The future of China-Pakistan relations


back to issue

THE dropping of Pakistan from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s travel itinerary for South Asia in mid-September 2014 prompted speculation in some quarters that it was indicative of a dilution in China’s ‘all weather’ relationship with Pakistan, described by leaders of both countries as ‘higher than the highest mountain, deeper than the deepest ocean and sweeter than honey.’ While there are undoubtedly some difficulties in the Sino-Pakistan bilateral relationship, such speculation is presently unrealistic. A scenario depicting rapid deterioration in Pakistan’s political stability and security, where Islamist extremists acquire increased salience could, however, cause Beijing to pause and rethink its policy toward Pakistan and South Asia.

Facts are that even a week before Xi Jinping’s visit (17-19 September 2014) was officially announced, the visit to Pakistan had been confirmed and was very much on the agenda. The domestic political scene in Pakistan, however, witnessed dramatic changes and heightened political uncertainty, which raised doubts about the continuance of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the possibility of violence, prompting China to reassess the feasibility of a visit by its President, Xi Jinping. Beijing is usually loathe to alter programmes once they are finalized and, particularly, to give the impression that it does not stand beside a friend going through troubled times.

A high level delegation of China’s Ministry of State Security (MoSS) headed by its Minister, 63-year old Geng Huichang, therefore, travelled to Islamabad to assess the situation first-hand. The Pakistani authorities, and especially Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was keen on the visit and later expressed disappointment at its cancellation, also offered Lahore and Karachi as alternate venues to China’s MoSS minister, but the Chinese were not satisfied about the security situation at any of these places. The visit was consequently, and rather unusually, deferred reflecting the serious doubts that exist in Beijing about the instability in Pakistan.

Within days of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India, however, there was visible demonstration that relations between the two nations remain strong. A flotilla of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships, which included the guided missile destroyer Changchun and guided missile frigate Changzhou, paid a 5-day visit to Karachi from 27 September 2014. Earlier, a Chinese Song-class diesel-powered attack submarine for the first time ever sailed to Colombo port, where it stayed for five days overlapping with Xi Jinping’s visit to Sri Lanka and India. In early October 2014, the Chinese Navy announced that it would deploy Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines for anti-piracy operations off Somalia, thereby raising the real prospect that PLAN’s Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines could regularly begin visiting Karachi in the very near future. This will expand the scope of extant military contacts between the two countries.


Significant in the context of Sino-Pak military ties is China’s growing influence on Pakistan’s military establishment, indicated by the number of Pakistan military personnel going for training to PLA establishments. Their number, at least since 2010, already exceeds those going to the US, which for many years was the traditional source for training of Pakistan military officers. Similarly, weapons sales have steadily increased and between 1978 and 2008, China sold almost US$ 7 billion in military equipment to Pakistan. As China emerged as the world’s largest arms seller with global sales estimated at approximately US$ 2 billion, Pakistan had by 2013 become the largest purchaser of Chinese weaponry accounting for nearly 47 per cent of China’s total arms sales.

Sino-Pak diplomatic relations can be traced back to the early 1950s with Pakistan’s recognition on 9 January 1950 of the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC). Diplomatic ties between Pakistan and China were formalized in 1951 when Pakistan opened its mission in Beijing. The China-Pakistan bilateral relationship has endured to become one of the most comprehensive that Beijing has with any country. It has stood the test of time, prompted to a large extent by the strategic imperatives of developing Pakistan as a bulwark against India; using Pakistan as an access point into the larger Islamic world; as another option to gain access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean; and as an ally in securing its interests in Afghanistan.


This relationship, nurtured by successive Chinese and Pakistani leaders, soon yielded benefits for Beijing with Pakistan lobbying for China’s entry on to the world stage and the UNSC instead of Taiwan. Pakistan also brokered the meeting in July 1971 between China’s Mao Zedong and US President Nixon, which led to the normalization of US-China relations. In the process it solidified ties with the US and Chinese leaderships. Pakistan, for its part, has stayed steadfastly by China’s side and been a good client state, eager to stand up for China wherever the need arose. Over the years, China successfully and effectively built influence in Pakistan and ingressed Pakistani society. The effectiveness of its lobbying with Pakistan’s military, diplomatic and scientific elite was exhibited in 2013 when a number of former Pakistani diplomats and others wrote in Pakistan’s media and successfully urged that Gwadar Port be handed over to China as the experience with the Singapore Port Authority had been unsatisfactory.

The Sino-Pak strategic partnership and cooperation is mainly manifested in four aspects, viz. economic and trade cooperation; people to people contacts; defence and security cooperation; and, cooperation and coordination in international and regional affairs. The five main drivers of China’s ‘multi-dimensional’ relationship with Pakistan were best identified by former Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to Pakistan in 2006. He listed these as: (i) deepening strategic cooperation and consolidating traditional friendship; (ii) expanding ‘win-win’ business ties; (iii) expanding cultural and social exchanges and strengthening the basis of friendship; (iv) strengthening cooperation in international affairs and upholding common interests; and (v) promoting exchanges among civilizations to enhance world harmony.


India is an important factor that ensured development of Sino-Pakistan relations. After the India-China border war in 1962, where deteriorating Sino-Soviet relations were also a factor, India looked towards the Soviet Union while China accelerated the strengthening of its relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan, which has viewed India as a threat and ‘enemy’ and has traditionally sought to preserve a solid relationship with the US, now assiduously began building relations with China. China, in turn, with an eye to enforcing its territorial claims and perceiving shared interests, helped Pakistan enhance its military and nuclear capabilities with the objective of keeping India engaged and focused on threats emanating from Pakistan, thus practically freeing itself of any military threat from India.

A major step in China-Pakistan relations was taken in 1963, when the two countries signed a border agreement transferring 2,000 square miles (5,180 sq kms) of territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to China. This agreement (also known as the Sino-Pakistan Frontier Agreement and Sino-Pak Boundary Agreement) claimed to establish the border between the two countries and effectively paved the way for China’s claims of sovereignty over hundreds of square kilometres of land in northern Kashmir and Ladakh. The transfer facilitated building of the high altitude 1,280 kms Karakoram Highway, which traverses the 19,000 feet high Khunjerab Pass north of the Siachin glacier, and connects China’s Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region with Pakistan’s Northern Areas (NA). It has been developed into an all-weather road with substantive Chinese assistance.


The Sino-Pak relationship is reinforced by strong mutual geo-strategic interests as well as perceived national security interests. Of particular relevance to India and the region are the agreements between China and Pakistan to upgrade the ‘all weather’ Karakoram Highway, establish a Defence Electronics Complex in Pakistan, develop Gwadar Port as an energy hub and probably a naval base, lay a pipeline as proposed by Pakistan from Baluchistan to Xinjiang, and a slew of other defence cooperation agreements.

Illustrative of the seeming ‘permanence’ with which China views its relationship with Pakistan is the construction of Gwadar Port, viewed by China as an energy hub, strategically located just 250 miles from the Straits of Hormuz and through which nearly 40 per cent of the world’s oil supplies flow. The port is well placed to serve as a key shipping point in the region. China agreed to fund the port after Pakistan agreed to give it ‘sovereign guarantees to the port facilities.’ In the formal inauguration on 20 March 2007, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said that friendly Pak-China relations had ‘made the dream of Gwadar Port a reality.’

Gwadar Port is a major initiative intended to help China project its strategic presence and military power across the subcontinent and diversify and secure its crude oil import routes and gain access to the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Chinese officials have stated that they will use this as part of the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ to enhance trade and commerce. It has the potential to facilitate PLAN’s operations in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Reports of China setting up electronic eavesdropping posts at Gwadar to monitor US and Indian naval activity and shipping traffic through the Straits of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea lend credence to this. It also augments the Pakistan Navy’s capabilities and enhances Pakistan’s importance in the region as a commercial and trade-transit point.


China’s huge plans for the development of Gwadar suggest long-term involvement. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor envisages construction of a 2,870 mile road connecting Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang-Uyghur Auto-nomous Region with Gwadar at an estimated cost of US$ 18 billion. An international airport is under construction at Gwadar as are six coal-fired power plants. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, for which an MoU was signed in Islamabad on 27 August 2013, will entail massive capital investment. It provides that China will build a highway connecting the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to Gwadar. Beijing has completed surveys and is preparing to extend the Karakoram Highway down to Gwadar. Plans provide for a railway line, stretching from Xinjiang through Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan to Gwadar, alongside the extended Karakoram Highway.

The support infrastructure built around the port will help integrate Pakistan into the Chinese economy by outsourcing low-tech basic production and manufacturing jobs. For China this is an important strategic venture as it will be the only rail link affording landlocked Afghanistan access to a warm water port and will offer Kyrgyzstan an alternate to the existing solitary transport route controlled by Russia. That China was determined to push ahead with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor became evident when China ignored India’s objections raised during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in May 2013.


Another pointer to China’s plans for long-term involvement with Pakistan are the almost 35 projects that China has been engaged in at least since 2009 in the POK and Pakistan’s Northern Areas, or the Gilgit-Baltistan belt in POK. These include hydel projects, roads and the construction of helipads. PLA engineers are mainly known to be involved in many of these projects, especially the construction of a 200 km long tunnel at a cost of US$ 18 billion to facilitate the transportation of goods, military materials and personnel from Xinjiang to Gwadar. Meanwhile, one informed US-based source claimed that up to 10,000 PLA troops were present in the area. The Indian Army’s Chief of Staff, General V.K. Singh, in 2011 referred to the presence of nearly 3,500 PLA personnel in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and the same year the Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. K.T. Parnaik, warned that, ‘The Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan and the Northern Areas is increasing steadily.’

At the same time, Hong Kong based Chinese controlled media reports in 2010 revealed that China’s leadership is considering the possibility of deployment in the future of Chinese Special Forces in these areas to safeguard Chinese assets. Some official Chinese media reports questioned whether Chinese strategic investments in Pakistan’s Northern Areas and, in fact Pakistan itself, are safe. They pointed to the new upgraded Karakoram Highway, plans for a railway line running down to Gwadar Port and for which surveys had been completed, and an oil pipeline from Gwadar to Xinjiang.

Similarly, there has been no let-up in China-Pakistan cooperation in the nuclear and space fields, which has actually expanded. China is the single major partner in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes. Details of Chinese assistance to Pakistan, initially with the sale of M-9 and M-11 missiles in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in the mid-1980s, and later the development of enhanced range and capability missiles are well known. In fact, when leaned upon by the US, Beijing continued to assist Pakistan and brokered and facilitated a missiles-for-nuclear technology deal between Pakistan and North Korea.


China has helped Pakistan with research in space technology in Ormara, Baluchistan, under the supervision of SUPARCO (Space and Upper Atmospheric Research Commission) in Karachi and in the development of Pakistan’s space launch vehicle. Beijing collaborated, albeit unsuccessfully, to frustrate the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement and warned the US that another country could similarly violate the international non-proliferation regime. China soon after contracted to supply two nuclear reactors to Pakistan. Most recent reports state that China is building three 1 GW nuclear power plants at Karachi and another three elsewhere in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, despite these close ties, serious tensions exist in the China-Pakistan relationship with Beijing particularly concerned about Pakistan’s internal stability. Attacks on Chinese individuals inside Pakistan, training of Uyghurs in extremist Islamic organizational facilities and the suspected assistance by Pakistan based religious tanzeems to fundamentalist elements in Xinjiang province are the thorny issues in Sino-Pak relations.


But these tensions have existed for a while. As far back as in the 1990s, Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was ‘advised’ to tighten controls on Pakistani ‘preachers’ travelling to Xinjiang and China re-routed Hajj flights to avoid stopovers in Pakistan. More recently, tension surfaced between Islamabad and Beijing over attacks by Islamist extremists on Chinese workers, who number about 10,000 in Pakistan. China was incensed in summer 2007, when Islamist militants kidnapped several Chinese citizens whom they accused of running a brothel in Islamabad. Around the same time, three Chinese officials were killed in Peshawar. Several days later, a suicide bomber attacked a group of Chinese engineers in Baluchistan. Then Chinese President Hu Jintao, called on Pakistani leaders to increase protection for Chinese workers in Pakistan and threatened to stop funding for projects where Chinese workers were under threat.

Pakistan sought to limit damage by intensifying cooperation between Chinese and Pakistan Intelligence agencies to apprehend Uyghurs residing in Pakistan and promising to help China curtail violence in Xinjiang. Chinese leaders used their relationships with Pakistani military officials and Islamist political parties, to persuade them to discourage attacks on Chinese interests. China also reached agreements with the Taliban to prevent Uyghur separatists from using Afghanistan as a training ground for militant activities. In late September 2011, China’s Vice Premier in charge of Public Security, Meng Jianzhu, visited Pakistan to strengthen cooperation with Islamabad in dealing with the challenge of militancy in Xinjiang. China’s interest in supporting counter-terrorism initiatives in Pakistan is aimed at containing threats to the internal stability of Xinjiang and safeguarding Chinese investments and personnel in Pakistan.


As ethnic unrest and violence in Xinjiang increases, there are signals that the Chinese government’s frustration over Pakistan’s inability to check cross-border militancy is increasing. Delegates to the Eleventh and Twelfth National People’s Congress (NPC) and senior officials from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region pointed to Pakistan as a source for the unrest and went to the unusual extent of naming Pakistan. Local Chinese authorities in Xinjiang charged that the person who mounted the attacks in Kashgar this July had received training in Pakistan, the first time China had publicly pointed a finger at Pakistan. The accusations were repeated in the official English language newspaper China Daily. Similar charges were levelled after the knife attack in Kunming in mid-2014.

Notable, though, is that following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Beijing did not condemn the Lashkar-e-Taiyeba (LeT) or criticize the alleged responsibility of Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). There was also an intrusion by Chinese troops in the Ladakh sector during this period. China did, however, eventually vote for sanctions against the Jammat-Ud-Dawa (JuD), the political wing of LeT, at the UN Security Council after having opposed this on three previous occasions.

A factor that will contribute to keeping Sino-Pakistan relations strong is Afghanistan. Apprehending political uncertainty consequent to the impending US withdrawal puts at risk Chinese investments in Afghanistan. Beijing’s interest in resource-rich Afghanistan has been evident in the number of MoUs it has signed, though these have not yet materialized into tangible investments. The sanctuary that Islamist extremist elements have enjoyed in Afghanistan poses a serious threat to China’s effort to maintain stability in its restive border Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region and the prospect of trained Uyghur militants indulging in terrorist acts across China is very troubling. Here, Beijing will seek to secure more direct assistance from Pakistan as well as the Central Asian Republics and possibly utilize the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

China’s strategic and substantial financial investments in Pakistan, including since 2010 despite the troubled conditions, clearly reveal its long-term stake in Pakistan. These reinforce its interest in ensuring a stable Pakistan. On the question of Pakistan, US and Chinese interests would seem to converge. China’s commitment is evidenced by official Chinese media reports that promote favourable rhetoric and project the image of their strong partnership. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang too, during his visit to Pakistan in May 2013, asserted that ‘China will give Pakistan every support and assistance and by helping you, we have to help ourselves.’ The assertion underscores the interdependency in the relationship and highlights that unless there is a drastic deterioration in its internal stability, Pakistan’s importance for China under Xi Jinping will remain unchanged.


* The views expressed are personal.