Is it because China needs Pakistan to
be a strategic balance to India? Does
Beijing enjoy using Islamabad as a pawn
to needle and unsettle India from time
China believes that it can maintain
these tracks simultaneously — it can
improve economic ties with India, and
some coordination on global issues,
even as strategic competition grows.
That is exactly what has happened with
the US-China relationship.
It doesn’t diminish Pakistan’s role on
the strategic track if the economic track
and the global diplomatic track with
India are on an upward arc. Especially
as India’s ‘Act East’ policy moves forward and ties with Washington and
Tokyo strengthen, the utility of Pakistan
for China is clear: It still provides a
means to tie India down in its own
But Beijing hasn’t used Islamabad as
a pawn — Pakistan has pursued policies
vis-à-vis India as it sees fit, which benefit China without it having to do anything to encourage them.
If anything, China has pressed
Pakistan to develop more stable, predictable and economically beneficial
relations with India, even as its role as a
strategic balancer persists.
China-Pakistan ties also have a
momentum that transcends India — the economic relationship between the two sides and the handling of counterterrorism and militancy issues don’t hinge on Beijing’s
relationship with New Delhi.
In your research for your book, did you discover any
insights about China playing some sort of role in trying to
improve the India-Pakistan relationship?
China has never provided Pakistan with unconditional
support against India — the degree and nature of Chinese
backing has always depended on the context.
In particular Beijing has been reluctant to provide comprehensive support when it has felt that the problems are
of Pakistan’s making — Kargil in 1999, Mumbai in 2008,
or Abbottabad in 2011, for instance.
But it is possible to hypothesize scenarios in which
China would swing in behind Pakistan militarily if it felt
that India were the culpable party, some of which I cite in
Economic ties with India are unlikely to be the determining factor, in my view — it is still not that big an economic relationship by comparison with China’s other
And in recent years, if anything Beijing has been more
willing to swallow economic costs for the sake of political
and security goals. You need only look at China-Japan
relations to see that, and it’s a much more important economic relationship for Beijing.
Privately, China certainly encourages Pakistan to
improve its ties with India, particularly on the economic
front — it thinks Pakistan should be able to benefit far
more from trade relations with its neighbor without jeopardizing the essence of its strategic calculations.
Did the Chinese officials you spoke to for your book
nurse any doubts about elements in the Pakistan establish-
ment and their encouragement of Islamist elements?
Are there concerns in Beijing that separatists in Xinjiang
are being trained by Islamists in Pakistan? Are the Chinese
apprehensive about the ongoing battles with the Islamists
In what ways has China engaged Pakistan on terrorism?
Has there been any Chinese initiative to nudge Pakistan to
rein in the Islamists?
China has its worries about the long-term future of the
Pakistani army, and Islamist elements within. That isn’t to
say that those fears are well-founded, but there are devel-
opments in Pakistan that Beijing finds uncomfortable to
navigate — the more secular-minded the army, the more
the PLA can go drinking with their Pakistani counter-
parts, the more at ease they are.
Historically Beijing has at least acquiesced to Pakistan’s
use of militant proxies, and has been able to take advantage of Pakistan’s relationships in this regard: The ISI
could discourage Islamist groups from offering support to
Uighur militants and deter them from attacks on China.
Beijing has had an extremely narrow set of concerns on
counter-terrorism — the East Turkistan Islamic
Movement and its backers, such as the Islamic Movement
of Uzbekistan — and hasn’t much cared what went on
with other groups.
The concern for Beijing now though is that the whole
situation has run outside the Pakistani army’s control,
providing risks to China and to the Pakistani State itself.
Uighur groups have found safe haven in FATA
(Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas) over the
last decade, and China has certainly pushed Pakistan to
crack down harder on them.
The recent (Pakistan army’s) operation in North
Waziristan operation, for instance, was something the
Chinese were keen to see.
But they are also cautious about pushing too hard, too
broadly, or too openly — the Lal Masjid siege, for
instance, which came about partly due to Chinese pressure, was clearly a disaster for Pakistan and for perceptions of China among militant groups in Pakistan.
And it’s important not to over-emphasize the degree to
which Chinese concerns about Pakistan’s handling of the
Uighur issue mirror, for instance, the sort of problems
that the United States has faced with Pakistan on this
For the most part Pakistan is willing to do as China
asks, not least because its requests are so specific and
restricted, and mostly don’t impact on the army’s broader
How do you perceive the Chinese projects in Pakistan
going forward? Will we see real momentum or incremen-
tal acceleration? How do these projects really help China?
We keep hearing of China promising Pakistan help in
setting up more nuclear facilities. Is this mere talk, as a
counterweight to the India-US nuclear
agreement or are we going to see real assis-
tance on this front?
We are in a different phase in the eco-
nomic relationship now — at times one
side has been pushing while the other has
been more reluctant, but now there is real
momentum from Beijing and Islamabad.
The PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-
Nawaz) government has been easier for
China to work with than its predecessor,
and Xi’s plans for a Silk Road Economic
Belt, as well as the broader stabilization
and development of China’s western
periphery, mean that there is more Chinese
political capital behind these initiatives.
The push to develop China’s interior
provinces through better infrastructure
connections to the neighborhood is gen-
uinely important as the Chinese economy
slows and return on investment in China
for such projects diminishes.
China is also concerned that the
Pakistani economy is struggling and needs
external support, especially for its energy
sector. This doesn’t mean that Chinese
investments are purely a matter of goodwill, but there is a strategic calculation —
don’t let Pakistan fail — that helps to
The nuclear facilities are certainly mov-
ing ahead — Chashma 3 and 4 were agreed
in the aftermath of the US-India nuclear
deal, partly as a tit-for-tat, but construc-
tion of a new phase of 1,000 MW Chinese
reactors is also underway, and will have a far greater
impact on Pakistan’s energy situation.
These are a serious showcase for the Chinese nuclear
industry, not just a political play.
Whether some of the more ambitious infrastructure
projects come off — the Kashgar-to-Gwadar link — is
another question, but the existing initiatives that are
underway will amount to a substantial increase in Chinese
investment in Pakistan regardless.
In recent months we have seen China taking a larger role
on Afghanistan. How will the China-Pakistan relationship
play out in this arena?
Will China and Pakistan work to diminish India’s inter-
ests in Afghanistan after the Western forces leave?
Will Washington work with China to push Pakistan to
rein in the Taliban so that it does not undermine President
Ashraf Ghani’s government?
Greater Chinese involvement in Afghanistan has
advantages and disadvantages for Pakistan. On the one
hand, the diplomatic and economic engagement of its
closest partner reduces the risk that its interests won’t
On the other hand, it means that it has a less free rein
to pursue its own strategy there without taking China
The two sides will certainly coordinate closely, but they
don’t entirely see eye-to-eye — China prizes stability in
It is also far more sanguine about India’s role, and sees
value to New Delhi’s political and economic engagement if
it helps to stabilize the country.
The China-Pakistan relationship is too close to be
prized apart over this, and any expectation that China
will squeeze Pakistan hard on the Taliban issue is likely
to be disappointed.
But coordination between Washington and Beijing
over Afghanistan has grown much closer in recent years,
and China is no longer willing to outsource its policy
there to Pakistan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to be the chief
3Page A23 Chinese President Xi Jinping greets Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Beijing.
KIM KYUNG-HOON/REU TERS