In recent decade the term "Strategic Partnership" has gained prominence in the broader international relations debates. It symbolizes a new form of international alignment reflective of a unique mode of cooperative inter-state behavior. This type of interaction is now mainly associated with China as a rising power seeking wider and long lasting scope of cooperation with any country willing to engage in meaningful relationship with it. The Pakistan-China friendship is amongst the most highlighted that has matured into a comprehensive strategic partnership. Pakistan and China for decades have enjoyed a cordial relationship immune from fallouts of the frequent political upheavals within Pakistan to the extent that maintaining fraternal ties with China has always been a cornerstone in Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Pakistan was the first Islamic and third non-communist country to accord recognition to the People’s Republic of China. However, from 1951 to 1959 that saw a friendly and close Sino-Indian relations, Pakistan-China ties did not progress much and alliance of Pakistan under Ayub Khan with the western block draw suspicion from communist China. Major development including Chinese annexation of Tibet, flight of Dalai Lama to India and failure of Peking and New Delhi to settle their territorial disputes and finally, the 1962 Sino-Indian war brought to an end the decade-long cordial bilateral relations. These events marked the turning point in Pakistan-China relations and ushered in an era of strategic cooperation the origin of which was mainly India-centric. This geo-strategic environment facilitated the negotiations on the demarcation of Pakistan-China common border and the two signed a border demarcation agreement in March 1963, thus removing the only contentious issue between them.
Trustful interaction between the two countries started in the early 1960's. Pakistan actively supported China’s efforts to replace the Republic of China (Taiwan) at the United Nations and later, on issue of its sovereignty over Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan. To help ease china's isolation imposed by both superpowers Pakistan concluded an Air Transport and a Trade Agreement with China and facilitated Peking’s contact with a number of countries, especially in the Islamic world. In return, China reciprocated Pakistan’s friendly gestures during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war by issuing stern warnings to India that secured a much needed ceasefire on Pakistan’s request. China also aided Pakistan economically and compensated parts of its war losses by providing military equipment including tanks and aircrafts. At another critical juncture and in the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan war that culminated in dismemberment of East Pakistan, China on the issue of the Bangladesh’s application for membership to the U.N. exercised its veto power for the first time and stalled the move. This timely Chinese initiative helped Pakistan to win the release of its Prisoners of War held by India, and the return of troops to their pre-war positions. In the early 1970's Pakistan played an instrumental role in normalization of Sino-American relations. Pakistan mediated secret interactions between Washington and Peking, especially the visit of the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger to China in July 1971 that prepared the ground for the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to China a year later.
In 1974 India tested its first nuclear device. This major development disturbed the regional balance of power and added fresh impetus to Pakistan-China defense cooperation. In 1976 when Canada terminated its nuclear energy cooperation with both New Delhi and Islamabad due to their refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), China stepped in and assisted Pakistan in building its fledgling nuclear energy programme. Pakistan-China relations during President Li Xiannian’s tenure flourished further and in 1986 both countries concluded a comprehensive nuclear cooperation agreement. Subsequently, China provided Pakistan with nuclear-related products and services such as research and technical support for uranium enrichment and nuclear power reactors. Throughout 1980s and 1990s, China also helped Pakistan in the development of its ballistic missile programme. In early 1990s, America imposed military and economic sanctions on both Pakistan and China for their alleged collaboration in nuclear and missile technology, however, this move did little to dissuade China from active engagement in the already committed ventures with Pakistan. In 1992 China agreed to construct Chashma-1, a 325 MW nuclear power plant in Punjab province. The plant became operational in 2000 and joined the national grid. The expansion project of Chashma nuclear power plant was also undertaken by China and towards 2017 three more power generating reactors were installed in the same site. In March 2021 a Chinese built 1100 MW nuclear power plant went into operation near the port city of Karachi bringing to 5 the number of Chinese-constructed nuclear power plant in the country.
The Pakistan-China strategic partnership, among others, is built on a strong footing of military and defense cooperation. China has always stood with Pakistan in its endeavor to build a robust defense mechanism. It has provided technological and defense production assistance to Pakistan and is the largest defense equipment supplier of Pakistan. In 1999 Pakistan and China signed the “Thunder Programme” contract to jointly develop and produce the JF-17 Jet fighters. As a landmark event for Pakistan's defense industry, it was designed to phase out the A-5C, F-7P/PG and Mirage combat aircrafts in the Pakistan Air Force. In 1990 Pakistan and China agreed on a joint development deal to design and manufacture main battle tanks. Pakistan completed its manufacturing plant in 1992 and began producing its co-developed Al-Khalid model suitable for its defense needs.
China’s formal stance regarding Kashmir conflict has been oscillating from unsettled in the 1950’s to pro-Pakistan during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and to increasingly neutral in ‘80s and ‘90s with Chinese diplomatic support for internationalizing the Kashmir issue in the United Nations taking a diminishing trend over time. Sino-Indian border skirmishes of May 2020 once again readjusted Beijing’s official position and on 16 November 2020 Chinese foreign Ministry spokesman called for the resolution of the issue “properly and peacefully in accordance with the UN Charter, relevant Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements”.
In 2005 Pakistan and China concluded their “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations” in which the two sides agreed to refrain from joining “any alliance or bloc, which infringes upon the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of either nation, while simultaneously positing that both parties would not conclude treaties of this nature with any third party.” The then Pakistani Premier and signatory of the pact, Shaukat Aziz, claimed that Pakistan-China strategic relationship treaty was indeed a reaction to US-India strategic partnership.
The strong Pakistan-China political, military and security relationship contrasts with their economic and cultural links. People-to-people contacts are limited and while Chinese investment in Pakistani infrastructure is welcomed by Pakistan, trade flows are heavily in favor of China. During the 2015 visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan, both countries signed over 50 documents including the agreement on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) which will connect Xingjian province of China with Pakistan’s Gwadar deep sea port, outlining projects worth USD 46 billion. The pledged investment has already been revised to USD 62 billion opening fresh flow of Chinese investment into Pakistan. Under CPEC China has undertaken to finance and develop major infrastructure projects such as the Gwadar deep sea port as well as an integrated network of roads and railway tracks, hydro and thermal power plants, mining, electronics and nuclear energy ventures. China later incorporated CPEC as a flagship project into its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) elevating the bilateral Pakistan-China relations from ‘All weather friendship” to “all-weather strategic cooperation partners.”
On the security front, China’s concern over its Muslim Uighur population intensified in the 1990s. Under pressure from Beijing, Pakistan took a less tolerant approach to Uighur community settled in Pakistan, and deported a number of exiled Uighur activists from its soil. Following the July 2009 Uighur riots in Xinjiang, Pakistan openly endorsed China’s stance and used its influence to prevent the issue from being raised at the OIC. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz during his November 2014 visit to China assured the Chinese President Xi Jinping that Pakistan would continue to resolutely fight the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) “terrorist” forces.
It is a known fact that from Pakistan’s perspective, rivalry with India remains an important element in its relationship with China whereas China’s updated policy towards India is less Pakistan-focused. It encompasses a variant of global and regional considerations and fear of direct confrontation with New Delhi on the outstanding territorial disputes. The policy is also essentially driven by concerns about further Indian alienation, pushing it closer to strategic partnership with the U.S. and other mechanisms formulated to contain China. On the other hand, Pakistan too, shall not find it easy to openly shift its primary alliance to China as it is largely reliant on financial assistances extended by the United States and American-influenced international monetary institutions even for financing its share of Chinese-implemented development projects.
Hossein Ebrahim Khani, senior research fellow of Asia and Oceania Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)