piece in the Washington Quarterly, you write China is willing to make deals with militant groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin to secure its interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan. How does this fit into China’s strategy for dealing with militancy inside Pakistan? Does it jeopardize U.S. and Western interests in the country?

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China has become more concerned about the security threat in Pakistan, but it has largely relied on its traditional approach--leaning on the Pakistani government to do more to protect its people--rather than addressing some of the systemic conditions that are leading to these threats growing.

China’s main interest is ensuring that it does not become a primary target for militant groups, and it is willing to make deals and pay people off if necessary. It also aims to starve Uighur militants of any support. Beijing’s expectation has been that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services can lean on some of these militant groups to ensure that they steer clear of Chinese interests. This strategy has worked well in the past, and although it has become more difficult since the Pakistani military’s relations with certain groups have fractured, there are plenty of groups for whom Pakistan’s military can still act as an effective intermediary.

Nevertheless, there has been a perception on China’s part that it needs to reach out to some of these groups through additional channels--political parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami--as the traditional ones are no longer sufficient. None of this is actively harming U.S. and Western interests, but it’s a strategy that is basically parasitic on the United States and the West remaining the primary targets [for militants]--it is not one that identifies shared interests in combating these groups and looks for ways to cooperate.

Under the Obama administration, China and the United States have discussed Pakistan as part of their bilateral dialogue. Do the two share common goals/interests in the country? How can they better cooperate toward achieving them?

The two sides do share some fundamental interests in ensuring the stability of Pakistan, preventing the rise of militancy, avoiding direct conflict with India, securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and so on. In times of crisis--Kargil [war in 1999], Mumbai [attacks in 2008], Pakistan’s financial crisis [in 2008]–-cooperation has actually been quite effective. The difficulty is that when it comes to identifying longer-term ways to cooperate, China becomes very resistant. It outright refused even to talk about a U.S. State Department plan for joint activities. Coordination rather than cooperation is a more realistic expectation--and plenty of China’s economic activities in the country serve shared interests anyway.

Both the United States and China know that Pakistan’s economic development is essential to its stability, and Chinese investments in infrastructure, energy, telecommunications, joint industrial zones, and many other areas will provide important support to that objective. Few other countries have the resources, capacity, and appetite for risk to have such a transformative impact in Pakistan. But even coordination is difficult while China--and the Chinese military in particular--seeks to protect the privileged nature of the bilateral relationship [with Pakistan] and while many of the gaps in goals and interests also exist. Not least, China is essentially suspicious of the U.S. role in Pakistan and the region more broadly and sees direct risks in being associated with unpopular U.S. activities.

In October last year, you wrote Pakistan has become "one of the only countries where Beijing has undertaken crisis contingency planning for scenarios ranging from state collapse to loose nukes." Could you elaborate? Is this a distinct change in Chinese policy toward Pakistan?

My understanding is that these are more along the lines of scenario planning for Chinese options in various eventualities rather than full military contingency planning, but it’s difficult to ascertain with precision. Some scenarios I’ve heard cited are nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, a failure of Pakistan to contain militancy in the country, and war with India, but this is a murky realm of any country’s military planning.

What it does signify is that Chinese anxiety about worst-case scenarios has undoubtedly risen. Threat-perceptions for Pakistan are generally lower in China than they are in the United States, but some of the scenarios have even more serious repercussions for Beijing than they do for Washington. There are direct spillover consequences for Xinjiang and to the full spectrum of China’s strategic interests in South and Southwest Asia in situations where the Pakistani state is no longer capable of functioning effectively.


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