Sino-Pak relations: Beyond the rhetoric
China is observing Pakistan developments carefully from a distance - a hallmark of their foreign policy.
Just a day after the US suspended $800 million aid to Pakistan, a news story appeared in major newspapers of the subcontinent.
In Pakistan it read, China has pledged support to Pakistan when US has suspended its assistance.
In India it read, Pakistan would be leaning on the Chinese to fill in the gap created by suspension of US aid and the Chinese would acquiesce.
What actually happened was that Hong Lei, spokesman of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while answering questions during a routine briefing responded to a US aid suspension question in a very measured way. While avoiding commenting on the US decision, he stated a simple fact that China had been helping Pakistan in the past and will continue doing so in the future.
Such has been the dynamics of Sino-Pak relationship and the Chinese attitude towards Pakistan since late – not exactly what Pakistani media expects, nor what Indian media fears.
Romantic notions like ‘all-weather friendship’ and ‘friends forever’ should find no space while commenting on International Relations. It’s not a relationship between fifth graders. It’s a relationship between states where national interests reign supreme.
It is too simplistic to say that the relationship was born out of natural symbiotic needs. In the 1950s, Pakistan was deep inside the American camp. Before Kissinger’s secret visit to Peking in 1971, China had no relations with the Americans. To woo the Chinese in such a scenario, even before Pakistan had an episode of disillusionment with US in 1965, was a result of an effective foreign policy.
China was cognizant of the fact that the Pakistanis had refused to buck under American pressure to send troops in the Vietnam War. The border agreement of 1963 was again an initiative from Pakistan. And of course, the need to counter India was a predominant factor in the build-up of this relationship.
Today, much has changed. The rhetoric filled phrases like ‘friendship higher than the Himalayas’ are still there in the official discourses but the substance of the relationship is undergoing a transformation. China has adopted a hands-off approach towards Islamabad. The manifestation of this policy was evident during Gilani’s recent visit to Beijing. When Pakistani officials hinted that the Chinese were interested in taking over the operations of Gwadar, the Chinese categorically denied it. They might have given the money for the construction of the port but for now they are reluctant to run it.
Beijing has its own valid apprehensions. Situation in Balochistan is volatile. Islamabad has failed to curb terrorism and its seepage across its borders. Relations between Pakistan and the US are blowing hot and cold. Increase in hostility with the Indians would serve no purpose to Beijing. Countering the influence of a rising regional power is one thing, and to compromise its vital economic interest in New Delhi to support an ‘all-weather friend’ is another.
China is observing all these developments very carefully from a distance, which has been a hallmark of their foreign policy. They do want a stable progressive Pakistan in the region that could take care of its interests as well. The chances of that happening in the immediate future are bleak. While helping Pakistan in different affairs, as they have been in the past, they would not just go out of their way to put all of their eggs in one basket.
For Pakistan, it would be better if instead of acting out of sheer desperation it realises and acknowledges the real desires and concerns of the Chinese leadership. The Sino-Pak relationship picked pace when Pakistani leaders realised what the Chinese expected of them. There never has been a greater need of a similar realisation in the history of Sino-Pak relations. In the future, the substance in this relationship will be defined by convergence of mutual interests and the removal of Chinese concerns, rather than by lofty notions like ‘time-tested friend’.