China’s domestic politics and regional policy

Driven mainly by domestic imperatives, China has emerged as a new economic and political player in its region. This rise coincides with a tendency towards autocratisation  in Asia that has been facilitated to some extent by a convergence of the interests of China’s and its neighbours  governments. Faced with this reality, the West should reflect on its strategies for the further enhancement of human development: it should integrate China into the donor architecture, help it to improve its domestic governance and pursue a more principled engagement in Asian developing countries.

China’s domestic politics
China has undergone impressive social, cultural and socioeconomic development during the last three decades. It has liberalized its economy and reorganized its state bureaucracy, and new social classes have emerged. While major transformations of its economic system have significantly affected Chinese society, the country’s political order of single-party dictatorship has remained intact. Despite its shift from totalitarianism to a merely authoritarian regime, the Chinese governance system continues to consist of a double structure in which the Communist Party’s monopoly of power is based on control over state personnel. The stability of this political order, which is built on a highly exclusive party, relies heavily on the repression of political and civil freedoms that might bring about organized opposition. Consequently, the Communist Party has replaced control over individuals, formerly exercised through the commune system, with a new security apparatus, including tight media control, trained armed police forces and a controlled judicial system. While restricting the political rights of the people, the Communist party leadership justifies its monopoly by referring to its benevolence. As the transformation of the socialist economy advanced, the Chinese government became heavily dependent on the economic prosperity needed to create the jobs that would eradicate poverty and improve living conditions. Its economic success and the enormous progress in poverty reduction notwithstanding, the Chinese leadership has come under pressure from increasingly visible social disruptions, income inequalities and widespread corruption. Confronted with a rising number of public protests, the government has tried to redirect domestic discontent in nationalist campaigns aimed at the outside world and responded to social discontent by promising more social justice and more balanced economic development. In sum, 30 years after economic liberalization began,China’s considerable international economic weight is not matched by political stability, and its domestic political order rests on a relatively fragile base.

China’s regional policy
China’s external relations, especially with its neighbours are strongly influenced by its internal development, and its regional policy is guided by its internal needs. Key factors driving the government’s regional policy are the quest for territorial integrity and internal security, domestic pressure to develop Chinese society further by providing jobs and the need for natural resources to feed the economy.

Irrespective of long historical ties, China’s engagement with its neighbours is relatively new, but has developed rapidly. In the first decade of adopting a more open approach, Beijing focused on relations with the USA, paying less attention to the developing world, but during the 1990s the Chinese government developed apronounced interest in its regional neighbourhood. Starting in the early 1990s with cautious attempts to normalise its relations with its neighbours, China was brought closer to its region by the Asian financial crisis. Since then, China has actively sought to engage with its neighbours and has increasingly initiated regional cooperation, which has been reflected in soaring bilateral trade and investments in the new millennium.

In China’s regional environment, territorial integrity is not only a reference to the Taiwan issue, a generally dominant consideration in its external relations: it also extends to China’s internal security, especially in the context of its huge and sparsely populated Autonomous Regions Tibet and Xinjiang. Rich in natural resources,these vast territories in the West of the country are strategically important. Home to ethnic and religious minorities also to be found in neighbouring Nepal, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, these economically disadvantaged territories are particularly unstable and prone to social or separatist unrest, as the protests in Xinjiang have recently shown. In its effort to remain in political control of these territories, the Chinese government is trying to reinforce its domestic settlement policy of assimilating and demographically crowding out minorities by bilaterally and multilaterally involving its South and Central Asian neighbours in measures to combat the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism.

From an economic perspective, too, China’s internal development strategy since the mid-1990s has incorporated its regional neighbours more explicitly than before. Its political order remains heavily dependent on its economic growth. An important aspect in this context is the ever growing disparity within the country between its industrialised East and its very backward West. Having directed foreign capital, technologies and know-how towards the country’s eastern coastal area in the first decades of reform, the government has tried to redress the development balance in recent years by enabling provincial governments to cooperate more closely with China’s geographical neighbours. Consequently, in no more than a decade, Chinese provinces have become, for neighbouring Asian countries, a major trading partner, one of the most important foreign investors and a valuable alternative donor. In line with its “going out” policy, designed to enhance the competitiveness of strategic state-owned corporations, especially in the energy sector, the Chinese government is concentrating its economic assistance and regionaloutward investment on developing new export markets and exploiting natural resources, which usually entailsthe provision of infrastructure, such as highways, railways, canals, ports and pipelines.

However, China’s cultivation of its regional environment,reflected in ever closer economic ties, goes well beyond economic interests in that it also pays political and geostrategic dividends. Since the Chinese government realised in the mid-1990s that a hostile regionalenvironment could seriously threaten China’s development if it were to endorse the USA’s containment policy, China has launched a charm offensive aimed at its neighbours. The Chinese leadership reacted to their fears of China’s growing economic and military power by peacefully settling its border disputes with all its neighbours except India, by revising its aggressive approach to the disputed oil-rich islands in the South China Sea with a multilateral agreement, by intensifying bilateral diplomatic and economic relations with all its neighbours and by acting as a promoter in such multilateral regional organisations as ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In this context, the Asian financial crisis turned out to be a key event in China’s efforts to appease the region, since it presented an opportunity for the Chinese government to prove its peaceful intentions.

With its very successful charm offensive, the Chinese government has laid sound foundations for pursuing its more extensive geostrategic interests in neighbouring countries. Many of China’s foreign infrastructure projects, especially the construction of ports in Pakistan, Cambodia and SriLanka, are of a dual-use nature and could be of strategic value for the Chinese navy not only as a means of securing oil-shipping routes through the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but also in the event of military conflict over Taiwan.

China Transferred Ballistic Missile Technology to Pakistan


Pakistan’s security establishment was early to realize the strategic importance of ballistic missiles. In February 1989, a few months before India tested its Agni missiles, Pakistan announced the testing of two types of missiles named Hatf, meaning ‘deadly’ and used for the sword of the Holy Prophet. Work on the Hatf was started in 1974 when Bhutto was prime minister. However, Pakistan needed technological improvements and North Korea and China became the suppliers. Much of China’s early role in Pakistan’s missile development was conjecture. US intelligence disclosed in 1990 that China’s involvement in nuclear and missile proliferation is at least five times greater than what was estimated before. China used its missile relationship with Pakistan as a bargaining chip with the United States. A case in point: a 1992 US decision to sell 150 F -16 fighters to Taiwan - in violation of bilateral communiqués- led China to withdraw from P-5 talks on conventional arms transfers. Later in 1992, there were reports of the transfer of 34 complete M-11 systems to Pakistan. This was followed by MTCR-related sanctions on China by the US, a step that was denounced by China and that prompted Beijing to threaten reneging from its promise to observe MTCR. In 1994 US agencies found that Chinese technicians were travelling to Pakistan to activate the transferred M-11 missiles. This involved completion of the missile facilities and training of military personnel. A six-monthly report of the CIA noted how Chinese entities continued to work with Pakistan and Iran on ballistic missile-related projects during the first half of 2003. Chinese assistance has helped Pakistan to move towards domestic serial production of solid propellant short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and has supported Pakistan’s development of solid propellant medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). Pakistan’s elite came to realize that it was futile to persist in developing indigenous missiles and admitted that the Hatf series had failed. It was replaced by the Chinese M-series. The Pakistani Shaheen series has also become Chinese M-9, M-11 and M-18 types. Pakistan relies on ballistic missiles to deliver its nuclear warheads because its air force has not developed adequately. A long period of sanctions has left the Pakistani aircraft industry quite crippled and truncated.  It has been struggling with F-16 supplies for more than a decade. Poor economic performance has prevented the Pakistan Air Force from undertaking major fleet expansion and modernization efforts by making the switch from US to European and Russian suppliers. Although India has a superior air force, it has no adequate defences at present against Pakistani ballistic missiles, but is catching up very fast. Pakistan has been using its deterrence to blackmail India. Pakistan has been supporting terrorism in India and any corrective measure by India threatens to turn into a nuclear battleground.

While India and Pakistan were once again teetering on the brink of war, after Pakistani-backed terrorists earlier in May 2002 had killed 32 civilians, mostly wives and children of soldiers in Kashmir, Munir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations threatened to use nuclear weapons against India on 30 May 2002. He defended Pakistan’s refusal to commit to a nuclear no-first-use policy. Pakistan has small conventional forces compared to India, Akram said the day after presenting his credential to the UN Secretary-General. ‘We have to rely on our means to deter Indian aggression. We have those means, and we will not neutralize them by any doctrine of no first use’, he said.

China has linked its nuclear proliferation, both for Pakistan’s bomb and its supply of ballistic missiles, to the United States’ long-time violations of US-China agreements in 1979 and 1981 on reduction and eventual phasing out of arms’ sales to Taiwan. According to the Washington Post, the Chinese calculus was ‘to blackmail the US into curbing arms’ sales to Taiwan’.  After ‘9/11’, China became aware that Pakistan is seen more as the problem in the two most contentious issues - terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - than as a solution, and its ‘strategic partnership’ with Pakistan at the old level had become untenable. On Kashmir, which is Pakistan’s chief strategic concern in South Asia, China has distanced itself from the Pakistani position. Pakistan can therefore no longer ride on China’s strategic coat-tails in regional economic interactions in Central and West Asia, although China has been more than willing to use Pakistan’s goodwill in the Islamic world to facilitate its economic concerns in the area. China’s observer status at the ineffective South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is also a sign of China’s encroachment into India’s backyard. China continues to assist Pakistan in augmenting its military with the joint development of the F-22P frigate and JF-17 Thunder fighter.

‘Karakoram’ - The China-Pakistan Friendship Highway

The grandest geostrategic scheme in Asia and perhaps the world is the ‘Karakoram Highway’ from China’s Muslim Far West through the Himalayas into Pakistan, all the way to the Arabian Sea and the wider Indian Ocean. China’s ‘grand strategy’ is to become the second ‘two Ocean country’ in the world after the United States. It only has a coastline on the Pacific Ocean but is methodically working towards the grand goal of building back doors towards the Indian Ocean through Burma and Pakistan and perhaps a third outlet through Assam and Bangladesh.

During the 1950s, Pakistan was as worried about China’s demands vis-a-vis the disputed border as India was. China demanded 5,000 square kilometres of territory in Hunza in the far north of Kashmir on the border with the Chinese Muslim region of Xinjiang. In 1960, Pakistan’s President Field Marshal Ayub Khan was still appealing to India to join together in common defence against the outsider, China. Referring to British colonialism, he even said:

I feel we should have a good chance of preventing a recurrence of history, which was that whenever the subcontinent was divided - which was often - someone or the other invited the outsider to step in.

India linked Ayub Khan’s proposal completely with progress on Kashmir and rejected it. Work on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) had already started in 1959 by Pakistani army engineers on what was then known as the ‘Indus Valley Road’. After the border agreement of 1962, China and Pakistan agreed to broaden the road to a dual carriageway and extend it to the Chinese border at Taxkorgan in the Tadjik Autonomous District of Xinjiang. Approximately 10,000 Chinese and 15,000 Pakistanis completed the road in 1986. It has 80 bridges and an average height of 4,700 metres. 300 Pakistani and 160 Chinese workers lost their lives during construction. According to the Centre for International and Strategic Studies in Geneva, Chinese nuclear and military equipment, including MH missiles, went through the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan. On 30 June 2006, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Pakistan Highway Administration and China’s State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) to rebuild and upgrade the KKH. ‘The width of the highway’, according to SASAC, ‘will be expanded from 10 metres to 30 metres, and its transport capacity will be increased three times. Also, the upgraded road will be constructed to particularly accommodate heavy-laden vehicles and extreme weather conditions’. The decision to upgrade the KKH was taken during President Musharraf’s visit to China in February 2006, when Pakistan requested that China help with the upgrading of the Karakoram Highway. Musharraf said, ‘This road, when upgraded, will provide the shortest route to the sea for products manufactured in China. The same road can serve to provide an overland route for trade between China and India, thus linking two of the largest markets in Asia’.

How China is killing India's dream of leading Asia?

In India, there is a robust debate among academics, politicians and journalists that China, conscious of its centrality as the Middle Kingdom and the largest continuous empire in Asia and the world from the early 1950s had a grand design to reassert itself as the pre-eminent power in Asia. India had a history of transient Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim empires, based more on ephemeral, mercenary conquests of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious periphery like the Ottoman Empire than on an ancient, homogeneous, cultural core, like China. By the eighteenth century, the last Indian ‘Mughal Empire’ was so weakened by tension between a declining central authority and strong local rulers that it could no longer resist British interference and submission. After Indian independence in 1947, India re-emerged as the new leading power of Asia with the brilliant, cosmopolitan Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the authentic voice of the whole resurgent Orient. As a globetrotting intellectual, Nehru had visited the Soviet Union in 1927 and China in 1939. He then told Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek: ‘More and more, I think of India and China pulling together in the future’. Nehru had the worldview of a sentimental leftist British aristocrat and ticked off the US as ‘uncouth and uncultured, unrivalled in technology but predatory in its capitalism’. He visited the United States for the first time in 1949 when he was prime minister. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson found him ‘prickly and arrogant one of the most difficult people I ever had to deal with’. Chester Bowles, US ambassador in New Delhi from 1951-1953, later criticized Acheson’s attitude towards Nehru as ‘immature and ridiculous to jump to the conclusion that because he [Nehru] is not 100 per cent for us, he must be against us’. Under Acheson’s successor, John Foster Dulles, things would become worse. Dulles decisively wrecked Indo-US relations when he signed a military pact with Pakistan in February 1954: ‘Dulles wanted pacts, Pakistan wanted money and arms’. Nehru had further angered Dulles by his tireless campaigning for the recognition of the People’s Republic of China and his insistence that it be given the permanent seat in the UN Security Council that was then occupied by Taiwan. Americans felt that Nehru had ‘entered the arena of world politics as a champion challenging American wisdom’.

Thus was the intellectual and global strategic setting for India’s relations with South Asia and the world in the 1950s, which was in staggering fast-forward mode. The first world-shattering change had been the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and it took most countries years, and the United States decades, to come to terms with that. How did India adjust ? Nehru’s first ambassador to Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was K.M. Pannikar, like Nehru himself a high-powered intellectual. After the promulgation of the PRC in 1949, Nehru kept Pannikar as ambassador to the new communist state and as such he soon met Chairman Mao Zedong. Pannikar wrote that Mao reminded him of his own boss, Nehru, ‘for both are men of action with dreamy, idealistic temperaments’ and both ‘may be considered humanists in the broadest sense of the term’. A few months after his meeting with Pannikar, who was representing a power that had historical interests in Tibet, Mao ordered the invasion of the mediaeval theocracy across the Himalayas. The Indian ambassador had to learn about it from All India Radio. Sardar Valabhbhai Patel, the great administrative unifier of India and its princely states and Nehru’s deputy, was shocked at Pannikar’s naivety. As a hyper-realist, he had warned earlier that he saw in Chinese communism nothing but an ‘extreme form of nationalism’. Now he urged his boss to be ‘alive to the new danger from China’, make India militarily strong and no longer to pursue pro-China policies, such as advocating China’s entry into the UN Security Council. Patel also hinted that India should give up its policy of neutrality and non-alignment in favour of an alliance with the West. Nehru was not going to listen. He thought it a pity that Tibet could not be saved, yet he considered it exceedingly unlikely that India would now face an attack from China; it was inconceivable that they would ‘undertake a wild adventure across the Himalayas’. He thought that ‘communism means inevitably an expansion towards India as rather naive’. Regardless of the events in Tibet, India should still seek ‘some kind of understanding’ with Beijing, for ‘India and China at peace with each other would make a vast difference to the whole set-up and balance of the world’. One month later, Sardar Patel died. Now there was no longer opposition at the top-level against Nehru’s policy of ‘understanding’ with China. In 1952, Nehru’s younger sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, met Mao and Zhou Enlai in Beijing. She was deeply impressed by both, and in a letter to her brother she wrote about Mao: ‘As with the Mahatma, the public doesn’t just applaud him, they worship him’. Mrs Pandit had been ambassador to Moscow previously and could not resist comparisons; in the end she was not sure whether Mao reminded her more of Gandhi than of Stalin.

The monumental question is whether revolutionary, totalitarian China already in the 1950s had a premeditated policy of lulling neutralist, pacifist, soft social-democratic India into a false sense of security, deceiving it at every twist and turn, challenging Nehru’s status as a leading world statesman and India’s as the leader of the Afro-Asian world. The answer, or my answer at least, is no, not yet. Subsequent events in the post-Mao era and beyond, and then arguing backwards, make it quite persuasive that China has always pursued a policy of containing India and obstructing Indian primacy in South Asia. However, the chronology and chain of causation of events does not support such an assumption.

After US Secretary of State Dulles had lured Pakistan into two anti-communist military pacts in 1954 and India in response became a military client state of the Soviet Union, China was of course acutely worried. Its east coast was already under blockade by the US. China’s first step to counter total isolation was to strengthen its border with India, by building a road link between Xinjiang and Tibet in 1956-1957. India accused China of land grabbing and perfidy, whereas the Aksai Chin Plateau through which the road ran was evidently disputed land. Had India been willing during the 1950s to recognize that Aksai Chin and also the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA, from 1985 known as Arunachal Pradesh) were disputed rather than unmistakable Indian territories that should have been the focus of negotiations and compromise, and had the Dalai Lama not fled to India and received political asylum there in 1959, could rapid deterioration of relations and war in 1962 have been avoided? After the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, China’s geostrategic position was further weakened and India’s was strengthened because it was now a quasi-ally, and from 1971 onwards a full ally, of Soviet-Russia. Mao probably chose the Cuban Crisis in October 1962, when Washington and Moscow were fully preoccupied with each other, as the timing for his border war with India, delivering a body blow to India and Nehru, which was an early prelude to China’s resurgence as a great power and India’s downgrading to secondary status.  

The US rushed to the aid of India, the latest victim of ‘communist aggression’. This was overwhelming evidence for Pakistan that America could not be trusted, opening the way for China and the Sino-Pakistani axis. Whether this was Mao’s calculus or an unintended result of the war is as yet unclear, but it was a long-term strategic gain for China, which was blockaded and surrounded by a string of American-led military alliances in the east and by the Soviet Union in the north and west. Pakistan became China’s back door to West Asia, the Middle East and the world at large. Pakistan even became the conduit and logistical base for the United States to initiate its détente with China when Pakistan’s military ruler, General Yahya Khan, personally arranged Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in 1971, which was the harbinger of President Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972, one of the truly epoch-making events of the twentieth century. India ended up on the wrong side of history, an economically stagnant partner of a decaying Soviet Union, an unenviable position that only changed after the end of the Cold War. The US alliance with Pakistan was defunct during the 1990s because of the Pressler Sanctions, and it was again China that softened the blow by generous offers of economic and technical aid. In addition to giving handouts, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called on Pakistan’s Sharif government to end disputes with India over Kashmir and instead to pursue economic development. Pakistan needed to reign in defence spending, which is consuming more than 6 per cent of its GDP.

Since ‘9-11’, the US has again poured billions of dollars into Pakistan as the frontline state with Afghanistan for the ‘war on terror’. Instead of a safe base for this war, Pakistan was in reality a dangerously unstable country, misruled for decades by US-supported military autocrats, corrupt civilians and more recently increasingly undermined by Islamists and terrorists. The United States has made a major effort to normalize Pakistan by means of an ideology-driven plan to restore democracy with the late Benazir Bhutto as the saviour of the nation to be. With her violent assassination on December 27, 2007, it turned out differently. China, as the other longstanding ally of Pakistan and aspiring superpower, bears a good share of the responsibility to help clean up the Pakistani mess. A Chinese specialist in South Asian politics at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), Hu Shisheng described how vital a stable Pakistan is for China: 

We will contribute to its stabilization. A stable Pakistan is very important for us to build a stable Xinjiang. A disintegrated or dismantled Pakistan will be a disaster for us. We already know that during the American campaign in Afghanistan and operations in Pakistan, Uygurs were caught there. There are huge tribal areas there which have run themselves for centuries. Without close cooperation with Pakistan, how can China ensure stability there?

Asked what role China would play in restoring some degree of normalcy in Pakistan, another senior specialist in China-India relations at CICIR, Ma Jiali, admitted that China has no strategy and not even a clue about how to put Pakistan’s house in order.

China Helps Pakistan to Develop Nuclear Weapons

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made the first request to China to help Pakistan to develop nuclear weapon capabilities to match India’s budding programme when he was foreign minister in 1965, but China at that time was non- committal. In 1976 he urged the Chinese again to oblige, and this time they  agreed to supply Pakistan with blueprints for a fission weapon around or  before 1983. Pakistan had been the most loyal and consistent supporter of  China in the international arena on all issues: the United Nations; Taiwan;  Tibet; human rights; etc. Strategic factors that led China to change its  position were the amputation of East Pakistan by India’s intervention in The Bangladesh Liberation War: 1971 and India’s first nuclear test in 1974.  China was not the first and only foreign contributor. The first illicit supplier of nuclear technology came from the Netherlands in the form of the theft of  nuclear blueprints by A.Q. Khan, who was to emerge as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Indirect support came from Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria and the United States.

China joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984. China supplied M-11 missiles to Pakistan and maintained that this was within  the Missile Technology Control Regime. In 1986, China concluded a comprehensive nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan. Chinese  scientists began assisting Pakistan with the enrichment of weapons’ grade uranium, and China reportedly also transferred tritium gas to Pakistan, which could be used to achieve fusion in hydrogen bombs and boost the yield of atomic bombs. Pakistan had been under threat of far-reaching US sanctions since the so-called ‘Pressler Amendment’ was adopted in 1985, which banned military aid to Pakistan unless the US President could certify that Pakistan neither possessed nuclear weapons nor was trying to develop them. Pakistan could manipulate its relationship with the United States as an indispensable ally as long as the Cold War prevailed. The US withheld military equipment from Pakistan that was contracted prior to 1990, worth about US$ 1.2 billion, even though Pakistan had paid for this. The end of the Cold War brought further cuts, and in summer 1993 additional sanctions were imposed under the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) for allegedly receiving missile technology from China. The United States also had so much evidence of Chinese assistance to the Pakistani nuclear programme that it imposed sanctions on China in 1991, but these were already partially lifted in 1993.

France joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1991, and China followed suit in 1992, but continued to criticize the discriminatory nature of the Treaty and reiterated that it did not view non-proliferation as an end in itself, but rather as a means to the ultimate objective of the complete prohibition and destruction of nuclear weapons. In 1992 China also agreed to abide by the MTRC. Nevertheless, Chinese supplies of missiles and nuclear materials, including M-11 and M-9 missiles, surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and highly enriched uranium (HEU) continued all through the 1990s.

Even after acceding to the NPT, China continued to assist illicit nuclear weapons’ programmes, for instance in addition to supplying Algeria with a plutonium-production reactor, China has supplied Iraq with lithium hydride, in violation of the international embargo on Iraq; Iran with a research reactor and a calutron, a technology that can be used to enrich uranium to weapons’ grade; and Pakistan with tritium and specialized ring magnets, used in Pakistan’s uranium enrichment programme.  

The United States and China had a non-stop showdown over China’s nuclear arming of Pakistan throughout the 1980s and 1990s. US policy was aimed at preventing Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons’ capability by threatening to cut off economic and conventional military aid and imposing sanctions. Once it joined the NPT in 1992, China observed its legal obligations but continued to oppose restrictions on nuclear transfers and assistance under the name of non-proliferation. While direct Chinese assistance in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’ programme has ended and the scope of nuclear technology transfers also narrowed, activities that could contribute indirectly to Pakistan’s  nuclear weapons’ programme have continued. The US 2003 Non-Compliance Report, submitted to Congress, charged that: ‘Chinese state-owned corporations have engaged in transfer activities with Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Libya that are clearly contrary to China’s commitments to the United States’.

The Bangladesh Liberation War: 1971

It was not only geographical distance that divided West and East Pakistan. It was like a colonial empire, with the West Pakistani elite exploiting the East like a ‘predatory foreign ruling class’, most recently by imposing the Urdu language on the Bengali-speaking East. Aggravating disparities in economic development and West Pakistani opposition to opening the border between East Pakistan and Indian West Bengal had further deepened the crisis. Elections led to an overwhelming victory of the populist Awami League in the East, winning 167 out of 169 seats. This result even took Awami Leader Sheikh Mujib’ur Rahman by surprise and shocked President Yahya Khan. Mujib’ur’s main demand was a federal constitution with equal power-sharing between East and West. He called a general strike, which the Yahya military regime decided to break by brutal military force. Sheikh Mujib’ur Rahman was arrested and flown to a secret location in West Pakistan. Soon, millions of East Pakistanis fled to Indian West Bengal. 

On 17 April 1971 a new East Bengali state of Bangladesh was proclaimed, which India welcomed, but which West Pakistan was ready to crush if necessary by indiscriminate army violence against civilians. Confronted with an ever-escalating flow of refugees and pressed by West Bengali public opinion to support their East Bengali brethren and to recognize Bangladesh diplomatically, the Indian government, led by Indira Gandhi, had no alternative but to intervene. But since the self-proclaimed Bangladeshi government did not control any substantial chunk of territory, the basis for this in international law was shaky. The conflict was legally Pakistan’s internal affair and large-scale interference by India could lead to a major war with the risk of Chinese intervention.  

It is noteworthy that the Soviet Union was the only power that acted in a principled and consistent way in this particular conflict. Since its mediation in Tashkent, Moscow had kept close contact with Islamabad without alienating New Delhi, and during the new crisis it urged the Pakistani military to stop immediately its bloody repression in the East and to negotiate peacefully with representatives of the East Pakistani people. 


The United States, meanwhile, took the contradictory line of condemning India, while sending aid for an estimated 10 million East Bengali refugees, and at the same time continuing arms supplies to West Pakistan’s military dictatorship so as to keep the dialogue going and to exercise some influence on the regime in Islamabad. ‘We were in the process of trying to convince the Chinese that we were worthy friends, who stood by their ally’ said Walter Andersen, a former US State Department South Asia specialist, now Associate Director for South Asia Studies at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. Credibility with China was suddenly an important consideration, because American diplomats were busy preparing President Nixon’s historical visit to China in February 1972.  


China faced the same dilemma as the Americans. It had the option of supporting a national liberation movement with strong radical leftist elements against neo-imperialism by fellow Asians. However, it opted for traditional state interests and identified completely with West Pakistan’s military regime, while scolding India as ‘reactionary expansionists’ and referring to Czechoslovakia in 1968 - the Soviet Union as ‘shameless hypocrites’.  

The Nixon administration’s policy of ignoring large scale Pakistani atrocities was based on fear that India, after eliminating Pakistani rule in East Bengal, would invade West Pakistan, install a pro-Indian/pro-Soviet regime there and thus severely damage American and Chinese interests and pave the way for full Soviet domination of South Asia. Nixon and Kissinger not only dismissed Indian and international concerns about Pakistani genocide in the East, they also ignored what went down in the annals of diplomatic history as perhaps the most strongly worded protest of a diplomat against the indefensible behavior of his own government. US Consul-General in Dhaka Archer Blood protested in April 1971 in a diplomatic telegram: 

Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan-dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state. Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected.

There was another, more immediate, reason for the United States to refrain from taking a critical attitude towards Pakistani abuses in the East. In April 1971 ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ had started between the United States and China, and Henry Kissinger’s secret July 1971 visit to China was being prepared through Pakistani channels. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China was  in part  a ploy to end the doomed Vietnam War without admitting defeat.  

India’s concern, prior to the war in East Pakistan, was to hedge against Chinese intervention. India and the Soviet Union thus decided to make a counter move against what was perceived as an emerging US-China-Pakistani triangle. On 9 August 1971 India’s Foreign Secretary Swaran Singh signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, a nice euphemism for a military pact, with his Soviet colleague Andrei Gromyko. The diplomatic prelude to war had now clearly started. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi traveled to Moscow first, then to the major European capitals and finally to Washington.  The Europeans told Gandhi that they would make a last effort to persuade Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan to release Sheikh Mujib’ur Rahman from incarceration; and the Americans on 8 November 1971 pledged to cut off arms’ supplies to the Pakistanis. Bhutto, reappointed as foreign minister, visited Beijing from 5-8 November 1971 to seek ‘reassurance’. Behind the scenes, the Chinese tried to persuade the Pakistanis to make a settlement with the leaders of East Pakistan, but in vain.  The Chinese were non-committal, but what they did offer the public was a bewildering outburst of Orwellian doublespeak. They lamented that the Indians had done the same thing to China (in Tibet) as they were now doing to Pakistan in the East: 

They fomented a rebellion in the Tibet Region of our country and engaged in all kinds of subversive activities. When the rebellion was crushed by the Chinese people, they [the Indian reactionaries] coerced tens of thousands of Chinese [Tibetan] residents to their country, thus fabricating the question of the so-called ‘Tibetan refugees’

Full-scale war between the armed forces of India’s 980,000 troops and Pakistan’s 392,000 started on two fronts on 3 December 1971, with a massive Indian air campaign against all airports and bases in East Pakistan, destroying all of the aeroplanes that were grounded. The Pakistanis attacked in Kashmir and in the Indian Punjab, where they made some gains, but these were unsustainable after India took Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, on 13 December. The Pakistani commander, General A.A. Khan Niazi had vowed to fight until the last man, but on 16 December 1971 he surrendered to his Indian counterpart, General Jagjit Singh Aurora. The Chinese had, as usual, refrained from any activity on any front.  

The war had been simultaneously conducted at the United Nations, where a Chinese ambassador had just two months before taken the seat that had been occupied by Chiang Kai-shek’s representative until October 1971. 

On the second day of the war on 4 December 1971, the Russian ambassador to the UN, Jacob Malik, submitted a draft resolution in which Pakistan was ordered to find a political settlement within Pakistan that should lead to a ceasefire. Malik also proposed inviting a representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations’ session. The draft was immediately vetoed by China: the first Chinese veto. The Chinese ambassador, Huang Hua, engaged in mind-boggling rhetoric and wondered whether India would now use the presence of Tibetan ‘counter-revolutionary refugees’ in India as a pretext for aggression against China. He extended this logic even to the Soviet Union and asked his Soviet counterpart: 

Is the Soviet Union going to use the tens of thousands of Chinese citizens, which it abducted by force from China’s Xinjiang in 1962 and of whom it uses some for anti-China subversive activities, as a pretext for aggression against China? And are you going to use this kind of people in the United Nations to justify your aggression and subversion?

Huang was referring to Muslim Uygur people who had escaped the famine in China, caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1959, and had fled to Kazakhstan during the following years. During a third debate Huang Hua went as far as comparing Bangladesh with Manchukuo and the government of Bangladesh with a Quisling clique.  

When the defeat of Pakistan was imminent, President Nixon sent the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, not as long has been assumed to intimidate India, but according to Walter Andersen: 

Again to show China that we were steadfast in our support to Pakistan, an ally of both China and the United States. In fact fighting had ended before the Enterprise entered the Indian Ocean. The American nuclear carrier was faced by the Indian light aircraft carrier Vikrant. The Soviet Navy sent two task forces from Vladivostok including nuclear submarines, which trailed the American carrier group at a distance of a few hundred miles. It was all show.

The US Navy backed off after the Pakistani surrender in the East when India refrained from a new campaign for the dismemberment of West Pakistan. American policy was deeply flawed and led to a freeze in US-India relations until the end of the Cold War. The architect of the failed policy was no less than Dr Kissinger.

An official statement of the Chinese government in Beijing on 16 December 1971 took a more serious line than the outbursts of its UN ambassador. It asked the question: if the Indian government was so concerned about the national aspirations of the people of East Pakistan, why was it so indifferent about the national aspirations of the people of Kashmir? US proposals were vetoed by the Russians and Russian proposals were vetoed by China. It was a novel spectacle in world politics: the United States, for the first time, inadvertently found itself in partnership with China in condemning Soviet expansionism and its client-state India, and conniving at Pakistan’s indiscriminate terror against the civilian people of East Pakistan (Bangladesh). On 16 December 1971, the day of the Pakistani surrender, China accused India of new border violations near Sikkim in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA - in 1985 renamed Arunachal Pradesh) and demanded that India immediately cease its incursions. What the Chinese wanted to achieve with this diversion was unclear, because it was too late to have any impact. Bangladesh was a fait accompli. Pakistan as a pair of pincers around the Indian subcontinent had ceased to exist. The third and thus far most important military phase of the Indo-Pakistani conflict had ended with far less potent input from China than India had feared and Pakistan had hoped. According to Andersen, the Indians had not taken China’s posturing and its diplomatic harangues at all seriously. The Indo-Soviet Treaty and possible Soviet military build-up on the Chinese north-eastern and Central Asian borders were enough deterrent for the Chinese not to get involved in the war militarily. It later transpired that Kissinger had met on 10 December 1971 with the new Chinese UN ambassador Huang Hua, who assured him that China would continue fighting in support of Pakistan as long as it had a rifle in its armoury, but apart from supplying arms it did nothing. A few months later, Zhou Enlai complained to the visiting Nixon and Kissinger in Beijing that Pakistan’s military ruler, General Yahya Khan, did not really lead his troops in East Pakistan. Peking’s central goal had not been that Pakistan remained united, but that West Pakistan remained independent of India and friendly towards China. After the conflict, Chinese civilian and military aid to Pakistan increased in leaps and bounds. For instance, Pakistan reportedly received nearly one-third of its arms from abroad from the PRC in the period from 1966-1980, amounting to approximately US$ 1.5 billion.

US-China relaxed after the Kissinger and Nixon visits to Beijing in 1971-1972 had a multiple impact on the China-Pakistan axis. It relaxed the American encirclement of China, reduced China’s apprehension about the India-Soviet alliance and encouraged it to have a broader view of South Asia than the one through Pakistani lenses. Until the Bangladesh Independence War, China had been the main backer - with Pakistan - of the right to self-determination for the Kashmiri people. However, in July 1972 the Simla Agreement was signed by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, binding the two countries ‘to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations’. It also cemented the Line of Control as something close to a permanent border. The agreement has been the basis of all subsequent bilateral talks between India and Pakistan, and equally important to all Chinese official pronouncements on the conflict.


The Third Kashmir War: Kargil-1999

Although free of war for the 28 years since the Bangladesh Independence War in 1971, Pakistan remained a deformed country, single-mindedly obsessed with only one issue: Kashmir, with India in the background. Since it had been clear for decades that its conventional armed forces were too small to be a match for India and that no outside power would support Pakistan militarily against India, the Islamist faction of Pakistan’s military establishment and its notorious intelligence service - Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - had been practicing ‘Talibanization’ - that is, giving fundamentalist Muslim boys, who only received some minimal education in Koran schools, military training and unleashing them on Indian targets, whether the parliaments in Delhi and Srinagar in 2001 or any non-military target or mountainous areas in Kashmir. Another option since the successful nuclear tests of 1998 was to play the nuclear card and threaten with the bomb, nothing less! That is exactly what  happened in 1999: a reckless militia operation, planned and remote-controlled, according to many sources, by the Chief-of-Staff, General Pervez Musharraf himself, half a year before he launched the coup that made him Pakistan’s newest military dictator.

In February 1999, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee travelled by bus to Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. They spoke about increasing trade, simplifying the visa regime and Kashmir, of course, but no progress was made on the political stalemate. But as long as they talked, everybody considered it a good sign and this measured optimism was called the ‘Spirit of Lahore’. Then three months later, hundreds of Pakistani army regulars, disguised as Kashmiri insurgents, infiltrated the Kargil district of Kashmir. The idea was to occupy the mountain tops that overlooked the highway from the state capital of Srinagar to Leh, the district capital of Ladakh. The generals apparently believed that the nuclear shield provided protection, inhibiting the Indians from repulsing the intruders. Indian artillery soon started bombarding the enemy positions while fighter planes screamed overhead with rattling heavy machine guns and foot soldiers hauled themselves laboriously up the perpendicular slopes for man-to-man combat. Dozens of peaks, each with nests of machine guns, had to be recaptured one by one. It took the Indians almost two months to clear the mountains of an estimated 5,000 insurgents, some of them Kashmiris but most of them Pathans from Pakistan. On the Indian side there were over 500 dead; on the Pakistani side close to 4,000.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif alleged that he was only informed of the conflict by the generals when the fighting was in full swing. The US administration was alarmed by the fighting and the danger that it would escalate into a regional war, with China and Saudi Arabia - the great global financier of Islamicization - supporting the Pakistanis and India turning to its old ally Russia and perhaps its new one Israel! US President Clinton sent Tony Zinni, the marine-general in charge of Central Command, to Islamabad to demand an immediate pullback from Sharif and Musharraf. When they did not comply, Clinton threatened to freeze an IMF credit of US$ 100 million. Sharif then rushed to Beijing to get comfort from Pakistan’s staunchest ally, but he got nothing.  By the end of June 1999, the Pakistani generals realized that their invasion had just been another ill-conceived military adventure that had produced nothing positive and not at all the American support for which they had hoped. The generals felt stabbed in the back by the civilians for making them believe that they were successfully bleeding India. Sharif made a telephone call to US President Bill Clinton on 2 July 1999, begging for his personal intervention. Clinton told Sharif in very strong terms that he would only get involved if Pakistan withdrew immediately and unconditionally from Kargil, a demand that Clinton himself simultaneously conveyed to Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee. The next day Sharif called the President to inform him that he was on his way to Washington. Clinton did not instantly shrug him off, so as not to make a bad situation worse. Sharif was bringing his wife and children with him, causing the White House to wonder whether he was coming to seek an end to a crisis or for protection against a coup and political asylum.  What Sharif wanted was a ceasefire, followed by a ‘Kashmir Peace Process’, similar to the one for the Middle East that Clinton was chairing at that moment. According to US intelligence, Pakistan might on the eve of Sharif’s arrival be preparing its nuclear forces for deployment. The assessment was that a missile crisis worse than Cuba in 1962 could be in the making. In the end Sharif had to settle for a promise that Clinton would take a personal interest in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification of the bilateral efforts (i.e. that is, the Spirit of Lahore) once the sanctity of the Line of Control had been fully restored. The Indian government was satisfied that Pakistan had been denied any benefit from its aggression and considered President Clinton’s performance during the Kargil crisis ‘the prelude towards a new era in US-India relations.

Sharif had paid a crippling price for yielding to Clinton in Washington. Back in Islamabad, he untruthfully stated publicly that he had not been briefed by the generals on Kargil, admitting both his weakness and the military’s command over civilians rather  than the other way. Soon afterwards, Sharif provoked his own downfall when he ordered the airport to refuse landing rights for an airplane with General Musharraf upon returning from an overseas trip. The army rebelled and deposed Sharif, who was sentenced to death for attempted murder (on the grounds that the plane could have crashed), thus ending another brief flirtation with parliamentary democracy. Under American pressure, Musharraf, however, lifted the death sentence on Sharif and his brother fourteen months later and allowed them to go into exile in Saudi Arabia.

China had started moving away from blind support for Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir after Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan’s President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed the Simla Agreement in 1972, binding the two countries ‘to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations’. The Agreement also cemented the Line of Control as something close to a permanent border. The Agreement has been the basis of all Chinese official pronouncements on the conflict.  

When Indian Foreign Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China to have his first look at post-Mao China after seventeen years of a freeze in relations (from 1962-1979), he discovered that the Kashmir issue had become an irritant in Sino-Pakistani relations that had to be addressed. As young Uygurs from Xinjiang went to Pakistan in the 1980s for military training to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, a worrisome dimension was added to China’s close relationship with Pakistan. After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s with the full backing of Pakistan’s military, China became apprehensive about Pakistan becoming a catalyst for an Islamic revival in its troubled Xinjiang region. A PRC circular of late 1999 (the same year as the Kargil War) expressed the belief that there was a strong reason to suspect that Uygur separatists received help from abroad. Explosives used by separatists in Xinjiang had Chinese markings. They were exported to Pakistan, re-exported to Afghanistan and then found their way back to terrorists in China. The worst ‘blowback’ of China’s decades-long build-up of Pakistan as a military and nuclear power would be if Pakistan’s Islamist terrorism-sponsoring generals used nuclear weapons in Kashmir. Pakistan’s military’s intelligence agency, ISI, has for twenty years run a proxy war in Kashmir aimed at forcing New Delhi to amass troops in the disputed valley. If diplomatic pressure failed to resolve the Kashmir question, the ISI reasoned, Islamabad would have the option of launching a nuclear first strike that would take out half of the Indian army in one hit. Leaving the area uninhabitable for generations underlined the ISI’s Kashmir strategy: if we cannot have it, neither can you.