In Pakistan, most people view China as a saviour and time-tested friend – one that, unlike the US, will never abandon their country. According to former diplomat Tariq Fatimi, this is the only one of Pakistan’s links that can be considered truly ‘strategic’. To a great extent, however, this relationship is based on the transfer of military technology. Beijing played a key role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and was also a source of weapons to fill the gaps left by the US arms embargo on the country until the blockade was lifted in 2001. China also provided military supplies when none were assured from the West.
China-Pakistan links have survived adverse times as well as the ideological and cultural divide. Yet there is still very little cultural exchange between the two at the level of the common citizen. A bottom-up view indicates that the relationship is less strategic than the official top-down perspective would suggest: the two societies are less relevant to each other than the two states, meaning that the relationship lacks depth. Since it has become increasingly difficult for an average Pakistani to obtain a Chinese visa, people-to-people contact, which could build stronger and deeper ties, has become almost impossible. Moreover, Pakistan is a heavily Muslim country where there is little popular sympathy for Chinese communism. Even among the Pakistani left, there was long a division between pro-Soviet and pro-Maoist groups, and the latter version of communism never found much purchase in Pakistan.
Beyond the general perception that China is an all-weather friend there is also some negative opinion, particularly in the business community. The corporate sector has been badly affected by the dumping of cheap Chinese goods in Pakistan’s markets, but the high-stakes relationship between the two states means that the business community has not been able to protest too loudly. A senior official at the Ministry of Finance in Islamabad conceded that there is substantial informal trade in the form of smuggling of Chinese goods into Pakistan. However, Islamabad seems to consider it almost suicidal to broach the matter openly, given the importance of the defence ties with Beijing.
More interestingly, the second group that privately expresses reservations about China is the military personnel directly involved in weapons procurement. Junior and mid-ranking officers who come in contact with Chinese manufacturers express shock and disappointment at how Chinese businesses negotiate as ruthlessly as the weapons manufacturers of the West. In the minds of these military officers, this present-day reality clashes with the memory of China as a friend that provided Pakistan with free weaponry during the war with India in 1965. Although there is no proof to support this view, many continue to believe that China could play a decisive role as Pakistan’s saviour in case of an escalation of conflict with India.
The grievances of the business community and the disquiet within the military are little discussed in the Pakistani media, however. Led by the government, most of the media commentaries stick to a non-critical presentation of China-Pakistan relations. This reluctance to criticise the Chinese is taken to such an extent that Pakistani interests are compromised. According to an intelligence source who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Pakistani authorities go to great lengths to hide actions taken to appease Beijing. The source claims that a significant number of Pakistani citizens were caught between 2004 and 2009 by various intelligence agencies for alleged involvement in fomenting rebellion in China’s Xinjiang province, and were actually handed over to the Chinese intelligence agencies.
Likewise, in June 2007, President Pervez Musharraf reacted to the threat posed by clerics and seminary students aligned with the Lal Masjid in Lahore only after they attacked some Chinese citizens based in Pakistan, including the owner of a massage parlour in Islamabad. The Chinese ambassador in Islamabad at the time warned the government over the security of Chinese citizens, and many believe that this pressure contributed directly to the action eventually taken against the Lal Masjid clerics. Interestingly, Islamabad was silent when the Lal Masjid’s ‘burqa brigade’ had kidnapped a female professional escort and took a few police officials hostage who had come to rescue the woman. Reportedly, the Chinese ambassador had forcefully demanded protection of Chinese citizens.
In 1964, Pakistan received an interest-free loan of USD 60 million from China for development, to which an additional USD 40.6 million and USD 214.7 million were added in 1969 and 1970, respectively. Until 1979, Pakistan topped the list of non-communist states that received such large amounts of military and economic assistance from Beijing – and the military equipment was given free of cost. Until the end of the 1970s, China provided financial and military assistance mainly to Communist states.
But this was not to last. Ahmad Faruqui, a Pakistani-American analyst based in San Francisco who is among the very few to publicly question the Pakistan-China relationship, has written that Sino-Pakistani strategic relations underwent a major change during the 1980s. His argument is that Beijing became more commercially oriented, taking advantage of the earlier support provided to Pakistan as a strategic ally. Scholars such as Raju Thomas, professor of international relations in the US, point to China’s new policy of keeping two friends in Southasia, as compared to its 1960s approach of ‘one friend, one foe’.
In the post-Mao era, Beijing’s emphasis has been on making its defence sector (including arms manufacturing) more economically viable. This meant that Beijing was no longer going to provide its allies with free weapons, nor would it engage in military competition with neighbours (such as India) at the cost of its own economic development. For this reason, China concentrated on improving relations with New Delhi and relaxing its strategic competition with India, and so did not flex its military muscle in aid of Pakistan during the Kargil crisis of 1999. In fact, it appears that the Chinese leadership advised visiting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to withdraw his forces from Kargil. According to former Air Chief Marshal P Q Mehdi, who was head of the air force during the Kargil crisis and who had accompanied Prime Minister Sharif to Beijing at the time to ask for military aid, Chinese officials turned down Islamabad’s request to provide fighter aircraft.
Even on the question of Kashmir, all-important for Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy, the only time Beijing has taken a strong stance was during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. It was around that time that General Ayub Khan magnanimously gave part of Azad Kashmir to China, thus creating stakes for Beijing in preventing India from engaging in military aggression in the area. Even then, there has been no hint from Beijing that it would respond to an Indian attack on Pakistan, or interfere in any Pakistan-India conflict over Kashmir.
If this is the track record, why does Islamabad continue to set so much store by Beijing? The answer lies in Pakistan’s need to turn a tactical political relationship into a military-strategic advantage, and to keep Beijing in good humour for any potential advantage vis-а-vis New Delhi, even if the former seems slightly disinterested for now. It is Islamabad’s obsession with India that influences the nature of its relationship with Beijing and, from Islamabad’s perspective, it must exploit the opportunity presented by the Pakistan-India-China triangle as well as between India, China and the US. China might not want Pakistan to foment trouble in India or engage it in active military conflict; but neither does it want to discourage Islamabad’s rivalry with New Delhi. This is the old balance-of-power formula at work, which Islamabad feels the need to nurture for possible future use.
The China-India and Pakistan-India rivalries feed off of each other. Sino-Pakistani nuclear and military cooperation are examples of an anti-India regional nexus that Beijing uses to advance its dealings with New Delhi and Islamabad, to its military-strategic benefit. The recent agreement between Islamabad and Beijing regarding the supply of civilian nuclear reactors – in direct response to the US-India civilian nuclear deal – is meant to keep the regional balance of power intact. A militarily weak Pakistan is of no use to Beijing in its competition with New Delhi.
From Beijing’s standpoint, there are other advantages as well. Given Islamabad’s military dependence on Beijing, Pakistan has to negotiate deals with China from a disadvantageous position. Since the early 1990s, Islamabad has signed various conventional-weapons co-development and co-production deals with China, including for the K-8 military trainer aircraft and the JF-17 Thunder aircraft, as well as missile and gunboats. The Pakistan Air Force’s experience with high-quality technology from the West had aided China tremendously in design improvements in its own aircraft. The same applies to ongoing cooperation between the two navies.
As a whole, the co-production deals seem to favour Beijing, as there is little value-added work carried out in Pakistan. As such, the bulk of investment goes to China, with only marginal savings for Pakistan. The Pakistani defence establishment has been unable to sign ‘offset’ agreements with the original equipment manufacturers, thus preventing its defence industry from making the most of its collaborative relationship. (Offsets are industrial compensation mechanisms used during weapons purchases to bolster the technological and financial capacity of the recipient state. Direct offsets could mean an agreement between the supplier and buyer of technology for the former to buy back certain components of a weapon system from the latter. Indirect offsets, on the other hand, mean seeking additional advantages from the buyer in return for purchase of technology.)
Given the Pakistan military’s limited knowledge of offsets, the absence of a defence industrial policy and inefficiencies of defence decision-making, offsets are not built into transfer of technology deals. This particularly applies to capital-intensive advanced equipment, such as the F-22P frigates for which the Pakistan Navy signed an agreement with a Chinese manufacturer. In 1999, the visiting Chinese defence minister had put pressure on Nawaz Sharif’s government to sign the deal for the frigates, forcing the latter to bypass better and cheaper options, of Russian and South Korean make. The deal was signed during the last days of Pervez Musharraf’s rule, and the Pakistani side lost out significantly because the Chinese manufacturers had massively padded the price, besides the fact that the frigates were of poor standard.
Cooperation in nuclear technology is also generally weighted in favour of China. In 2003, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) objected to Beijing’s insistence on signing an agreement for the sale of civilian nuclear plants similar to the Chashma-I (built in the 1990s with Chinese assistance), due to design flaws and other deficiencies. This was despite Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s insistence that the PAEC finalise the deal with Beijing. Pakistan’s government is not usually given to take such strong stands, especially against China. At other times, the officials can be not only weak but downright crooked, as is the case with A Q Khan, often called the ‘father of the Pakistani bomb’. Khan used his Chinese connections to procure equipment, including for projects that were meant to make him look good. Instead of developing indigenous capability, Khan would procure equipment and technology from China and present it as his own work. While this enhanced his reputation, it was at a huge cost to Pakistan.
Beijing tends to favour cooperation on military technology because the Pakistani armed forces act as a showcase for Chinese equipment, thus helping to attract new buyers. Islamabad even actively assists China in seeking new clients, especially in West Asia. For instance, Islamabad’s help was crucial in building contacts between Saudi Arabia and China for the sale of missile technology.
One of the most important considerations for Beijing in maintaining its ties with Islamabad is the need to use Pakistani contacts with various Islamist extremist groups, especially the Afghan Taliban. The emphasis is on convincing these groups not to consider China as an enemy – and, thus, not to threaten it or its interests. This concern has been heightened due to the growing unrest among the Uighur population in Xinjiang province, which resulted in Beijing closing its borders with Pakistan three separate times in 2007 and 2008.
China also has interests in Afghanistan, both in terms of containing the spread of Islamist militancy into Xinjiang, and the need to keep a volatile neighbour malleable for its own strategic outreach. Thus, secret talks with Islamist groups have taken place even while Chinese envoys have offered President Hamid Karzai their support. In both financial and business terms, the Chinese are actively engaged in Afghanistan, though without incurring the cost of committing military troops. Such engagement also ensures increased resistance to the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan; China would like to see the US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan and the region as quickly as possible, as the presence creates strategic challenges for Beijing. The presence of American forces in Afghanistan or an American proxy, be it India or a pro-US government in Kabul, does not serve Beijing’s interests. The Chinese intervention in Afghanistan is also to Pakistan’s advantage, as a balancer against India’s deepening involvement with Kabul.
In the long run, the relationship between China and Pakistan could be adversely affected if the increased militarisation and radicalism in the latter continues. Pakistan’s incessant political instability, the corruption and administrative inefficiency of its political leadership and problems of democracy are some of the many problems that feed into the inability of the China-Pakistan relationship to shift from a tactical to a strategic gear in a way that would be more beneficial to Pakistan than in the past. According to Yuqun Shao, from the Shanghai Institute of Strategic Studies, President Asif Ali Zardari does not have much credibility in Beijing, despite the fact that he is keen to further strengthen and expand bilateral links. This is hardly surprising, given Beijing’s culture of top-down authoritarian rule that emphasises political stability as a driver for economic growth. As such, the shift towards radicalism in Pakistan is bound to further negatively influence the relationship with the Pakistan government.
Ultimately, undermining the development of a more holistic relationship with China will prove disadvantageous to Pakistan, particularly now that Beijing’s strategists are reconsidering the relationship with India. In any case, Beijing seems willing to apply the model of Sino-US relations to its relationship with India as well. This means that while tensions with India – over Arunachal Pradesh, the potential strategic rivalry in the Southasian neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean, and competition for petroleum and mineral resources worldwide – could continue, it will not hamper the development of greater economic ties between the two states. But such conditions also mean that Sino-Pakistani relations could become even more tactical from Beijing’s point of view. Chinese officials, who are more concerned about improving relations with India and view the new set of relationship as an economic opportunity, will probably be averse to getting too distracted by the constant rivalry between Pakistan and India.
The path towards improving relations between Beijing and Islamabad lies in structural changes in Pakistan’s socio-political system. The negative balance in civil-military relations and the elitist structure of the state constitute two of the reasons for the inability of Pakistan’s state and its policymakers to look beyond defence ties with Beijing. For the foreseeable future, China is likely to remain Pakistan’s major supplier of conventional weapons and nuclear technologies; and the bilateral links look set to remain confined to military cooperation, and not to expand into other areas. Pakistan is simply unable to present itself beyond the narrow confines of its defence establishment.
Looking to the deep future, relations will never be able to strengthen beyond the present militarist ties without first developing links between the peoples of the two countries. For this, Islamabad must concentrate on building its own potential. Pakistan’s image – as a problematic state suffering from militancy and extremism, an inefficient business and industrial community, a corrupt state bureaucracy and a leadership that lacks vision – does not inspire enthusiasm among other countries, including even old friends such as China. Further, the bilateral relationship requires investment in culture, education and trade. On the latter, there must be a more balanced formula in which China is not the major beneficiary. At this juncture, Pakistan has limited industrial capacity, but this can be enhanced through ‘offset arrangements’ with China that would allow for the flow of technology from Beijing to Pakistan, while also allowing the latter to draw financial dividends from such a transfer.
As things stand, with Beijing-Islamabad relations heavily skewed in the former’s favour, Pakistan hangs onto the image of a benevolent China. Yet bilateral links must be constructed with the intention of making them broad based and holistic. In the end, it is the linkages between people that will matter far more than those between the militaries or the
~ Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s military economy.