The news that the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, will be the chief guest at the March parade this year has been warmly received in Pakistan. President Barack Obama’s presence in New Delhi on India’s Republic Day parade and the heavy tilt of Narendra Modi towards aligning his country’s policies with Washington created unease both in China and Pakistan. President Xi’s visit will be reassuring and will provide good optics reflecting the strong bonds that exist between the two countries who have stood the vagaries of time. More recently, the extreme warm reception that General Raheel Sharif was accorded in Beijing and the strong statements made by the Chinese military leadership reiterating full support to Pakistan were also expressions of the same policy.
Sino-Pakistan relations, since the early 1950s, have been consistent, multi-faceted and span strategic defence, political, economic and diplomatic ties. China considers Pakistan useful in countering India, values its geostrategic position and considers it an important ally in the Muslim world.
In the field of defence, China has extended invaluable cooperation that extends to all three services. It has not only provided weapons and equipment but has also assisted Pakistan in developing a strong a defence industrial capability. The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Heavy Industries Taxila, several factories and production lines in the Pakistan Ordnance Factories, maritime projects for the navy and missile factories have been set up with Chinese assistance. In the 1970s and the 1980s, China set up major industrial units like the Heavy Mechanical Complex and the Heavy Forge Factory that helped build Pakistan’s intrinsic technological and industrial base.
The proposed $45 billion Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, which has strategic connotations when implemented, should provide a huge boost in transforming Pakistan’s economic landscape by linking south, central and western Asia. Development of the economic corridor and the Gwadar port as an energy hub by China are mutually beneficial projects. It will provide China access to the Straits of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The economic corridor will link Kashgar in China with Gwadar and open up enormous economic opportunities for both countries.
China today is clearly Pakistan’s top arms supplier, a position until recently held by the US. Chinese and Pakistani militaries carry out joint exercises and there is continuous exchange of high-level visits demonstrating that relations are robust. The PLA’s training establishments are major destinations for the Pakistan military. In September 2014, a flotilla of the PLA Navy ships made a friendly visit to Karachi. These were followed by several other visits of naval ships. At the diplomatic level, both countries cooperate closely at the bilateral and multilateral levels, and take common positions on global and regional issues.
China has, however, genuine concerns regarding growing radicalism in Pakistan. First, for its impact on Pakistan’s own stability and more importantly, its influence on the restive northwestern autonomous Chinese region of Xinjiang that has a significant majority of Muslim Uighurs and other minorities. While Pakistan is undertaking serious measures to ensure that dissident Chinese groups do not find sanctuaries in the tribal region, it remains a constant challenge to prevent their infiltration due to the porous nature of the border and the support they receive from different militant groups. If militants were to make major gains in Pakistan, Beijing would be very concerned of the impact and could review its policy.
While assessing Pakistan-China relations, one has to factor the latter’s current global interests and how these will play out in the long-term. Beijing’s economic and commercial links with the US are so closely intertwined that it is difficult for either country to disassociate itself from the other. China owes much of its phenomenal economic rise to the opportunity that the American market offered. No other country’s consumer market could absorb China’s huge manufacturing base. Moreover, China realises American power and its economic and political clout, and would like to retain a cooperative relationship.
Despite the border dispute and current tensions arising out of the US-Indian strategic alliance, China’s leadership has opted for maintaining good working relations with India. It has a growing economic and commercial relationship and trade between the two countries has reached $70 billion and is fast growing. Beijing understands the fallout of an adversarial relation with India on its economy. Its primary focus is on domestic development. China has always taken a position that time is on its side and it has shown extraordinary foresight in handling foreign relations with regional and global powers.
Pakistan will have to factor in China’s global perspective while formulating its future policy and expectations. There is also a lot that our leaders need to learn from the sophistication of China’s foreign policy. Despite US strategic convergence and growing support to India’s role at the regional and global level, China remains unruffled and poised. As President Obama stated, the “scope of our cooperation with China is unprecedented, even as we remain alert to China’s military modernization” while unveiling the US national security strategy of 2015.
Because of the very complex nature of its relations with India, Beijing is uncomfortable when India- Pakistan tensions aggravate. Clearly, China would remain supportive of Pakistan but would like it to manage relations with its adversary more subtly to retain an environment whereby it is not forced to take sides, especially when the two countries have growing economic and commercial interests, despite their strategic incongruence. Surely, the age of zero-sum diplomacy is over and China, like other world powers, would want to be on the winning side so as not to create problems for itself. On Kashmir, it would like Islamabad to take a more pragmatic attitude in its expectations. It has demonstrated great patience and maturity in dealing with the question of Taiwan and when it comes to the border dispute with India. Most striking in China’s foreign policy conduct is the balancing between economic, political and strategic interests.
China-Pakistan relations that are based on mutuality of interests seem destined to grow. Pakistan should, however, remain sensitive to the complexities that surround this relationship and factor these in.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2015.