Can Pakistan really be China’s ‘iron brother’?


IN ancient times, the fables of the Old Silk Route attest to trade and some cultural links between the people of Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan’s north and China’s Xinjiang as well as the travels of Buddhist monks from China to Swat Valley and Taxila, the epicentre of the Gandhara civilisation. However, the mighty Karakoram range always came in the way of formalising any organised interaction between Pakistan and China. When both nations emerged as independent states, there was a knowledge gap between them. They were new to each other and in a discovery mode as far as the contours of their relationship were concerned. In 1966, the decision to link their countries through the Karakoram Highway (KKH), a precursor to the present-day China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was to overcome the physical barriers separating the two peoples.

Pakistan was born amidst turmoil in 1947: the culmination of a long national struggle against western imperialism and a struggle between two communities – the Hindus and the Muslims. China went through similar experiences of anti-imperialism before 1949. Both nations thus found themselves unified in a common cause, retaining a measure of empathy. They did not allow their different ideological moorings colour their perception of each other.

In 1947, Pakistan had to develop its economy, industry and governing structures from scratch. And it had to do so in one of the world’s most volatile regions and in the shadow of a much larger neighbour. The quest for security was, therefore, a key driver of Pakistan’s foreign policy, resulting in its membership in western-led military alliances such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation and Central Treaty Organisation in the 1950s. Pakistan’s western leanings, however, did not impede its decision to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1950, the first Muslim country to do so – a propitious start indeed.

This first step alone, followed by Pakistan’s refusal to participate militarily in the Korean War and its disappointment over China’s absence in the 1951 San Francisco Conference, earned it such goodwill in China that Chairman Mao Tse Tung instructed his foreign ministry in 1951 to develop ties with Pakistan.

Chinese and Pakistani Premiers Zhou Enlai and Mohammad Ali Bogra respecrtively met for the first time at the Bandung Conference in 1955 followed by their first mutual high-level visits to each other’s country within two months in the year 1956. Premier Zhou En Lai’s refusal of Nehru’s invitation to visit Srinagar during his visit to India in 1956 owing to Pakistan’s sensitivities over the Kashmir issue, gave early indications of the course which this relationship would take in the future. Further interactions in Bandung and the two-way visits put to rest any misgivings or apprehensions that might have existed about each other’s intentions and helped in developing mutual confidence in the new relationship. It is noteworthy that China trusted Pakistan despite its alignment with the West. Moreover, it was becoming clear that China wished to develop its relations with Pakistan, independent of its ties with India, which incidentally enjoyed great warmth in that period.

While China and Pakistan were engaged in laying the foundation of their relationship, China’s relations with India soured when the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 and China failed in its attempt to settle its border with India, ultimately leading to their first border clash in 1962. The event of the United States (US) cosying up to India in the wake of the 1962 war caused huge dismay in Pakistan, a treaty ally vis-a-vis a non-aligned claimant when the US’ assistance to India increased while Pakistan faced restrictions. This prompted Pakistan to have a fresh look at its US policy, the outcome of which was its tilt towards China.

In 1963, both countries signed a border treaty. As China was isolated due to the Sino-US and Sino-Indian split, with cracks also appearing in its relations with the then Soviet Union, the border treaty was a major confidence-building measure and a turning point in Pakistan-China relations. Then, in 1964, Pakistan became the first non-communist country to land its airline in China. Another significant decision was Pakistan’s denunciation of the ‘Two China’ policy of the US in 1965.

Later, the war between India and Pakistan in 1965 proved to be a litmus test for Pakistan-China ties, when China, reciprocating to Pakistan’s successive gestures, came to its rescue by supplying emergency military equipment which the US had suspended. Since Pakistan’s armed forces had American inventory, the US ban affected its warfighting capability. Chinese assistance at the height of the crisis left an indelible mark on the Pakistani psyche and China began to be regarded as a trusted friend in need.

After an uncertain start in the 1950s, both countries had thus added depth to their ties. Pakistan’s firm support of China’s UN candidature, its facilitation of Sino-US rapprochement in 1971, China’s support to Pakistan in the 1971 East Pakistan crisis, its grant to Pakistan of $ 300 million credit (despite cultural revolution-related convulsions in China and a poor economy), its economic and technical assistance to build Pakistan’s heavy industrial capacity, its waiver of a US$ 100 million (S$ 138.1 million at current rates) loan for Pakistan after the 1971 crisis and its first veto in the United Nations (UN) Security Council in Pakistan’s favour in 1972 to deny UN membership to Bangladesh collectively fast-forwarded this relationship. With the KKH nearing completion in 1978, Pakistan and China had laid the architecture for their long-term strategic partnership.

This relationship, often described as a model relationship, has been nurtured by successive Chinese and Pakistani leadership. Both countries avoid interfering in each other’s internal affairs and demonstrate reciprocity in their dealings. Their mutual support on issues of each other’s ‘core interest’ has augmented this trust. Both have complemented efforts to break each other’s isolation in regional and global affairs. China appreciated Pakistan’s support when it was under sanctions and completely isolated. Similarly, China’s support to Pakistan helped improve its security environment vitiated by the Indo-Pakistan rivalry.

Pakistan and China celebrated the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations in 2021. Throughout, these seven decades, the relationship has forged ahead and is now multi-dimensional. The perception of China as a close and trusted friend is deeply etched in the minds of the Pakistani people. Likewise, China considers Pakistan to be its close friend. It stresses that its relationship with Pakistan is a priority.

China’s  Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the biggest global economic enterprise of the century and has opened new avenues for the economic development of countries like Pakistan. Pakistan believes that the CPEC provides a win-win blueprint for regional connectivity and in sync with its narrative of geo-economics as a pivot of its foreign policy. The CPEC would not only help overcome Pakistan’s development deficit but also serve as a conduit for trade and energy routes from China to South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. China has come forward to help Pakistan achieve socio-economic stability, which is a vote of confidence by China in Pakistan’s economic potential. Today, China is Pakistan’s largest trading partner and biggest investor. It is of no surprise then that seeing its long-term benefits to Pakistan and China, the CPEC is facing opposition from their adversaries.

In South Asia, the US has decided to promote India as a counterweight to China. Their increasing collaboration in strategic and military domains is creating instability and an arms race in South Asia. Pakistan is caught in a tripartite conflictual situation between the US and China, China and India, and India and Pakistan. This conflict-prone syndrome is ominous for the region.

Critics of Pakistan-China relations often cite Pakistan’s vulnerabilities as an impediment to realising their full potential. Its issues of governance and economy, political instability, threat of terrorism, conflict with India and problems with Afghanistan are raised as a question mark on the long-term prospects of Pakistan-China relations. No doubt these issues confronting Pakistan warrant utmost attention and are being handled by the Pakistan government within its capacity, but a counterargument is that despite these issues having persisted in varying degrees, Pakistan-China relations have not only sustained but, in fact, gained substance. Important convergences on regional issues and a futuristic vision underpinning this relationship have ensured its survival amidst multiple headwinds. There is also strategic convergence between the two sides.  The following are several examples.

*Neither Pakistan nor China believes in a zero-sum Cold War mindset. The current upheaval in US-China relations is viewed as a great setback for global peace and security, economic growth and a deflection from the more urgent universal challenges faced by our planet. Developing countries like Pakistan do not wish to compromise on their economic progress offered by initiatives like the BRI. Pakistan’s experience in dealing with major powers other than China has been different. For instance, Pakistan has had a long-standing relationship with the US but with a chequered history. On the other hand, Pakistan-China relations have maintained their unique trajectory and resilience. This has been a relationship which is self-sustaining and without any conditionalities. Both value its worth.

*Pakistan and China feel secure in their relationship due to a reliability factor. Pakistan supports China’s policy of a ‘peaceful neighbourhood’ and all efforts towards resolution of regional disputes. India’s action in August 2019 of revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir has introduced a new paradigm of conflict, straining India’s relations with both Pakistan and China and alienating the Kashmiri people. India’s refusal to join the BRI has generated more tensions. Pakistan believes that peace and harmony between China, India and Pakistan could change the fate of the region. Compulsions of geography and regional realities necessitate cooperation and normalcy which would offer great economic opportunities for South Asia and the wider region.

*Pakistan and China agree on strengthening regional mechanisms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the Economic Cooperation Organization. Pakistan strongly resists any external pressure to dissociate it from the CPEC. Trilateral discussions are underway to expand the scope of the CPEC to Afghanistan. China will be a major player in Afghanistan’s reconstruction effort and Pakistan’s role as a trade route for landlocked Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics and a logistic base for China’s transportation of men and machinery for Afghanistan will be crucial. Given the fragility of the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China are engaged bilaterally and multilaterally to stabilise Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and China expect that Afghan territory will not be used against them. The two countries agree that peace in Afghanistan is crucial for the BRI and the CPEC.

*Being a large market of 220 million, a nuclear weapon state and a prominent member of the Islamic community, Pakistan’s role in South Asian strategic calculus is irreplaceable. Mutual dependability and enhanced strategic coordination between China and Pakistan will continue to be shaped by the dynamics of their respective relationship with India, Indo-US and US-China relations. As the security of the region faces multiple challenges, Pakistan and China will ensure that their relationship remains a strong deterrent against forces that seek to undermine their friendship.

China is concerned over the growing strategic imbalance in South Asia and recognises Pakistan’s legitimate apprehensions in this regard. China’s defence cooperation with Pakistan is meant to rectify this strategic imbalance. There is unanimity in their views that partnerships like AUKUS (a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US) and Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US) will destabilise the Indo-Pacific region. Pakistan is also concerned about the nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean. While the policymakers in Pakistan recognise that there cannot be equality in the US relationship with India and Pakistan due to divergent geostrategic interests, they still expect a rational balancing instead of pushing the region to the point of the precipice.

*China’s investment in the CPEC has made China and Pakistan major and equal stakeholders in its success. China hopes Pakistan will continue taking steps for its political and social stability, ensuring security for Chinese assets and personnel, and overcoming bottlenecks in the CPEC’s implementation. During a visit to China in February 2022, then Prime Minister Imran Khan reaffirmed his commitment to the CPEC and took a number of steps to ameliorate the security and business environment for Chinese investors. With a corresponding commitment from the Chinese side, the CPEC is expected to gain speed in its second phase.

*Being an important member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Pakistan can play a positive role in bridge-building between China and the Muslim world through an objective evaluation of China’s policies, motivations, and actions in Xinjiang. China’s concerns on terrorism, extremism and separatism are genuine and need to be fully explained and appreciated. Pakistan has a vital interest in the peace and stability of Xinjiang due to its proximity to its northern region, which is the gateway to the CPEC.

*The port of Gwadar is the center-piece of CPEC. The recent terrorist incidents in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan are said to be motivated by an external hand. The development of Gwadar and its potential as a regional transshipment and export hub cannot be allowed to be undermined. Enhancing bilateral cooperation on Gwadar’s security is a common objective and a priority for Pakistan and China.

*Multilateral cooperation forms a critical component of the Pakistan-China relations which has benefitted both sides in protecting their core interests. This cooperation may see greater synergy. The Pakistan-China-Russia trilateral cooperation also has the potential to contribute to regional peace and security and economic integration. Their potential to positively impact the stabilising of the situation in Afghanistan should not be overlooked.

In recent years, China has helped Pakistan, through the CPEC, with balance of payment facility and greater market access for its products. China hopes Pakistan will be able to overcome its structural impediments through a sustained reform process and move towards self-reliance and economic stability. To this end, China is helping Pakistan in its capacity building. Pakistan-China relations will be further reinforced as new regional alignments and realignments emerge, posing challenges to their common interests. It is relevant to note that in October 2021, President Xi Jinping was quoted as saying:

‘History has proved that the two countries have always been each other’s trustworthy iron brother no matter what changes the international landscape has undergone. Given that the world is seeing more sources of instability and risk, the two countries should stand together more firmly, promote their all-weather strategic cooperative partnership and build a closer China-Pakistan community of shared future in the new era.’1 

Nothing else can explain this relationship better than the bond of mutually reinforcing ‘iron brotherhood’ which Xi highlighted.


Footnotes :

1. ‘Xi Jinping Speaks with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the Phone’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 26 October 2021. t20211026_10087508.html.