China-Pakistan Relations: Reinterpreting the Nexus

Abstract:  The China-Pakistan relationship has seen several ups and downs in the last decade and especially since 9/11. While Sino-Pakistani ties remain strong, there has been a visible drawdown in Chinese political commitment to Pakistan. Partly, this has been because of Beijing’s concerns about political instability, including terrorism, in Pakistan, and the spread of Islamic radicalism from that country into China. In part, this has also been because China’s global political rise has meant that it is more conscious of its need to adhere to international norms, which includes refraining from nuclear proliferation to Pakistan. In this context, two arguments are made – one, that India is no longer the central concern in the Sino-Pakistani relationship and two, that New Delhi consequently has increased ability to play the game-changer in the ‘all-weather’ friendship between its neighbours.


“The Afghans they hate us,

The Indians wanna bring us to our knees

How long will it be Lord, till we piss off the Chinese

I got the blues”

Saad Haroon (AlJazeera 2010)[1]

Much water has flown down the Indus since Pakistan’s first military ruler Field Marshal Ayub Khan suggested that Pakistan and India commit themselves to a joint defence of the subcontinent against communist China (Lamb 1993: 236). Since then, the only joint endeavour that has been visible is the Sino-Pak nexus against India. This is a relationship of balancing against India that is now several decades old. Yet, it is also a relationship that has evolved over time. While the rhetoric of an “all-weather friendship” continues, to ascribe a deeper, intrinsic bond between the two states, would be going much beyond what the rhetoric suggests. Sino-Pakistani “friendship” has been not been immune to changes in the international and respective domestic contexts. This essay rests on two basic hypotheses. One, India is no longer the central concern in the Sino-Pakistani relationship; it is only one of several important concerns.  Two, perhaps counter-intuitively, India’s capacity to play the game-changer in the Sino-Pakistani relationship has grown over time owing to other developments in the region, even if New Delhi might not always be capable of taking advantage.



India’s Diminishing Centrality to Sino-Pak Ties


The Sino-Pakistani relationship evolved on the back of a joint concern about India. However, as Ayub Khan’s statement indicates the mutuality of interests took time to evolve to a point where the two states could cooperate in any substantial manner[2] and China too “did not leap quickly or easily to Pakistan’s side” (Garver 2004: 3). At the same time, this was not a relationship that followed the ideological divide of the Cold War and was unusual also for that reason. It was only following the 1962 conflict that China thought in any serious way of means to keep India off-balance domestically and externally. Thus, began Beijing’s support for the Naga insurgency in Northeast India (see Deshpande 1968: 991) and also its nexus with Pakistan (Pringsheim 1965; see also Faruqui 2001: 1-5).

While keeping hostility to India as a constant through Pakistan’s various military regimes and its democratic interregnums, the Chinese relationship with India, however, did not follow a simple linear path. When Chinese proposals for a ‘package deal’ on the disputed Sino-Indian boundary fell through in the early years of the Deng Xiaoping era, the Sino-Indian relationship certainly took a turn for the worse for the first time after diplomatic relations were reestablished. The spurt in Chinese sales of missile and nuclear technology to Pakistan can be traced to around this time[3]  and continued strong for most of the 1990s (Kondapalli 2007: 62) never really letting up perhaps until Pakistan exploded its first nuclear devices in 1998. While countering India was certainly an aim of these transfers to Pakistan, their level of importance certainly was different for either country. For Pakistan, achieving parity, if not superiority over India, in conventional and non-conventional weapons was no doubt an overriding aim. For China however, the economic reforms and opening up initiated in 1978 also meant that its military forces had to now also find the resources for themselves in addition to maintaining defence preparedness, with priority often going to the former goal (for more on this aspect, see Frankenstein and Gill 1996). Selling arms and technology to Pakistan allowed the PLA to achieve these goals, while also fitting into its strategic posturing against India. The question is which of these was more important?

Given the paucity of data and the closed door nature of the Chinese military system, this is a difficult question to answer. However, the argument can be made that it was the PLA’s existential needs that were more important than any posturing against India especially for much of the 1980s and early 1990s when these exchanges were at their peak. The reasons lie in both the domestic political economy of China and its strategic calculus. To start with the former, the PLA certainly needed the cash, and when its senior officers themselves were able to enrich themselves with a share of the proceeds from commercial activities such as the sale of arms and arms technologies (for more about corruption in the Chinese military, see Mulvenon 2001: chapter 5; 2003) the motivations for continuing the sales to Pakistan – as well as other countries – were high (for more on this aspect, see Medeiros and Gill 2000; on Chinese arms sales to Pakistan, see Byman and Cliff 1999: Appendix; Niazi 2006). From China’s point of view, there are important strategic reasons – such as keeping India tied down in South Asia – for the close relationship with Pakistan. However, for the Chinese, the nexus with Pakistan was (and is) possibly just as important as a business relationship, hard as it may be to believe for either Indians or Pakistanis, especially when the trade also involved weapons of mass destruction.

Alongside the official divesting of commercial enterprises from the PLA in the late 1990s and its increasing professionalization (for more on this aspect, see Shambaugh 1996), China has since the end of the Cold War, become increasingly conscious of its potential as a major global actor and has tried to take the necessary steps involved in solidifying that claim. As part of this process, China in the 1990s began to show increasing willingness to accede to international treaties and this might have had something to do with the tapering off of missile and nuclear sales to Pakistan during this period.[4] Also part of this process perhaps, was the warming of relations between India and China and the signing of two key bilateral treaties on the boundary dispute in 1993 and 1996. Thus, Jiang Zemin’s speech to the Pakistan National Assembly in 1996 might be interpreted in another way – ‘expect no more unqualified support from us.’[5]

The 1998 nuclear tests by India, when New Delhi did not hesitate to refer to China albeit obliquely as its primary security concern and reason for going overtly nuclear (New York Times 1998) caused an initial contretemps but also probably brought home to Beijing all the more strongly that its nexus with Pakistan had overshot its aims. Further, following 9/11, China also realized that Pakistan was now a major worry on its western flank as a nuclear-armed and unstable Islamic polity, certain elements of which were also involved in supporting separatist elements in China’s Muslim Uighur-dominated Xinjiang province (see Jacob 2008a: 147-151). And with the prolonged American led-offensive in Afghanistan, Pakistan has become a concern in Chinese foreign policy quite apart from whatever uses it had for Beijing as a proxy against India. The ‘India factor’ in the Sino-Pak relationship while not completely eliminated is thus now only one among many factors motivating the ‘all-weather friendship.’ Paradoxically however, the regional situation and China’s own rising global profile actually strengthen India’s ability to further effect changes in the Sino-Pakistani relationship and by extension in India’s own ties with China.


The China-Pakistan Relationship post-9/11

If one were simply to count states as beads on the counter belonging to one camp or the other, then Pakistan never really fitted this description where Sino-US relations were concerned. On the contrary, it moved easily in both camps for much of the Cold War, when it was used as a proxy by both against the Soviet Union and by the Chinese also against India. Just as the US is today heavily dependent on Pakistan in the pursuit of its objectives in Afghanistan, some have argued that post-9/11,China needs Pakistan as much as Pakistan needed it in the past (Niazi 2007). Nevertheless, Pakistan’s current political instability and slow descent into Islamic radicalism makes it part of the problem today rather than part of the solution. This is something that applies both from the perspective of Washington as well as of Beijing (Faruqui 2001: 14).

[1] Haroon is one of Pakistan’s top English-language comedians.

[2] It must be remembered that Pakistan was part of an American-led security coalitions such as SEATO and CENTO aimed also against China and that Islamabad often voted against communist China in the UN on Tibet- and Taiwan-related issues (see Kondapalli 2007: fn. 19, p. 69). Ayub Khan went to the extent of threatening war in October 1959, if communist China crossed the Karakoram and continued to make claims on territory in the Northern Areas. By the end of the year, Pakistan had however, begun to consider a change in policy towards Beijing which had declared that it was only looking for a boundary settlement (Lamb 1993: 236-37).

[3] China signed an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Pakistan in 1976 but only began to implement the terms in 1981 (Ashley Tellis, quoted in Shirk 2004: 79). The implementation most likely picked up speed only after India’s unwillingness to accept any sort of ‘package deal’ on the boundary dispute became clear. The deal Deng Xiaoping was offering was similar to the one Zhou Enlai had offered Nehru in 1960 (see also GPD 1981: 752). It was also during this interregnum in June 1980 that Deng publicly declared that Kashmir was a bilateral issue left over from history between India and Pakistan, and should be resolved peacefully (Garver 2001b: 228).

[4] While China’s international obligations did not always mean that it followed the spirit of the law, instances where it violated the exact letter of its international agreements are relatively few. One possible violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by China was its transfer of ring magnets to an unsafeguarded facility in Pakistan in 1995. However, ring magnets do not appear on international lists for nuclear export controls (such as the IAEA Trigger List), and it is possible that Chinese officials took advantage of the loophole. In May 1996, China pledged not to assist unsafeguarded nuclear facilities and it has not been accused of doing so since (Byman and Cliff 1999: 39).

[5] In his speech, Jiang called for ‘[p]roperly handling existing disputes in the spirit of seeking common ground while setting aside differences’ and that ‘[i]f certain issues cannot be resolved for the time being, they may be shelved temporarily so that they will not affect the normal state-to-state relations’ (Jiang 1996).

Read the full article here: Jabin T. Jacob, “China-Pakistan Relations: Reinterpreting the Nexus Issue: China and South Asia, China Report, Vol. 46, No. 3, August 2010, pp. 216-228.


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