Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Pakistan this year, his first visit to Beijing’s ‘all weather friend’ since taking office two years ago, and the first visit by a Chinese president to Islamabad in nine years.
Xi was scheduled to visit Islamabad after he visited New
Delhi last September, but the trip was put off because of
Imran Khan’s then onslaught against Pakistan Prime
Minister Nawaz Sharif.
There is talk that Xi will visit Pakistan as early as next
month and be the chief guest at a joint Pakistan military
parade (shades of Barack Obama’s presence at India’s
Republic Day parade!) on March 23, the first time such a
parade has been held in seven years.
The China-Pakistan relationship and its durability has
been one of the lesser discussed themes in international
affairs. Even though both nations have been at the center
of consistent strategic attention — for different reasons, of
course — their association which has withstood the swift
eddy currents of the many complex issues swirling about
them this half century and more has neither been probed
or scrutinized as it should have.
Andrew Small’s much-praised book, The China-Pakistan Axis, intends to change all that.
Researched painstakingly over six years, not merely in
the ministries and think-tanks in Beijing and Islamabad,
but also in places like Kashgar in Xinjiang province,
where China combats an increasingly assertive insurgency,
Small explains in apparently breathtaking detail the
China-Pakistan axis and its role in Asian geopolitics.
Beijing has never abandoned or isolated Islamabad over
the years, and continues to provide it sustenance in many
forms — armaments, nuclear know-how, intelligence
gathering, strategic support, money when Pakistan needs
it, important projects, and other things the world does not
know enough about.
In this e-mail interview, Andrew Small — a Transatlantic Fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the
United State’s Asia program, which he has helped lead
since 2006 — discusses the China-Pakistan relationship,
the challenges it poses for India, a common adversary for
both nations, and the direction it is likely to take under
the watch of Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in
more than 20 years.
How has the China-Pakistan relationship evolved over
the years? Do you believe it is as strong and resilient as
Has there been a re-evaluation of the association on the
Chinese side in view of the concerns about Pakistan lurch-
ing towards being a rogue State?
Or are the ‘unshakable bonds of friendship,’ as
Islamabad deems the relationship, as strong as ever?
The relationship today is clearly very different from that
of the 1960s — China’s economic take-off, the rise of
Islamic militancy in the region, the nuclearization of
South Asia, and the shifting geopolitical dynamics
between the United States, China, India, and Pakistan
over the last few decades put it in a very different context.
But there are consistent features — India still provides
the strategic glue, and it remains a relationship dominated by security calculations, despite efforts to add a
stronger economic component.
The intention was that some of the grand economic
projects would provide greater depth and balance to
China-Pakistan ties, but in recent years that has been
overshadowed by the militancy question.
There have been tensions over the issue of Uighur militant safe havens, as well as major problems facing Chinese
investments, and naturally China has its concerns about
Pakistan’s broader trajectory. But that certainly hasn’t led
to a fundamental reassessment on Beijing’s part.
The relationship has weathered an impressive array of
challenges, and its resilience matters all the more over
time given how few reliable friends either country has, as
recent elections in Sri Lanka and Myanmar’s foreign policy rebalance illustrate.
At the moment it appears that China is pressing ahead
with its investments despite —and in some respects
because of — Pakistan’s internal challenges, in the hope
that these will help to address some of those problems.
If you had to plot a graph of the China-Pakistan relation-
ship over the years, what do you believe was the apogee and
what was the nadir?
If you had to identify five reasons for this relationship
lasting as long as it has, what would they be?
What have China and Pakistan respectively gained from
There is a temptation to assess the relationship by
looking at the behavior of the two sides during moments
of crisis — China offers to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf
in 1965, sits things out in 1971, and actively pushes back
But the most important phases of the relationship have
been away from the spotlight: Chinese support to
There has always been a sense that even though the two
sides come from very different strategic cultures, and may
not agree tactically, a strong, capable Pakistan is a Chinese
asset in its own right and Beijing will provide consistent
support to ensure that some degree of balance in south
Asia is maintained.
There was certainly pressure on the relationship in the
1990s, when the China-India relationship was normalizing and China was prioritizing economic goals in its international diplomacy.
That was the period in which talk of developing greater
balance in ties between India and Pakistan took off in
The phase after (Pakistan military ruler Pervez)
Musharraf’s fall was also tricky —China struggled to get a
handle on Pakistani politics during a period where they
couldn’t just channel everything through a single, dominant army figure.
But although all the twists and turns are interesting, the
underlying aspects of military cooperation have persisted
In the years ahead, reliable security partners become
even more important as China takes off as a global military power and needs quasi-bases it can count on, as well
as intelligence services it can trust to navigate the world of
For Pakistan, China now matters far more to its economic future than it used to, and the PLA (People’s
Liberation Army) can increasingly supply the Pakistani
army with advanced defense equipment, where it once
depended entirely on the United States.
If certain problems between the two sides are addressed,
there is a good chance that the best period of the relationship is yet to come.
The China-Pakistan relationship was spawned by their
common antipathy for India. The China-India association
is perhaps better today than it was, with improving trade
and India and China finding themselves together in formations like BRICS.
Has the improvement in India-China relations adverse-
ly affected the China-Pakistan relationship in any way?
CHINA HAS NEVER PROVIDED PAKISTAN WITH UNCONDITIONAL SUPPORT AGAINST INDIA THE UTILITY OF PAKISTAN FOR CHINA IS CLEAR: IT STILL PROVIDES A MEANS TO TIE INDIA DOWN IN ITS OWN NEIGHBORHOOD FOR PAKISTAN, CHINA NOW MATTERS FAR MORE TO ITS ECONOMIC FUTURE THAN IT USED TO
The writer of the much praised
book The China-Pakistan Axis
speaks to Nikhil Lakshman