Storm Clouds Ahead for the "All-Weather Allies"? Today's Pakistan-China Relationship
Islamabad and Beijing have enjoyed warm relations since the 1960s, and their ties have been described as "sweeter than honey" and "higher than the Himalayas." Yet what lies beneath the rhetoric? On Monday, January 26, the Asia Program, in conjunction with the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States and the Division of International Security Studies, hosted an event to examine the economic, military, and political dimensions of the Pakistan-China relationship.
Jing-Dong Yuan, associate professor at the Monterey Institute provided an historical outline of Pakistan's ties with China. Before the 1990s, a shared hostility toward India resulted in warm relations between the Pakistan and China. However, China's stance towards Pakistan shifted slightly in the 1990s, after Sino-Indian normalization. This was evident in the way Beijing treated the Kashmir issue. Before the 1990s, Chinese policymakers tended to favor Pakistan in statements about the disputed area. By 1996, Chinese President Jiang Zemin was calling for India and Pakistan to reach a negotiated settlement on the issue. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, China's relationship with Pakistan has been dominated by defense issues, and Beijing continues to strive for balance in its relations with India and Pakistan. Professor Yuan also sketched future prospects for the bilateral relationship, expressing his belief that, while bilateral ties will remain friendly, there is a need to expand the relationship beyond its focus on security. The two nations' already substantial economic ties will help in this regard. The triangular relationship with India, meanwhile, will continue to be a delicate balance.
According to Tarique Niazi, visiting assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, bilateral economic relations have evolved through three distinct stages since Pakistan formally recognized the People's Republic in 1952. The 1950s witnessed a period of outreach, with the two nations recognizing that they had strategic interests in common. For the subsequent two decades, relations between the two nations were characterized by significant infrastructure projects in Pakistan, such as the Karakoram Highway that links China with Pakistan and the Gwader deep sea port, which allows China access to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan. Much of this development was funded by the PRC. From the 1990s, however, the focus of the relationship has been on militant violence in Pakistan, often by groups seen as advocating for Uyghur independence from China. As well as being seen as a threat to China's territorial integrity, these groups threaten the 8,500 Chinese nationals living in Pakistan and China's significant economic investments in the country. In response, China has encouraged Pakistan to suppress the activities of these insurgents, which according to Niazi ensures close contact between the two nations. Moreover, Pakistan's potentially vast oil and coal reserves should ensure that energy-hungry Beijing maintains friendly relations with Islamabad.
In his presentation, Ziad Haider, a master's candidate at Harvard University, outlined three key political issues in the bilateral relationship. Firstly, Haider argued that Sino-Pakistan cooperation on counter-terrorism will continue through information sharing, joint drills, military sales and police aid. At the same time, China will continue to pressure Pakistan behind the scenes on the issue of counterterrorism, even while maintaining solidarity in public – so long as attacks by Uyghur separatists in China remain small in scale. Secondly, China will remain neutral on the dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, and in this regard Pakistan may have to recalibrate its expectations of China's position. Nevertheless, amity between Pakistan and the PRC will continue to remain a sore point in the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi, especially insofar as the latter perceives Chinese "tolerance" of anti-Indian militancy originating from Pakistan. Thirdly, China will continue to support Pakistan's right to a civil nuclear program, especially as it sees the recent deal negotiated by the United States to allow India access to nuclear materials as a double standard if Pakistan cannot also come to such an agreement. Privately, however, Chinese policymakers will weigh the issue against their nation's own proliferation concerns and fear of diplomatic fallout. Haider concluded by noting that there is potential scope for Sino-American collaboration in managing Indo-Pakistan crises, promoting nuclear safety in the region and helping Pakistan meet its growing energy needs.
The presentations were concluded with commentary by Riaz Mohammad Khan, the Wilson Center's current Pakistan Scholar and also Pakistan's former foreign secretary and former ambassador to China. Khan noted that there is no reason for doubting that the relationship between Pakistan and China will remain fundamentally sound. Unlike China's relations with India, there is no historical baggage in the form of border disputes, and in several areas – such as counter-terrorism – the interests of the two nations converge. Pakistan has also long proved itself as a valuable ally to China at the Security Council and in other U.N. bodies on issues such as human rights and nuclear development. On Kashmir, Khan was careful to voice his disagreement with some of the other speakers, who had mentioned that Pakistan was attempting to "internationalize" the Kashmir issue. Khan insisted that Islamabad is well aware that New Delhi will not accept third-party attempts to resolve the Kashmir issue. Nevertheless, he pointed out that China's wish for Pakistan to "put the issue on the backburner" is difficult for Pakistan to fulfill, given that violence in the region affects "actual people." Overall, however, Khan sees the relationship between China and Pakistan as a sound one, cemented by mutually positive historical memories.
Drafted by Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program Associate.
Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program Director. Ph: (202) 691-4020