China and the World

The Karakoram conundrum

New book explains the strains China faces in its friendship with Pakistan

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

All-weather friends: Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif with Xi Jinping

Last week India and the United States released a 430-word “strategic vision”, penned during President Obama’s visit to the subcontinent. The significance was not lost on China and the document’s call for the safeguarding of maritime security in the South China Sea elicited a terse response from the Chinese foreign ministry that only parties “directly concerned should comment on disputes in the South China Sea and only with words conducive to peace and stability”.

This ‘mind your own business’ rebuttal was followed by a scathing editorial in the Global Times in which the state-controlled newspaper warned India against becoming America’s “yes-man”.

The fracas is a timely reminder of the testy mood that has characterised Sino-Indian relations over the decades. The ongoing border dispute between the two countries has pulled the Americans in different directions over the past 50 years. But it has also embroiled a fourth nation in the geopolitical dance. That nation is Pakistan, a focal point of Andrew Small’s new book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.

Small’s work is something of a must-read and one of the best China-themed studies in recent years. Why? It deals with a little-understood but vital area of Chinese foreign policy, and it is written, at times, with the energy and pace of a thriller.

The book dramatises the ‘great game’ that has pitted Beijing and Islamabad against New Delhi since the 1960s, but which is now throwing up confusing new priorities because of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Almost every page offers a fresh insight, if only because so little has been written on the topic. As the author points out: “In-depth studies on the China-Pakistan relationship are few and far between, with virtually no full-length treatments appearing since the 1970s. This is partly because the subject is something of an intellectual orphan, falling between a variety of regions and disciplines, and partly because the obstacles facing analysts in their efforts to find reliable sources and establish basic facts make it that much more tempting to neglect.”

Indeed, Small – a Transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States – says that getting information from accurate sources is one reason that it took so long to research the book (he spent six years on it).

“The Sino-Pakistan relationship encompasses some of the most sensitive areas of the two sides’ national security policies. Officials in China and Pakistan are naturally circumspect when discussing it,” he writes, adding that one academic has complained that almost every time he requests a declassified document on the topic his mere interest is enough for Chinese officials to classify the material once more.

In place of transparency, politicians from both sides have preferred to paper over the relationship’s complexity with diplomatic platitudes. Over the years the two governments have referred to their ties as “deeper than the deepest ocean” or “higher than the highest mountain”. When leaders make a visit, they are welcomed as “best and most trusted friends”.

Small says one of the more telling metaphors, however, was uttered by the Chinese general Xiong Guangjai when he said “Pakistan is China’s Israel” – a phrase that references the priority Washington puts on its relations with Tel Aviv.

As Small observes: “For decades, Beijing’s secretive ties with Islamabad have run closer than most formal alliances. Founded on a shared enmity with India, China’s backing for Pakistan has gone so deep that it was willing to offer the ultimate gift from one state to another: the materials that Pakistan’s nuclear scientists needed to build the bomb.”

He adds: “The country lies at the heart of Beijing’s plans for a network of ports, pipelines, roads and railways connecting the oil and gas fields of the Middle East to the mega-cities of East Asia.”

But there’s a more troubling aspect too: “Pakistan is also becoming the battleground for China’s encounters with Islamic militancy, the country more than any other where China’s rise has turned it into a target.”

The book tackles the intricacies of the relationship chronologically, noting that initially neither country was particularly interested in the other. Though Pakistan gave diplomatic recognition to the nascent People’s Republic of China in 1951, it was allied militarily with the US.

“Beijing’s bedfellow in the early 1950s was India,” Small writes.

By 1959 China and India had fallen out over Tibet, leading to a two-month war in 1962 in which the Chinese overran Indian positions. Souring relations between New Delhi and Beijing left long stretches of the border area in dispute (as they remain to this day). But China took a different tack with Pakistan, formalising border arrangements on favourable terms to Islamabad. The Pakistanis were pleased, and also impressed by the “devastating defeat” of their chief rival, Small says.

However, it wasn’t until 1965 that the seeds of the “all-weather friendship” would be sown. In the Indo-Pakistani war of that year the Chinese offered support, while the US cut-off aid and military supplies. “The 1965 war had a catalytic effect on the Sino-Pakistani relationship. From that point on, with US military aid suspended, China became Pakistan’s primary arms supplier, a position it has relinquished only for brief periods ever since… It was also the year that Pakistani officials claim to have started negotiations with China for the technology and materials to build a nuclear bomb,” the author writes.

Pakistan returned some of the favour in 1971 when it acted as go-between in the efforts to restore relations between Washington and Beijing. One of its jets flew Henry Kissinger to China for the secret trip that led to President Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao Zedong.

Islamabad thus won political capital for its role in helping to align China and the US against the Soviet Union. But the book reminds us that today’s strategic bedfellows were often viewed through very different lenses 40 years ago. This article began with the warming of ties between India and the US, for instance, but in 1971 Nixon was hostile to New Delhi’s military activities. Earlier that year India had signed a friendship treaty with the Soviets, and a new war had begun with Pakistan. The Americans hoped that the Chinese border threat would restrain India, with Kissinger even remarking that if the People’s Liberation Army assisted the Pakistan military, Washington “should leave India to its fate”. Nixon and Kissinger also discussed what might happen if the Soviet Union retaliated by sending 45 divisions into China. “Nixon took the dramatic decision that in those circumstances the United States would provide China with military backing,” Small writes.

The upshot of the 1971 war was that China held back on offering direct military assistance to Pakistan (Islamabad lost the war, as well as the territory which became Bangladesh). Small says that this did not diminish the relationship, although it did reveal its limits. “It was a political judgement that would foreshadow many other crucial episodes in the relationship between the two countries over the decades to come: China would not pull Pakistan out of the holes it insisted on digging for itself… it was clear to every Pakistani visitor who passed through Beijing how uncomfortable China was with the crackdown in East Pakistan [present day Bangladesh].”

Islamabad’s loss of territory and prestige did not lessen its strategic value to the Chinese, however. It remained a useful means to check New Delhi’s ambitions: “An India that is forced to look nervously over its shoulder at its western neighbour is easier for Beijing to manage.”

Indeed, China was ready to help Pakistan redress the military balance of power, where India’s conventional forces would always outnumber those of its neighbours. Thus began a multi-decade process to support Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

A big portion of the book deals with China’s contribution to this project, from providing vital materials to assisting with missile design. And Beijing still plays the enabling role in Pakistan’s civilian nuclear industry – announcing as recently as 2013 that a Chinese state firm would build a new 1,000 MW power plant.

Little of this pleases India, of course. Other investments like the Chinese-built-and-operated port in Gwadar and a proposed new rail link have also riled New Delhi. And perhaps rightly so – as the author points out, many of the projects do not stack up from an economic perspective, but serve a grander geopolitical purpose.

“The balancing role that Pakistan plays in Beijing’s India policy goes well beyond forcing India to keep large numbers of its troops and military assets focused on its western frontier, though that undoubtedly helps. It also ensures that India is kept off balance, distracted, absorbing diplomatic, political and strategic energies that could otherwise be directed towards China… Every time a US Secretary of State declares support for New Delhi’s policy to ‘Look East’ towards the Pacific, China sees another reason to keep India on edge in its own backyard.”

However, Small also makes clear that China’s support for Pakistan isn’t unconditional. For one thing, it wants to keep the Indian market open to Chinese companies. But he also says there is a rule of thumb in Beijing’s attitude to Indo-Pakistani disputes: China won’t back Pakistan if it acts as the aggressor.

This attitude hardened after militants attacked the Indian parliament in 20o1 and was solidified by the 2008 terror assault in Mumbai.

As one Chinese analyst told the author: “If India invades Pakistan, we would be willing to respond. If India launches air strikes on Pakistan, we would be willing to respond. If India threatens Pakistan with nuclear weapons we may even be willing to extend our nuclear umbrella. But when it’s Pakistan that causes the problem, we can’t back them. What could you say after Mumbai? They obviously had military training. We couldn’t defend that.”

The final section of the book indeed focuses on Pakistan’s militants, principally through the prism of China’s own concerns about domestic terrorism.

In this respect the special relationship is subordinated to Beijing’s own priorities in its restive region of Xinjiang, as well as its efforts to counter the activities of militant groups run by Uighur Muslims.

Small says that China shares many of the same concerns in this areas as the US and India, worrying that Afghanistan and Pakistan are breeding grounds for terrorism. In fact, its greatest fear is the ‘Talibanisation’ of its neighbour, with extremists ousting the less religiously-minded military types that Beijing has long done business with.

The Uighur group that preoccupies Beijing policymakers most is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Chinese foreign policy has aimed to prevent any of its neighbours from arming or training ETIM. These efforts have been successful in Central Asia but after the invasion of Afghanistan ETIM followed the Taliban into remote areas of Pakistan. Small notes that the Chinese have evidence of Pakistani state intelligence agents visiting ETIM training camps.

The Uighur presence “has become perhaps the greatest sore point in the China-Pakistan relationship,” he says.

An incident in October 2013 proved especially embarrassing for Pakistan. On the day that its military leadership arrived in Beijing for a formal visit, a vehicle exploded in Tiananmen Square. Two tourists were killed and 38 were injured, with “black smoke billowing across the portrait of Mao Zedong in the Forbidden City”.

The assailants turned out to be a Uighur family from a place near the Pakistani border. “Like clockwork, China’s top security official blamed ETIM,” writes Small.

“The most damning narrative would be hard to shake-off – that a Pakistan-based Uighur separatist group masterminded a successful suicide attack in the most visible location in China during the valedictory visit of Pakistan’s army chief.”

Small believes that Washington’s timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan is also shaping Chinese thinking. In the early years of the Afghan war Beijing worried about ‘encirclement’ and having a US army so close to its border. Now it is more concerned about the Taliban’s influence spreading between Afghanistan and Pakistan, threatening the reliability of its long-term ally.

There are already abundant warning signs: “Osama Bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad reinforced fears among Chinese officials about extremist sympathies in the Pakistani military.”

Small also quotes an insider’s view revealing fresh nuances in Chinese thinking on the nuclear question. “China is willing to help Pakistan defend a Pakistani bomb,” he is told. “But we won’t help them protect an Islamic bomb. If it’s under the control of a mullah, then everything changes.”

China’s strategy to head off the threat of extremism in Pakistan is largely economic. President Xi Jinping’s New Silk Road initiative has unveiled major investment programmes in much-needed infrastructure, such as the Xinjiang-Gwadar railway promised to Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif during a Beijing visit in 2013. As Small observes, this is hardly a new approach. Similarly large investments were made when General Pervez Musharraf ran Pakistan. But projects such as Gwadar port “were set in motion during a period when the security situation appeared under control”. Since then Chinese enthusiasm for further investment may have been dampened by attacks on its workers by religious groups. “Instead of being known as China’s gateway to the Gulf, Pakistan has developed a reputation as the most dangerous place to be an overseas Chinese, with kidnappings and killings taking place with disturbing regularity,” Small warns.

The turning point in this regard was the storming of the Red Mosque in 2007. Located in central Islamabad, the mosque was home to the radical Lal Masjid group. A crisis was triggered when it abducted seven Chinese nationals – accused by Lal Masjid’s religious police of being prostitutes. As the leader of the group said at the time of the kidnapping: “We greatly respect the Pakistan-China friendship but it doesn’t mean that foreign women can come here and indulge in such vulgar activities.”

Beijing was furious about the kiddapping and Musharraf later admitted how difficult the situation had become. “They took the Chinese hostage and tortured them. Because of this, I am personally embarrassed,” he reflected. “I had to apologise to the Chinese leaders: ‘I am ashamed that you are such great friends and this happened to you’.’”

Musharraf did more than say sorry. He ordered army commandos to storm the mosque. At least 103 people died, including 12 Uighur militants.

But this had further consequences too, with other Chinese workers soon targeted for reprisals.

“The militants were offended,” a journalist from Peshawar told Small. “The feeling among them was that this would not have happened if the Chinese had not demanded action.”

The book concludes with the view that relations with Pakistan have become one of China’s major foreign policy challenges – in large part because of their potential impact on its own domestic security.

Small says that in the past Beijing could tolerate some of the fundamentalist groups operating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan – even arm them – as long as they agreed not to work with ETIM.

There was also an upside to the insurgency in Afghanistan – insofar as Chinese foreign policy strategists were concerned – in that it diverted Washington’s attention away from East Asia and the South China Sea.

But American forces will have departed by next year, increasing the potential for a new wave of unrest to ripple through Afghanistan into Pakistan (possibly mirroring the way ISIS spread across the Syrian border into Iraq). This is a worrying prospect for the Chinese, particularly if there are signs of the shockwaves reaching into Xinjiang too – a likely result if these militant forces arm ETIM.

By that point the responsibility for maintaining order in Afghanistan and Pakistan may well have changed from being Washington’s problem to becoming Beijing’s, Small concludes.

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