The countries describe their friendship as being ‘higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey’. To this, CPEC might well add, ‘stronger than steel’. It’s a relationship that has endured nearly 7 decades of changes in geopolitical and strategic interests. It’s a layered, complex story — in which considerations about India have often played a dominant role.
On the night of July 12, 2007, hours after Pakistani commandos stormed Lal Masjid, the mosque in the heart of Islamabad that had become a militant stronghold, General Pervez Musharraf, then both President and Army Chief, made a sombre television address. He explained why the operation that killed 103 people inside the mosque had become necessary. His speech contained a valuable insight into the Pakistan-China relationship, and how the two countries conducted it.
“The worst example [of the extremist takeover of Lal Masjid] is that 7 nationals of our friendly country China were abducted,” Musharraf said. “This shameful incident happened to the people who belonged to our best friend, who always supported us, stood by us in troubled times and also helped us in economic, trades and defence fields. To hold hostage Chinese nationals was a very shameful act. The Chinese President called me over the telephone and asked me to ensure security of its citizens. So, in my mind this is extremely shameful for our country and citizens… If [Chinese] citizens are not secure in a country, for which they did a lot and [are] still doing, [it] is so regrettable for us.”
China did not make a public spectacle over the hostage crisis, it preferred to quietly work the phones instead. Among the militants holed up in Lal Masjid were Uighurs, fighting the Chinese state in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, but Beijing made no public demand that Pakistan act against them. Later, Chinese officials flatly denied having forced Musharraf’s hand in the decision to storm the mosque.
Imagining how the United States might have responded in the same situation helps understand better how Pakistan and China view their relationship, and the rules of their engagement.
Pakistan-China is the only bilateral relationship, other than with Saudi Arabia perhaps, in which Pakistan is happy to play the junior partner. Islamabad, which is wont to cast ties with China emotionally, describes the friendship as one that has no parallel in the world. “Higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans” is the usual description for it from both sides — but how they have built this “all-weather” (and all terrain) relationship is a layered story of several highs and lows. And through all of it, India has been the dominant theme.
Pakistan was among the earliest non-communist countries (India was the first) to recognise the People’s Republic of China. But while the two established diplomatic relations in 1951, Pakistan’s eager membership of the two United States-led anti-communist military pacts, SEATO and CENTO, soon afterward, was not the perfect starting point for their relationship in the same decade in which India and China celebrated Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai.
It was only after India’s defeat in the war with China in 1962 that the Pakistan-China relationship really took off. If Beijing had by then identified Pakistan as a country through which it could contain India, home since 1959 to the “splittist” Dalai Lama, China’s tacit support for Pakistan in the 1965 war was a turning point — the beginning of their enduring defence and, some would say, nuclear, cooperation.
While there is much speculation about the Chinese role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, in 2016, China acknowledged assistance to Pakistan in building 6 nuclear reactors. Two of these, at Chashma, were declared at the time it joined the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group in 2004, and China was allowed to “grandfather” them as part of an agreement that predated its membership of the elite group; since then it has helped Pakistan build 2 more reactors at Chashma, and has declared assistance for another 2 at Karachi, despite protests at NSG.
China, which last year vetoed India’s membership to the NSG, did not oppose India’s civilian nuclear deal with the US, but has on occasion argued for the same kind of nuclear exceptionalism to Pakistan, which the US allowed for India.
Despite the money and military hardware the US pumped into Pakistan over the years, Pakistanis see China as a far more reliable ally. They see the US as using their country to achieve strategic goals in the region, and ditching it at will, constantly asking it to do “more”, and publicly humiliating Pakistan over its “terror factories”.
China, on the other hand, provides Pakistan the security of constant backing by a big power, while Islamabad acts as its unquestioning ally at a strategic crossroads of Asia. Indeed the idea of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — India’s primary objection to China’s staggeringly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — did not come about overnight. The first bit of brickwork was perhaps laid by the Sino-Pak agreement of 1963, under which China ceded 1,942 sq km to Pakistan, and Pakistan recognised Chinese sovereignty over thousands of square kilometres in northern Kashmir and Ladakh. India contests the agreement, which includes land that is part of Jammu & Kashmir.
Possibly the first person to articulate the idea of a “trade and energy corridor” from Gwadar overland into China, was Musharraf. The Pakistan-China relationship, he was arguing, should be about more than simply providing an easy market for Chinese goods. At the time, China was sinking money in Gwadar port, but many dismissed much greater Chinese involvement in Pakistan’s economy (other than in defence production) as a pie in the sky because of Pakistan’s security situation. The CPEC, with its energy, finance, information technology and communications components, along with security and political dimensions, is an upgrade many times over of that basic idea of Pakistan offering its strategic location in exchange for investment.
Pakistan’s great moment in international diplomacy came when it facilitated Henry Kissinger’s secret ice-breaking visit to China in 1971, laying the ground for a visit by President Richard Nixon the following year. It went on to also act as the bridge between China and the Arab world, starting with Saudi Arabia.
But through the years, Pakistan has also learnt not to take China for granted. It suffered a stunning blow in 1971, months after it had helped the US and China find each other again, when contrary to expectations of both Pakistan and the US, and to the dismay of both, China kept out of the war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.
Pakistan also watched with worry as India and China re-established diplomatic relations in 1978 after a long hiatus. Through the 1980s and ’90s, as India-China relations improved through trade even as they talked on the boundary dispute, the Chinese leadership’s firm casting of Kashmir as a bilateral dispute was a bitter pill for Pakistan.
China has held on to this position, reiterating it time and again, including after its ambassador to Pakistan suggested last year that his country supports Islamabad on the Kashmir issue.
China also refused to offer nuclear guarantees to Pakistan after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, which Beijing condemned in harsh language, and dismissed contemptuously India’s position that its nuclearisation was to counter the threat from China. When Pakistan tested its own devices, China expressed “deep regret”.
During the Kargil conflict, China refused to give Pakistan any overt lift.
Seeking to balance its growing relations with India, China signed a Treaty of Peace, Co-operation and Friendship with Pakistan in 2005 during the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao, which one former Pakistani ambassador to China described as “a legal framework that has converted an old friendship into marriage”.
Andrew Small, author of The China-Pakistan Axis, contends it was China that kindled Pakistan’s interest in the use of proxies against India, quoting from a meeting between Zhou Enlai and Ayub Khan, at which the Chinese Premier urged Pakistan to take up guerrilla warfare. He also cites China’s own use of proxies in the Northeast, and how Pakistan, when it still had the eastern wing, collaborated with the Chinese on building these up. China also supplied arms and ammunition to Pakistan and US-backed mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Where it comes to protecting its interests, Beijing has drawn a red line on Islamist irregulars such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement, which it has held responsible for terror attacks in Xinjiang. But as was evident from the Lal Masjid episode, it does not publicly denounce Pakistan for Uighur safe havens in north Waziristan or Afghanistan.
In the wave of international condemnation after the Mumbai attacks of 2008, China was unsympathetic to Pakistan, lifting its technical hold on the Security Council 1267 designation of Jamaat-ud-dawa and its chief, Hafiz Saeed. But it has refused to do this in the case of Jaish-e-Muhammad founder Masood Azhar.
In India, each Chinese rap on the knuckle for Pakistan, or each episode of Chinese protection for its client, tends to be viewed as representative of the whole of their relationship. In reality, the China-Pakistan relationship is greater than the sum of these parts, one that has endured nearly 7 decades of changes in the geopolitical and strategic interests of both countries.
In recent weeks, an advertisement for a famous Pakistani masala brand was viral on social media. It showed a Chinese couple in Karachi, the husband telling the depressed-looking wife that she should try and make friends in the neighbourhood. The wife then makes a biryani using the said masala, and takes it across to the neighbours’, where she is received like a long lost family member. The ad isn’t inaccurate in depicting Pakistanis as being emotional about their relationship with China.
Most countries in South Asia and beyond now view ties with China as a strategic necessity, but remain distrustful of the Asian superpower. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, people are putting tough questions to their governments on deals that seem to benefit the Chinese more. Never so in Pakistan. Despite the obvious absence of cultural bonds, it is only in Pakistan that there is so much people love for China. When Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Islamabad in 2005, such was the “people’s” welcome that he was moved to add “sweeter than honey” to the usual frothy allusion to mountains and oceans. CPEC might well add another: a relationship stronger than steel.