Frenemy of the Enemy

A new book looks at the fault lines in the China-Pakistan relationship.

Written by Sushant Singh | Updated: April 11, 2015 12:11 am
book, book review, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Andrew Small, China-Pakistan , China, Pakistan, china pakistan relations China has never provided help to Pakistan in military crisis that the latter created for itself

Book: The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics
Author: Andrew Small
Publisher: C Hurst & Company, London
Pages: 319
Price: Rs 2,705

Higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey” — it is this rhetoric of the China-Pakistan relationship which comes to the mind when one thinks of India’s two neighbours. During his first visit to China after becoming prime minister last year, with television cameras rolling, Nawaz Sharif struggled to remember the words. His brother, Shahbaz, had to prompt him. In this anecdote lies the truth of the China-Pakistan relationship, the difference between the rhetoric and the reality.

In The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Andrew Small surgically separates the rhetoric from the reality of this “all-weather friendship”. The China-Pakistan relationship didn’t start off that well. Although Pakistan was the first Muslim state to recognize the Chinese communist government, in 1951, Mao accepted the credentials of the first Pakistani ambassador to Peking without even acknowledging that he represented Pakistan: “I have great pleasure in receiving the letter of credentials of the King of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the seas, presented by you.” Fresh from the throes of a revolution, communist China was cool towards a country run by feudal landlords, military generals and private industrialists. Moreover, Pakistan was a close ally of the United States and had even established an NSA listening point near Peshawar to spy on Chinese communications.

In 1959, the events in Tibet turned the relationship dramatically to Pakistan’s benefit. The Chinese military crackdown on the Tibetan uprising, and the asylum provided by India to the Dalai Lama unravelled the Sino-India relationship. That India had played a key role in nixing Tibetan appeals at the UN after the People’s Liberation Army invaded it in 1950, while Pakistan was providing transit facilities to US aircraft supplying the Tibetan rebels, was all forgotten. But for The China-Pakistan Axis, few would know of these vignettes from that era.

India’s subsequent defeat in the 1962 border war further opened Pakistan’s eyes to the idea of a two-front war against India. It wasn’t General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s military ruler, who took the lead in approaching China. In October 1959, Ayub had proposed a “joint defence union” with India which was summarily rejected by Nehru. Small shows that it was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Ayub’s youngest cabinet minister, who led the tilt in Pakistan’s China policy. China, which had initially resisted Pakistan’s offer for border negotiations, moved speedily to sign a provisional border agreement. Bhutto signed the agreement in March 1963 in Beijing, which infuriated India, as thousands of kilometers of Indian territory in northern Kashmir was transferred by Pakistan to China.

China was a factor in Bhutto’s calculations when he advised Ayub during the 1965 misadventure against India. As Indian artillery appeared within range of Lahore airport, China did not go beyond mobilising its troops on the Sikkim-Tiber border and in Ladakh. It was, however, Zhou Enlai’s response to Ayub and Bhutto during their secret mission to China to seek military help that shocked the Pakistani leadership. “You must keep fighting even if you have to withdraw to the hills,” the Chinese prime minister told Ayub, imploring him to mount guerilla attacks on India “even if one or two major cities were lost”. Islamabad had facilitated a rapprochement between Washington and Beijing and expected the two countries to support Pakistan in the 1971 war. Despite Kissinger asking China to move against India militarily, Beijing explicitly told Islamabad on December 12 that it “would continue to support Pakistan morally, economically and politically, but its capability to intervene was limited and ‘please do not pin much hope on it’.”

Small persuasively suggests that this established a template followed by China in all its future dealings with Pakistan: while Beijing continued to support Islamabad, it would not go out of the way to help Pakistan in a crisis it created for itself. This was evident during the Kargil war, the Indian military mobilisation after the 2001 Parliament terror attack, and after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

China may have never committed soldiers on Pakistan’s behalf but it has been a top military equipment supplier to Pakistan. More than that, for all the hype around AQ Khan’s smuggled designs from Europe, it was China which helped Pakistan develop, refine and test nuclear weapons after Bhutto signed an agreement with Beijing in June 1976. In 1982, on Zia-ul-Haq’s request to Deng Xiaoping, China provided Pakistan with weapon-grade fissile material and bomb designs. Small concludes that if Pakistan’s nuclear programme benefitted from Chinese help, its missile programme wouldn’t exist without China’s blatant technology transfers. Pakistan has tried to repay China by providing it access to unexploded US Tomahawk missiles in 1998 and the crashed US stealth helicopter in Abbottabad in 2011.

Small draws upon data to show that economic relations between China and Pakistan are weak, and their intellectual and cultural ties thin. China is also concerned about the support from Pakistan-based jihadi groups to Uighurs in the restive Xinjiang province. With the Pakistan military increasingly influenced by an Islamist and militant agenda, it can no longer be relied upon to keep China safe from terror threats. China has fears about Pakistan’s future but it values the unmatched loyal friendship that Islamabad offers. More than anything else, however, their relationship is underpinned by a common strategic adversary, India. Pakistan continues to be the means for China to hold India down — as a balancer, potential spoiler and standing counterpoint to India’s ambitions.

Interspersed with interesting anecdotes, Andrew Small’s thoroughly researched book provides fresh insights and places into geopolitical context, this axis between China and Pakistan which affects India the most.

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