Within months of the Dalai Lama’s fight to India following a failed uprising in Tibet, Chinese ambassador Pan Tzu-li wrote to Prime Minister Nehru in May 1959, warning that China would make common cause with Pakistan, thereby forcing India to face military and diplomatic pressure on two fronts. To this end, Beijing found in Islamabad an only too willing partner. Since then, China has forged close relations with Pakistan, India’s nemesis, primarily to offset Indian power. The Sino-Pakistan partnership is one of the two bilateral relationships (the other is North Korea) that have not just survived but thrived during the ups and downs and numerous twists and turns in China’s foreign relations since the 1950s. Despite steadily improving relations with India since the late 1980s, China has not become less friendly to Pakistan, primarily because the combined strategic and political advantages China receives from its relationship with Pakistan (and, through Pakistan, other Islamic countries) easily outweigh any advantages China might receive from a closer relationship with India. Above all, Pakistan is the only country that stands up to India and thereby prevents Indian hegemony over the region, thus fulfilling the key objective of China’s South Asia policy. The Chinese believe that as long as India is preoccupied with Pakistan on its western frontier, it will not stir up trouble on the Tibetan border. A secure and stable India at peace with Pakistan would, on the other hand, make New Delhi focus on China and East Asia.
China’s overriding strategic interest is to keep Pakistan independent, powerful, and confident enough to present India with a standing two front threat, were India able to dissolve this two-front threat by subordinating Pakistan, its position against China would be much stronger [This would amount to] conceding South Asia as an Indian sphere of influence. Such a move would spell the virtual end to Chinese aspirations of being the leading Asian power and would greatly weaken China’s position against Indian power.
Through Pakistan, China also retains the option of continuously creating momentum that saps India’s military power. It was the provision of the Chinese nuclear and missile shield to Pakistan during the late 1980s and 1990s (at the height of China-India rapprochement) that emboldened Islamabad to wage a proxy war in Kashmir. As Ehsan Ahrari puts it, ‘In enabling Pakistan to become a nuclear power China has already created a very painful long-term reality for India. The strategic parity with India that Pakistan has gives it tremendous potential to emerge as a major factor in Southwest and Central Asia, if it could set its economy in order.’ A staunch ally such as Pakistan also provides China with a secure access to naval bases (Karachi, Ormara and Gwadar) close to the entrance of the Persian Gulf.
Furthermore, Beijing’s concerns about separatist Islamic influence in its far-western region of Xinjiang also explain China’s indulgence towards Pakistan. China apparently feels strongly that engaging Pakistan’s government, and even its fundamentalist religious parties, is an important part of keeping control in its own restive Muslim northwest. Rabid Talibanisation of Pakistani state and society during the 1990s has, however, created some frictions between Beijing and Islamabad. Nor can Beijing turn a blind eye to the activities of jihadi parties based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Wang Jianping, an expert on Islam at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of World Religions, admits that ‘China has some problems with Pakistan’ over its deep involvement with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the ‘export of fundamentalist Islamic political ideas’. Though Pakistan has been scrupulously careful in trying not to offend China, relations between the two ‘all-weather friends’ may sour if Islamabad fails to keep the fundamentalists on a short leash in respect of Xinjiang or if the fundamentalist organisations take over that country. Clearly, the future of Sino-Pakistani relations will depend on how Pakistan’s internal politics as well as Sino-Indian ties evolve.
Given its Tibetan problem and the Western interests in exploiting it, China may have started viewing Pakistan’s obsession with Kashmir as bothersome. That is why President Jiang Zemin advised Pakistan in 1996 to defer solutions to problems such as Kashmir to future generations. Beijing also adopted cautious neutrality during the limited border war in Kashmir provoked by its ally in 1999 but did not condemn it. Recognising that Pakistan was in an economic mess, China has stepped in to provide massive economic assistance and agreed to invest heavily in Pakistan for upgrading railways, ports, highways and the agricultural sector. Pakistan remains a major recipient of Chinese largesse. While Pakistan continues to be a useful instrument of Chinese foreign policy in South Asia and the Persian Gulf, one cannot rule out the possibility of the pragmatic Chinese evaluating their policy towards Pakistan, as they did in regard to North and South Korea, but this will happen only if Pakistan’s slow descent into chaos and anarchy continues unabated.
In the short to medium term, Beijing will continue to prop up Pakistan, since it is vitally important to China’s energy security (by providing access to and bases in the Persian Gulf), military security (by keeping India’s military engaged on its western frontiers), geopolitics (given its geostrategic location at the intersection of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East), national unity and territorial integrity (Tibet and Xinjiang), and maritime strategy vis-a-vis India, and as a staunch diplomatic ally (in regional and international fora, including the Islamic world), a buyer and supplier of conventional and unconventional weaponry and, above all, a bargaining chip in China’s relations with India and the United States. The Chinese know that Pakistan is their ‘last and best bet’ to prevent Indian dominance of southern Asia from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits.