March 14, 2015
Is China’s alliance with Pakistan in trouble? Pakistan’s recently announced intention to invite Chinese President Xi Jinping as chief guest at their joint military services parade and subsequent postponement has encouraged some to see cracks in the relationship. Like periodic reports about China’s unhappiness with Pakistani militants’ role in training and arming Xinjiang’s jihadi Uighurs or Beijing’s supposed distancing itself from Islamabad on the issue of Kashmir, this more recent flurry is also much ado about very little. Pakistan’s security situation and President Xi’s busy calendar may delay his first visit more than Islamabad would like, but the Sino-Pak friendship is based on too long a history of strategic cooperation to be affected by minor irritants.
Unlike the hyperbolic assertions about friendship between countries that sometimes dominate diplomatic discourse, the rather straightforward description of Sino-Pak relations as an ‘all-weather friendship’ is among the most accurate. It is a friendship that has lasted through 65 years of trials and tribulations, and as China challenges the post-Cold War global order, Pakistan is likely to become more – not less – indispensable as an ally. In his well-researched, ground-breaking book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Andrew Small says the ties are not only solid but set to become even stronger.
Small, who has had remarkable access to political, military and intelligence officials in both countries, writes that after nearly a decade of preparing PLA for ‘new historic missions’ across the world, Beijing is carefully weighing up which countries it can trust to facilitate the global projection of its power. He quotes a Chinese expert as saying: “If China decides to develop formal alliances, Pakistan would be the first place we would turn. It may be the only place we could turn”. This seemingly total trust in Pakistan is rooted in intimate and unwavering collaboration over decades from which both countries have benefited. It is also based, Small writes, on China’s “steady, long-term commitment to ensure that Pakistan has the capabilities it needs to play the role that China wants it to.”
Small details the early days of blossoming Sino-Pak military relations, focused at the time on mutual needs against a common strategic adversary – India. Mao passed away shortly after meeting Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and blessing nuclear cooperation with Islamabad. His funeral in September 1976 provided the occasion for A Q Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, to meet China’s top nuclear official in Beijing. Their secret collaboration has since enabled Pakistan to build an arsenal of warheads and long-range nuclear capable missiles. On the other hand Pakistani transfer of pilfered Western know-how – from centrifuge design to US Tomahawk and stealth helicopter technology – has given China ability to leapfrog the West.