Monday, January 30, 2006

China in Pakistan’s Security Perceptions

This piece was written for a project on China-Pakistan relations by Indian scholars. It is being published as a chapter in the book out of that effort.

The Second World War brought about momentous changes in the world and set about a chain of events on the Asian landmass. The wave of decolonisation gave rise to many new states and partition of the British India Empire led to creation of Pakistan in 1947. Many of these newly independent states were truncated and moved to recover traditional areas of influence into their modern territorial incarnation. In addition some of these new divisions were colonial constructions with little consideration to their historical, geographical or for that matter their cultural contexts. The colonial empire in India had held sway over the entire sub-continent i.e. from the Khyber Pass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier to Burma. The division of the erstwhile British colonial empire divided this natural geo-political region into two major states with a congenital conflictual relationship that hovers like a spectre on the Indian subcontinent in a nuclear avatar. It is here that marks the beginning of China-Pakistan special relationship which this chapter tries to survey in terms of Pakistani perceptions and perspectives.

The Historical Backdrop

The situation is set around the time, when the victory of the Mao Zedong-led Communist militia – over the Nationalist army and the Japanese – lead to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949. China had risen like the proverbial phoenix after a century of colonial harrying by the imperialist powers. As first thing in reviving its old profile, in the early 1950s, the PRC incorporated Tibet to consolidate its South Western frontier bringing it in physical contact with the Sub continent. For the first time, this brought into direct contact, the two ancient Asian civilizations of India and China which was to change, the history of their ties as also those of the peripheral small states.

In the ancient and medieval era, the Indian and Chinese civilizations had deep religious and spiritual contacts with each other but mostly existed with their backs to each other. Tibet was a part of China only from the 13th century and after that intermittently independent, autonomous or at times under Chinese suzerainty, thereby performing the crucial function of a buffer. But in 1950s, Chinese troops moved into Tibet to consolidate their hold, and finally the Dalai Lama with thousands of Tibetans escaped to India in April 1959. This was the first of the series of events that led to the short border war in 1962 between India and China and lay foundations of China-Pakistan special relationship.

At the global level, the cold war had divided global politics into two blocs, the US led west separated from the Soviet led communist east by the iron and the bamboo curtains. The United States employed regional military pacts to encircle the communist countries by setting up NATO in Europe, CENTO in the West Asia and SEATO in Southeast Asia. Pakistan was part of two of these America led pacts, the CENTO and SEATO. By the late 1950’s, Sino-Soviet relations were plummeting and the break finally occurred after the river Ussuri crisis in 1969.

The newly colonised Afro-Asian states made up a third group, over-lapping with the cold war blocs, better known as the Non-Alignment Movement or the NAM led by Asian leaders and notably Nehru. The NAM was not very effective but at times this mass of newly emergent Asian and African nations managed to hold attention and carry their weight on a significant number of third world issues. The NAM states participated in Afro-Asian conferences in the early 1950’s to interact with each other and find a way to manoeuvre amidst the bitter cold war conflict. The PRC was an important participant at the Afro-Asian conferences and this third front was a significant part of the Chinese strategy to open up its communication lines independent of the Soviet Union. It was at the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung 1955 that the story of the Sino-Pakistan entente is usually begun. This paper will trace the evolving Pakistani perceptions of China much earlier.

Interface of Ideology & Islam

A basic understanding of Pakistan foreign relations begin with the formulation that Pakistan is an 'insecure small state' that perceives itself as disadvantaged. In such a strategic situation, Pakistan has to face a 'real and continuous threat' from a larger India, with its survival at stake. India is far more powerful than any combination of other states within this Asian sub-system and constructing a force within it to balance India was not feasible. Therefore, over the years, a central element of Pakistani policy was to reach beyond South Asia to find support that might off set Indian dominance. This central element can be discerned in Pakistani efforts to avoid any bilateral arrangements that would put Pakistan in a one-on-one relationship with India. Pakistan foreign policy, in that context, was guided by a simple motive: to preserve national integrity. The religious foundations of the state of Pakistan were expected to bring it friends among the Muslim countries. But as Javed Burki points out that,

[I]n 1947, Islamic resurgence was still three decades into the future. Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia all had their own problems. Afghanistan, the Muslim country with a long border with Pakistan, coveted some of its territory.

The guideposts for a state’s foreign policy are geographical compulsions and power realities, irrespective of ideological differences or social systems. However, given the context of cold war and especially so in Pakistan until 1962, ideology was an unusually important element. The ideological factor in foreign policy translated into practise meant preference for the Western countries and dislike of Communism. Pakistan always regarded India as the greatest threat to itself but representative opinion in Pakistan for several years also regarded Communism as a serious threat to Islamic ideology. The poet Iqbal in a letter to the daily Zamindar of Lahore on ‘Islam and Bolshevism’ wrote: “To hold Bolshevist views, in my opinion, is to place oneself outside the pale of Islam.” Iqbal also took a dismal view of a nation that does not believe in God:

Denied celestial grace a nation goes
No further than electricity or steam;
Death to the heart, machines stand sovereign,
Engines that crush all sense of human kindness.

Some opinions held by the Pakistan leadership with regard to communism are cited to illustrate the religious contempt on one hand and the fear of a large and looming communist bloc and ideology on the other. In 1950, for instance, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan proposed that the US should encourage territorial guarantees to India and Pakistan, to “keep out the potential menace of Communism.” A member in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on a discussion on the Korean War stated that, “Islam is against Communism and Pakistan cannot allow Communism to capture one country after another.” On the Soviet Union’s protest over American arms aid to Pakistan, Dawn formulated six charges against the ‘Kremlin bosses’, the fifth of which was that “they have reduced the Russian people to a sub-human species because without complete freedom of thought man cannot remain man”, material advantages are “not adequate for the robbery of that divine spark called the soul which is the principal factor dividing man from beast”, “they do not believe in God and cannot therefore have any morals, because ‘religion’-whatever it may be- is the basis of all moral codes”.

The then Prime Minister, Suhrawardy, is quoted as stating that the cold war was a result of the Communist attempt to impose their ideology on the rest of the world and should Pakistan become a satellite of Russia “we shall never be able to get out of the control of our master…we have seen…the manner in which East Germany suffered, and in which Hungary has suffered.” Former President Ayub Khan went a step further and chalked out for special study on “how can the offensive of Hinduism and Communism against the ideology of Islam be combated?” Even after ‘normalisation’ of relations with Communist countries, Ayub Khan in his autobiography calls Communism “a panacea for an acutely diseased society.” Such extreme opinions were a reflection of the confusion regarding Pakistan’s strategic orientation that had merely the religious variable available. We also have evidence of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali seeking territorial guarantees from the United States to keep the communist menace out of both, India and Pakistan, in stark contrast to what President Ayub seeks.

Significantly, when communism was reviled and abused during those early Cold War years, what was remarkable is the absence of any mention of China and it is the Soviet Union that lay at the end of all Pakistani criticism. There could be two explanations for this remarkable omission. The first and the simpler explanation is that communism during this time was identified with the Soviet Union, identical to a biological species type. The other explanation lies in geo-politics, with a resurgent China on their northern frontier, Pakistan was not willing to take any chances with the Asian giant.

Betrayal by the United States

Soon after independence, when Pakistan stood virtually alone with its negligible military capabilities, the need for political backing and for modern military equipment were soon found as Pakistan joined the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). However, the US-Pakistan tie utlimately were undermined, when Washington saw a chance to draw India closer to itself through economic assistance and support against the growing Chinese threat. This was also window of opportunity for Pakistan and young Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the one to recognise it. The deteriorating relations between India and China had already created an opening for Pakistan, and the foundation was laid for a remarkable and durable political relationship.

Pakistan’s strategic community in the years between the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the 1962 China-India war realised that it was a mistake to put all eggs in one (American) basket. Khalid Bin Sayeed calls Chinese behaviour in the eyes of Pakistanis as ‘politically impeccable’, especially when seen in the light of American betrayal. But Sayeed’s formulation illustrates the Pakistani anti-pathy towards communism when he states that since Pakistan was surrounded by such hostile neighbours as India, Afghanistan and the USSR and “with her friends like the United States and other members of the Commonwealth so far away, what else could Pakistan do except to explore areas of understanding with the Communist Chinese” (emphasis added)?

Thus, it was the breaching of the hindi-chini bhai bhai bond that brought the dramatic turnabout in geo-politics of the sub-continent. First, Pakistan was unsure of US support in the event of an Indian invasion, moreover military aid to India after the war in 1962 forced Pakistan to reconsider its strategic choices. The events were swift and almost simultaneous and this is when the China-Pakistan border negotiations began. The border agreement negotiations received impetus after the 1962 war. As to the reasons for this momentum, Khalid Bin Sayeed states that the, “…obvious answer was that since they (PRC) had been branded in the west as an aggressor in their border dispute with India, they were interested in changing this image and presenting themselves as a reasonable and friendly power.” As to why the Pakistanis showed such urgency Sayeed says that,

One could not say that it was merely out of spite for India that such an agreement was arrived at. An important consideration was that Pakistan might be subjected to a similar Chinese attack, particularly when the Chinese had good roads on their side, if a border agreement were not reached. Such Pakistani fears were also disclosed by Foreign Minister Bhutto in his speech in Dacca on April 8, 1963.

The Sino-Pakistan border agreement had all the legitimacy of an upright accord but beneath the surface lingered the tectonics of the changing strategic situation that both China and Pakistan were keen to exploit. Pakistan took the view that the hot war between India and China would be of a short duration while the cold war had long-term prospects. Therefore, it was in Pakistan’s interest to accord ‘the right attitude of respect’ to a power, which while capable of inflicting crushing and humiliating defeat on India, but was not likely to penetrate their country politically in the near future. For the Chinese the border agreement was one part of a coherent Chinese policy to seek support through Pakistan among neighbouring Muslim countries in view of unrest among the Muslim tribes in Xinjiang and the Russian attempts to exploit it. China soon emerged as a friendly power in the eyes of the Pakistanis. And the Dawn turned into a powerful advocate of Pakistan’s friendly policy towards China and agnostic communism was made palatable in its equal intolerance of all religions. The Dawn argued that, “India always displayed implacable hatred for Muslims, whereas Red China at her worst was against all religions, but of all religions only one, namely Islam, is not singled out for degeneration.”

The credit for making the opening to the PRC as mentioned earlier is given to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Stanley Wolpert in his biography of Bhutto states that although Bhutto had the blessings of President Ayub Khan, it was Bhutto’s incisive mind, which discerned the changes in the Asian strategic environment while it was happening and moved early to gain maximum benefit out of it. It was at the United Nations (UN) session in 1960; Bhutto broke ranks with the US position on China, by abstaining rather than voting against China’s membership in the world forum. On US dissatisfaction when the foreign minister Qadir retracted Bhutto’s discretionary powers on future UN votes, Bhutto wired home, “I feel that the time has come for Pakistan to adopt an attitude in the United Nations more consistent with its recognition of the Peking regime than has been the case since 1954.”

Bhutto bolstered his China argument by noting how important it was to ‘strengthen our position’ among the third world Asian Africans. He viewed Sino-Pakistani friendship not only as a counter to Indian hegemony but as one part of his blueprint for an Afro-Asian ‘third force’. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the foreign minister when the Sino-Pakistan boundary agreement was concluded on 2nd March 1963 that was to become the cornerstone of Pakistan’s strongest, most important Asian Alliance.

Mapping Perceptions

After this general background of the settings amidst which the entente was negotiated we will now turn our attention to Pakistani writings on foreign and security policy that reflects their perceptions and interpretation. Khalid Bin Sayeed in an article, mentions that apart from idelogical, political and material factors, there is what he calls a ‘ruling passion’ in foreign policy. He further mentions that, every country has a ruling passion in her foreign policy. When one calls it a passion, one is not suggesting that this is something entirely emotional or irrational…Indeed very few countries were born in an atmosphere so surcharged with intense ill will and mutual hatred as Pakistan was in 1947 as a result of the partition of the sub-continent. Almost every action of Pakistan can be interpreted as being motivated by fear of India.

Former diplomat, M.A.H. Ispahani, in an article, begins with an early formulation of Jinnah that states that Pakistani Foreign Policy (PFP) was one of friendliness and good-will towards all the nations of the world. Ispahani states that, Pakistan made every effort to keep its head above the water and maintain self-respect. Friendly co-operation from the more advanced countries in the task of development was welcome, but no pacts or alliances were envisaged. Ispahani calls the change in policy after 1953, when Pakistan entered into a military alliance with the United States as ‘American Penetration’ and further states that, “This was the thin end of the wedge which marked the penetration of alien influences into foreign policy. And with the passage of each month the wedge was driven farther and farther in.” Ispahani is of the view that the military alliances worked against Pakistani interest. First since, SEATO, the first military pact that Pakistan entered, envisaged aggression only from Communist countries and Pakistani efforts to include a provision to the effect that its signatories would stand up against aggression from whatever quarter it came-Communist or non-Communist (read India)- failed. His conclusions are extremely illuminative,

The sponsoring power (USA) was anxious not to incur the displeasure of India…Pakistan thus entered into an alliance to resist aggression from a quarter which, despite ideological differences, had posed no threat to its security. Neither the USSR nor China, the two leading Communist countries, had done anything, by word or deed, to make us fear that our freedom was in danger at their hands.

The literature confirms that although Pakistan was not well disposed towards Communism, it welcomed the end of civil strife in China and the establishment of the PRC in 1949. But due to political instability at home and foreign domination, for almost a decade, Sino-Pakistan relations did not rise above the humdrum of routine diplomacy. During this period, three main areas of tension in Sino-Pakistan have been identified: Pakistan’s inability, from 1953 until 1961, to support China’s admission to the United Nations; Pakistan’s alliances with the United States the purpose of which was apparently to effect the containment of China; Pakistan’s occasional endorsement of the American two-China policy.

In Anwar Syed’s opinion, “That in fact the Chinese were not annoyed quiet as much as they might have been must be attributed partly to their own policy of restraint and partly to the ingenuity of Pakistani diplomatists.” This points to the element of ambivalence that characterised Pakistan’s China Policy until 1961 and proverbially speaking provided the fig leaf to mask the confusion in Pakistan’s elite community towards China. Syed states that while Pakistan entertained no ill will towards China, it was unable to support China on certain political questions due to the exigencies of their economic and military dependence on the United States. But despite this, the Chinese did not support India’s position over the Kashmir dispute nor did they support Afghanistan over the Pakhtunistan issue.

Most scholars point to Mohammed Ali Bogra’s conversations with Chou En-Lai at the Bandung conference to illustrate early Pakistani position towards China. Bogra is stated to have told Chou En-Lai that Pakistan apprehended no aggression from China. The Bogra-Chou talks infused warmth in the Sino-Pakistan relations and during 1955-56, numerous delegations exchanged visits. But according to Anwar Syed, the warmth did not last due to political instability in Pakistan and their dependence on US economic and military aid. The Chinese actions in Tibet in 1959 and the events that followed evoked the fears of a Communist threat to the sub-continent. While India’s relations with China suffered a serious set back, Pakistan too seemed pre-occupied with the growing Chinese Communist threat. It is in this fluid Asian geo-political context which was ‘transitional and exploratory’ that Pakistani writers would like to judge Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s proposals for a ‘joint defence arrangement with India’ against the threat from the North.

In consequence, one cannot fail to read the apologetic tone in the Pakistani move towards China, which is reflected adequately in the early writings on the coming Sino-Pakistan entente. Ayub Khan’s proposal for joint defence against the threat from the North is reflective of the general uncertainty in Pakistan’s strategic orientation.

The Kashmir Question

In Pakistan’s foreign and security policy, Kashmir has and remains a ‘core’ issue, similar to the centrality that Taiwan commands in the China’s. Kashmir involves ideological, identity, and territorial competition for both India and Pakistan. Kashmir has for the last fifty years been “the touchstone by which friendship and animosity are tested” in determining Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.

The PRC adopted a neutral stand on Kashmir in the years prior to the breakdown in Sino-Indian ties. A Mao Tse Dong statement of 1957 that China was neutral in its attitude to the rival claims to Kashmir was received with great jubilation in Pakistan, as it would not help India. China’s endorsement of Pakistan’s de facto claim to Kashmir appears only during the border negotiations but, “it never said or did anything-not even in the heyday of Sino-Indian friendship-that could even remotely be interpreted as betraying an anti-Pakistani disposition on the question of Kashmir.” In fact the importance of the 1963 Sino-Pakistan border agreement was the change from the earlier non-committal Chinese stand on Kashmir to a full support for Pakistani claims. After this the Chinese began to categorically support the ‘Kashmiri people’s right’ to self-determination. It is important to note this change of position by the Chinese as it could have been cited to advocate a plebiscite solution of Taiwan, and this fact did not go unnoticed in Pakistan and was greatly appreciated.

1965 Indo-Pakistani War

The war in 1965 permits a close examination of Pakistani perceptions of the Chinese role in India-Pakistan relations. The 1965 war is the first important crisis after the breakdown in Sino-Indian relations and the increased warmth in Sino-Pakistan ties. In the writings from Pakistan, this event is marked as a ‘landmark’ in the development of Sino-Pakistan relations, as among the nations that ‘condemned’ India and supported Pakistan vigorously, China spoke the loudest. In particular, the Chinese during the war asserted that India’s attack on Pakistan and ‘intrusions’ into Chinese territory were all a part of an Indian ‘design of aggressive expansionism’. The frequency of Chinese complaints rose ‘sharply’ during the period of the war, which prompted notes to the Indian government as an ultimatum. The Pakistani feeling that China alone was a reliable friend in any confrontation with India was confirmed during the war. In the words of Mohammed Ayoob,

Even more important than the verbal support for Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani war was the increased activity of the armed forces of China on the Sino-Indian border at that time with a view to obliging India to keep a large part of its army stationed on its border with Tibet and thus taking some of the pressure off Pakistan.

The Pakistani reading of the situation suggest that while the
Chinese were watching the situation closely, they would not risk for Pakistan what they had not risked for North Vietnam…China’s impact on the conflict issued precisely from the uncertainty surrounding its intentions…There can be no doubt that Chinese threats did influence Soviet and American behaviour. These two powers would have liked to support India. Had they been unencumbered by the Chinese factor, they would have felt free not only to aid India but also to put a great deal more pressure on Pakistan than they were actually able to do.

The writings also draw attention to the fact that the Chinese ‘extended’ ultimatum to India expired on 22nd September and the cease-fire between India and Pakistan came into effect on 23 September. With the acceptance of the cease-fire by Pakistan, the PRC climbed down from its provocative posture immediately. Such coordinated behaviour was read in Pakistan as based on a “powerful community of interests between Pakistan and China”. But caveats were issued that this did not mean that Pakistan would become a satellite of China, even though it needs China as counter-poise to India. Ayub Khan before accepting the UN ceasefire, made a short visit to China to evolve a common strategy. The Chinese support during the war greatly increased Chinese popularity in Pakistan, especially in the attitude of the ‘public’, which was deeply appreciative…

Karachi students, carrying huge portraits of Chou En-lai and Chen Yi, called on the Chinese ambassador to thank him…Lawyers sent off a telegram to Chou…Poets wrote laudatory verses about China…She (China) was represented as a mighty power devoted to the maintenance of peace and justice in Asia.

Anwar Syed, notes that despite the popular euphoria, officialdom and major English-language newspapers in the country were cautious and underplayed popular sentiment.

Rarely, if ever, did they (Officials and English newspapers) single out China when acknowledging help Pakistan received from abroad. They mentioned China along with Indonesia, Iran, Turkey and others. While China was referred to as “our great neighbour,” terms of affection such as “fraternal” and “brotherly” were reserved for Indonesia and other Muslim countries.

Syed is probably the only scholar who maps the dissenting note about the Chinese role in the war when he states that Rawalpindi “ended up with an adverse, rather than a favourable, balance” on the Chinese role. In Anwar Syed’s words,

For obvious reasons of domestic and foreign politics, Pakistani officials would prefer not to acknowledge that they were in any measure disconcerted by the excessive vigor of the Chinese role during their conflict with India. However, some observers-reporting from Rawalpindi, London and Washington-suggested that policymakers in Pakistan were indeed annoyed and embarrassed. Chinese “over-reaction” had encouraged the “collusion” theory and tended to damage what remained of Pakistan’s good relations with the United States…He (Ayub Khan) was making conciliatory gestures to India, and inviting the United States to play a vigorous role, not unlike that of a ward leader or a village elder, in the affairs of the subcontinent. Some commentators interpreted these sentiments as “a virtual slap,” which had all along endeavoured to expel American influence from Asia… The Chinese did not secure their …objectives…neither has Pakistan been “lured” away from the United States.

Thus, the cleavage in the Pakistani establishment that resulted from the Chinese role in the war is evident. The Chinese in a convergence of their global and regional strategy saw Pakistan as an important ally. The increasing Chinese role in the sub continent offered choices to Pakistan that did not exist before. Pakistan till then ensconced in the Western camp, was re-thinking its strategic choices till the 1965 war hastened the Sino-Pak flirtation into a relationship.

The period from the 1962 border war to about the late 1970’s was a low period in Sino-Indian ties. The visit by foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1979 and the change of guard in Beijing with Deng Xiaoping ushering in the new economic policies resulted in a strategic shift in international politics and also as a result in China’s Kashmir policy. References to self-determination in Kashmir were avoided and the Shimla agreement of 1971 and United Nations (UN) resolutions were the catch phrases. These developments occurred during the low intensity conflict against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that saw the peak of the US-China-Pak alignment. Pakistan showed ‘understanding’ of this shift and interpreted it as a ‘tactical change’ rather than a withdrawal of support. But by the late 1990’s, the diminishing support on the Kashmir issue had developed into an ‘irritant’ in Pak-China relations that had to be taken care of. In Fazal-ur-Rahman’s words

It was very disappointing for a majority of Pakistanis, when President Jiang Zemin, while addressing Pakistan’s Senate in December 1996, made no reference to the Kashmir issue…and advised Pakistan to put the thorny issues aside and develop relations with India in less contentious sectors like trade and economic cooperation…indifference on the Kashmir issue was hurting for the Pakistanis.

China’s relations with Pakistan also have an important concern with regard to the role of foreign support to separatist elements in the Xinjiang province, in what has been termed as the ‘Taliban Syndrome’ by Ehsan Ahrari. After the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan, in the mid-1990’s, it encouraged and abetted the rise in radical Islamist trend in the domestic and foreign policy of Pakistan and the contagious Central Asian states. The theological aspect of the Taliban made China apprehensive about it acting as a catalyst for Islamic revival in the disturbed province of Xinjiang. A PRC circular of late 1999 (same year as the Kargil war) believes that there is “strong reason to suspect that Uighur separatists receive help from abroad”. More over, explosives used in separatist activities in Xinjiang were of Chinese markings originally ‘exported to Pakistan and then re-exported to Afghanistan’ which found its way back to the Uighur separatists through the transnational jehadi link. The Chinese then made discreet demands on Pakistan to control the jehadis and this also prompted maintenance of the special relationship as a means to be able to influence Pakistan.

It was the ‘Taliban syndrome’ that made the Chinese uncomfortable about the Kargil intrusions in 1999. In Pakistani perceptions, the neutral Chinese stand on Kashmir was further attenuated by fear of jehadi Islam during the Kargil war. In an article on the Kargil war, Farzana Shakoor, writes that
…the Chinese response to Pakistan’s appraisal of the situation could be best be described as one of neutrality. The reasons are to be sought in the reservations that China always have had with regard to the insurgency in Kashmir. It feared that the movement might spill over into its Muslim dominated province of Xingjiang.

1971 War: East Pakistan Secedes

The 1960’s was the decade which saw the development of military relations through which the Sino-Pak bilateral ties acquired its depth. The United States banned all military supplies to India and Pakistan when the 1965 war broke out. For India, the Soviet Union was by this time a trusted partner and Pakistan found its military hardware support in China. By the time of the war in 1971 and the emergence of Bangladesh, the contemporary great power interaction had altered and this in turn influenced the Chinese role in the 1971 war. The United States-PRC rapprochement mediated by Pakistan was imminent and Indira Gandhi prior to taking the East Pakistan gauntlet concluded a treaty of Peace and Friendship with the USSR.

Mohammad Habib Sidky in his article, “Chinese World Strategy and South Asia: The China Factor in Indo-Pakistani Relations”, writes that after a letter written by Chou En-lai to Yahya Khan in April 1971 and until the outbreak of war in December, Chinese statements on the events were most notable for their absence. The letter officially disclosed the Chinese government’s stand towards the explosive situation brewing and assured Pakistan of full support. By December 1971 when war broke out, Chinese statements toned down rhetoric directed against ‘American imperialism’, which were also mirrored by a change in US attitude. The Russian threat brought about a dramatic convergence of interests between the United States and the PRC.

Only in their final statement did the PRC, recognize for the first time the existence of a serious refugee problem in East Pakistan. Pakistani writers are also puzzled by the rationale behind Peking’s extension of moral and material support to Pakistan rather than to the Bangladesh movement, a national liberation movement. Sidky believes that the

…separatist movement (was) perpetrated by a small group of persons “who want to sabotage the unification of Pakistan.”…Peking denounced the Bangladesh movement as a separatist uprising that was morally and materially encouraged and supported by an aggressive imperialist foreign power (India), which strived for the dismemberment of Pakistan. This in itself rendered any remote possibility for Peking’s support of the secessionists in East Pakistan as inconceivable.

One article specifically mentions that the Chinese support to Pakistan was based upon specific grounds, Naveed Ahmad, states that Peking did not identify itself with the Pakistan Government’s policies and actions in East Pakistan, but it condemned outside interference in the crisis without reservation. A People’s Daily commentary makes the scope of Peking’s support to Pakistan quite clear. It stated that the “Chinese Government and people will, as always, firmly support the Pakistan Government and people in their just struggle to safeguard state sovereignty and national independence…” This statement avoided mentioning ‘territorial integrity’.

Another striking feature was a Chinese statement at the UN that openly referred to the question of material assistance for Pakistan. Thus, China was moving beyond verbal declarations of support to Pakistan during war. This Chinese material assistance was of significant consequence, especially after the discontinuance of American military shipments yet again in March 1971. The military dependence of Pakistan had begun in the aftermath of the American arms embargo in the 1965 war. Similar to the 1965 war the Chinese protested Indian border violations by two official notes. Sidky writes that however, the ...warnings failed to bring any pressure on India and were not effective whatsoever. These protests were untimely and considerably milder than Peking’s well-timed, harsh remonstration of 1965 which had threatened India with ‘grave consequences’. Re-emerging upon the international arena of diplomacy after a period of self-withdrawal from global affairs during the Cultural Revolution, China in 1971 was determined to move cautiously and along sure grounds as it adjusted to a changed global environment. The support of the PRC for Pakistan in 1971, then, was of a somewhat limited nature. In Ahsen Chaudhri’s view,

…China could not act in 1971, the way it did in 1965, to relieve pressure on Pakistan as the Soviet troops equipped with nuclear weapons were concentrating along the Chinese border and the Soviet retaliatory attack could not be easily deterred.

Remarkably, the constraints on Chinese role in the 1971 war were well appreciated by Pakistan. As another Pakistani writer puts it,
China did what it could to support Pakistan in the United Nations, and after the war, it helped to pick up the pieces.

Naveed Ahmad strikes another dissenting note with the general writings on the 1971 war from Pakistan in stating that support to Pakistan was passive also because China’s interest mainly lay in the latter’s western wing. Ahmad further states that Peking’s central goal was not that Pakistan remains united, but that West Pakistan remains independent of India and friendly to China. And though China continued to supply arms to Pakistan, the government headed by Yahya Khan could not persuade Peking to promise active military support in case another Indo-Pakistan war broke out.

The effort in this essay has been to examine the origin and the growth of this ‘special relationship’ between China and Pakistan from the point of view of the Pakistanis. This was necessary with the aim to lay bare the strategic imperatives that underlined it in order to examine the possible future development. The effort is also to provide insights into the nature of the relationship as it remains an impending block for India in its attempt to develop a beneficial and trustable partnership with China.

The Sino-Pak Collusion and India

With the benefit of hindsight, it would be safe to assert that the Beijing-Islamabad entente evolved out of the convergence of China’s south Asian strategy and its global strategy after the falling trust in Sino-Soviet relations. Some scholars are of the view that China’s relations with Pakistan have to be understood within the context of South Asia’s relevance to China’s counter encirclement strategy. Beijing saw its support for Pakistan as serving the double duty, since a stronger Pakistan could resist the erstwhile Soviet Union and also counter Indian pressure. In the post-1962 phase a plethora of agreements were reached between China and Pakistan to buttress the entente on a variety of issues ranging with the December 1962 boundary agreement inclusive of trade, Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status and air travel in 1963. The Sino-Pakistan strategic entente has also demonstrated remarkable tensile strength, considering the nature and sweep of changes in international politics since it was negotiated. Pakistan played an important role in the Sino-US rapprochement, as also in the Washington-Beijing alliance in opposing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The nature of this relationship while predominantly politico-military has persisting economic links. The terms of military transfers in the past were usually extremely liberal as loans and on credit, however of late these transfers have taken on a commercial aspect. Fascinatingly there appears to be some evidence of the fact that Pakistan was not merely a buyer of Chinese military technology but also a junior partner in various defence projects and that the Pakistanis also provide technical inputs to Chinese defence projects. During the cold war years when the PRC had no access to western technology, the Pakistani experience with American hardware exposed the Chinese to cutting edge technology and a number of reverse engineering projects.

The Sino-Pak equation assumed its notoriety when in the final decade of the twentieth century; American intelligence disclosed that the military transfers included nuclear devices, and ballistic missile technology. The motivation for the transfer was the Chinese an effort to maintain a balance of power in Indian subcontinent by preventing India from gaining an upper hand over Pakistan. The Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs was to counterbalance India’s development of new weapons systems. Thus, India’s preoccupation with Pakistan would box India to the South Asian region.

In the present context, while the cold war rationale of the Sino-Pak special ties is a subject matter of historians, a rectification of sorts has taken place, yet some areas of concern persist. Unlike the immediate past, Sino-Indian relations are the key to China’s South Asia strategy and Sino-Pak ties have assumed second position. But despite the change in China’s India policy with the rapprochement in the early 1980’s, the process has been slow and has traversed some low points. One of the key troughs in the relationship apart from the border conflict is China’s special relationship with Pakistan and the continuing military transfers. The PRC asserts that the Sino-Pak relations are regular state to state interactions.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the United States as the triumphant superpower both India and China had to examine their strategic orientation. For India, the trusted ally was gone and its successor, Russia, for various reasons could not play the assuring role. In case of the Chinese, the anti-Soviet, US-China alliance had lost its raison d’etre while the decade old liberalized Chinese economy needed American cooperation to continue on its growth trajectory. The Indian state hesitantly to begin with followed the path of economic liberalization and a warming of relations with the United States took place over the 1990’s. The new Chinese mantra was to reduce tensions around its periphery in order to stabilize the “peaceful international environment” for its ambitious four modernization program.

The opportunities and the competition for markets and investment ushered in by the liberalization processes in both China and India promoted and made them more open to economic interactions. Moreover, the presence of a single global power with which both the countries had more differences than similarities also necessitated political exchange even if there were tentative. The two sides interacted on issues of convergence like multi-polarity, opposing US unilateralism and common strategies on trade issues at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This was the new reality that the old Sino-Pakistan ties had to face. It required a reinvention of the relationship in light of changing state to state relations which was dominantly driven by economic exchanges with politics taking second place. In such circumstances and given the chaos that Pakistan was during the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, India was a better destination for Chinese products and collaboration. Over the first decade of the new century, the gap between the sub continental rivals grew exponentially in India’s favour driven by the services industry in general and the software engine in particular. The Chinese manufacturing economy prompted greater convergence with India.

The growing Chinese schism with Pakistan in favour of India however was not dramatic and took over two decades beginning in the 1980’s. However, even during this period China did not abandon Pakistan and reports state that economic and military support to the crisis afflicted Pakistani state continued unabated. During this period the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 was perhaps the most serious challenge to the even handed Chinese South Asian strategy. Owing to their complicity in Pakistan’s nuclear development, China followed a two approaches, the first was to go on a limited (so as not to damage the embryonic ties) verbal offensive against India and second to cooperate with the United States to capitalize on their common interests and deflect references to its own proliferation culpability. However, after the crisis caused by the nuclear tests had faded, the Chinese followed the even handed approach in India-Pakistan confrontations and specifically in the military stand off during 2001-2002.

The second defining event after the end of the cold war was the consequence of the 9/11 terrorist attacks which brought about unprecedented American presence in Central Asia and South Asia. Thus, while these developments had negative implications for the Chinese, the positives served to increase Chinese influence in the region. The American presence was expected to shore up the Pakistani state, suppress Islamic militancy and also keep India and Pakistan out of war without any cost to China.

Indo-US Nuclear Agreement and Sino-Pak ties

The increased warmth in Indo-US relations owing to the convergence of interests brought about an unparalleled state of affairs between the two ‘estranged democracies’. In most discussions these commonality of interests are centered on the containment of a rising China. But, it would be self defeating to categorize the warmth in Indo-US relations posited on the China threat theory and disregard the mutual benefits that both countries would harvest. The most important foreign policy imperative for all states in the world is to cooperate with the US given its politico-economic-military power. Strategic partnerships appear to be the order of the day and cut across the globe and these soft alliances are different from those that existed in the period prior to the great wars in Europe as a substantial amount of hedging of bets is present in the partnerships. Reflecting this, the three large Eurasian land powers, China, Russia and India have over the past few years been interacting with each other and deliberating over issues of common concern while at the same time maintaining close economic and political links to Washington.

In July 2005, India and the U.S., agreed to resume cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear energy and signed the U.S.-India Framework Defence Agreement. The agreement if implemented bestows de facto nuclear status to India. The nuclear deal can be expected to bring alive the dormant Sino-Pakistan relations given the past record of nuclear and missile transfers. However, it would be pertinent to mention the Dr. AQ Khan episode in this context. Dr. Khan the head of the Kahuta Research Laboratory in January 2004, confessed to selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. The father of Pakistan’s bomb as Dr. Khan is known, in his televised testimony incredulously asserted that the Pakistani state was not aware of such transfers. For China, which originally first proliferated the nuclear know how to Pakistan, these developments could have been a source of acute embarrassment. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson urged Islamabad to undertake the investigations "properly" and bring them to a conclusion "quickly." The Libyan developments in the summer of 2004 once again highlighted Beijing’s role in the nuclearization of the world's most volatile regions and also to Dr. Khan's intimate links with China's nuclear establishment. In Mohan Malik’s words,

…China-watchers see no evidence of Beijing abandoning its national security strategy based on the principle of "containment through surrogates" that requires proliferation to countries that can countervail its perceived rivals and enemies. Believing that proliferation is inevitable, the Chinese military has long practiced what John Mearsheimer calls "managed proliferation" it calls for providing nuclear or missile technology to China's friends and allies (Pakistan, Iran, North Korea) so as to contain its rivals through proxies (India in South Asia, the United States in the Middle East and Japan in East Asia). Beijing has also engaged in proliferation to pressure Washington to curb its arms sales to Taiwan…. also explains China's reluctance to sign on to the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative under which countries pledge to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction.

Such embarrassments notwithstanding, there have been reports that Pakistan is in talks to buy up to eight nuclear power reactors from China and construction on the plants could start by 2015 and end 10 years later. The message being that if Washington makes an exception for India, China will do so for Pakistan. Even given the past record of military transfers, interpretations, the intensity of China’s engagement with Pakistan will increase dramatically as a result of the recent turn in Indo-US relations. The nuclear deal has the non-proliferation lobby up in arms as it would in the words of George Perkovich mean that, “France, Russia and China "[would] want to play by the same rules for Iran, Pakistan or Syria… and that [America] can't keep changing the rules. We tell the Russians not to sell to X, Y and Z, but we sell them to India". The first Chinese reaction on the issue came as late as early November when the Renmin Ribao accused the US of being soft on India and unsurprisingly said that if the US made an exception for India, other powers could do the same, thereby weakening the global non-proliferation regime.

Changing Pakistani Perceptions

Thus, while the international context for Sino-Pak ties have altered dramatically, it remains Beijing’s modified strategy to emphasize the positives while,

…soft-pedaling the reality that Pakistan, as the weaker party, needed to continue to cater to China and rely on Chinese support…,

even while Beijing’s support depended on positions and moves on the wider chessboard involving the United States and India. But it would be important to state that these changing contours in the relationship have been perceived well by media commentators in Pakistan. In an opinion piece in the Dawn, Zubeida Mustafa, writes that Pakistan with an ambitious foreign policy has emerged as a more dependent partner. Mustafa mentions that while -Although China has been signalling a shift in its policy for quite some time now, Pakistan has not responded to it and continues to proceed on the assumption that the China card is still available to it…China has been normalizing and expanding ties with India…It is, however, important to take note of this development because of the fact that India is the country against which we have been using the China card. Does this not call for a modification in Pakistan's policy vis-a-vis New Delhi?

Sultan Mohammad Khan, Foreign Secretary of Pakistan in the '60s and '70s and at one time Ambassador to Beijing, Washington, Tokyo in a special article states that,

The old intimacy and warmth, which once were a hallmark of Sino-Pakistan friendship, is a part of history. I doubt if the Chinese premier will today visit the Pakistan ambassador's residence for lunch or dinner and stay for hours, as Zhou Enlai did, or spend ten hours over two days talking to Pakistan's foreign secretary about the situation in East Pakistan as Zhou Enlai did in 1971. China has some valid grounds for being wary concerning our policy in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It is up to us to remove these obstacles.

Shahid Javed Burki, a regular opinion contributor to the Dawn, while concentrating on the economic challenges and opportunities to Sino-Pakistan trade ties with the then impending Chinese entry into the World Trade organisation (WTO) among other things believes that,

In its quest for quasi superpower status, China has seriously revised its world view. It no longer sees itself as the champion of the developing world as it did during the period of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Instead, it is now focused much more on pursuing its own strategic interests and on creating relations with other large powers - the United States in particular but also Russia, Japan, the European Union, India, and Brazil.

The commentators express concern over the state of Pakistan's economic and trade relations with China, which to the disappointment of the countries have not matched the close political and diplomatic ties. A consistent reference in this regard is the blossoming of trade ties between India and China which has outstripped the bilateral Sino-Pak trade by over five times and in a shorter duration. It is understood that Sino-Pakistan relations had their roots in the alignments dictated to by cold war calculations however, what remains baffling is the skewed depth of the ties and its sheer longevity. Pakistani writings give an impression of all abiding trust and belief in the Asian giant. The threat of ‘survival’ that makes Pakistan a perpetually ‘insecure’ state, found its succour in China especially in the 1960’s, giving it much needed confidence especially with regard to the unreliable United States. This psychological reflection is better illustrated in Ayaz Amir’s words,

There is a material aspect to the relationship between Pakistan and China. But its essence is emotional and sentimental, fulfilling Pakistan's psychological need for an external anchor to shore up its position against India. To be honest, Pakistan with its constant and reiterative whining over Kashmir and other problems can test the forbearance of friend and foe alike. But China has conducted itself in exemplary fashion, much like a patient psychoanalyst, lending a sympathetic ear to Pakistan's often baffling troubles and proffering, when the occasion arises, calm and soothing advice.

The survey of Pakistani writings on Sino-Pakistan relations from the early years to date, reflect the changing contours of the ties. Importantly for the Indian strategic community, it would be pertinent to focus on the evolving trajectory of the ‘nexus’, as this survey points to the changing alignments and re-alignments which were contingent on the evolving politics. Thus, while we can that situate the special Sino-Pakistan relationship in the global context; Indian writings on the issue tend to entirely emphasize the containment of India. It would be efficacious to consider this as an over-simplification. Prof. Kanti Bajpai for one suggests that nuclear powers are extremely reluctant to share nuclear secrets, especially considering that in the ‘game of nations’; there are no permanent enemies or friends. Bajpai, captures the crux of the issue in a comprehensive manner when he suggests that

…at least five factors caused Beijing to invest in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons plans: maintaining a tested alliance relationship; limiting US influence in Pakistan; responding to Washington’s military and political support of Taiwan; cultivating a ‘moderate’ and influential Muslim state; and gaining access to Pakistan’s US-supplied advanced conventional weapon systems and possibly also to Pakistan’s nuclear technology.


While the rationale behind the robust Sino-Pak alliance has outlived its relevance, a remarkable section of the Pakistani strategic community has not lost their superlatives in describing the special relationship. While the majority of writings register the toning down of the Chinese support available in the past, analysis about the future is still caught in the cold war furrow and adjectives are improvised to describe the ties. It is important to note the startling lack of economic depth between the two countries in this age of globalization but the writings do show a realism creeping in developing economic ties. The depth that Sino-Pak ties hold is largely the effort of the government interaction.

India and Pakistan have been in peace talks to solve all outstanding issues including Kashmir since 2002. The ceasefire on Kashmir continues to be respected and people to people communication links have been thrown open; the bus service from Srinagar to Muzzafarabad directly linked the two Kashmir’s for the first time in 2005, rail links and even trade issues are being grappled with. While substantive development in key issues have not taken place, the composite dialogue is moving at an incremental pace and Confidence Building Measures (CBM’s) in over six divergent areas have resulted in building positive opinion and trust.

Thus, Sino-Pak ties, its nature and depth would be determined in the new sub continental and global context. India-China relations too have developed in a substantive manner in recent years. With Premier Wen Jiabao’s visits in April 2005, the two countries announced their strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity, and in the meantime signed an agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the India-China border issue. The two countries have also been close in economic relations. Bilateral trade volume hit US$18.5 billion in 2005, an increase of over nine times compared to the previous five years. Meanwhile, they have also developed close and extensive exchange and cooperation in the fields of culture, military and science and technology. China is India's third largest bilateral trading partner and in the last SAARC Summit, China was given Observer status. India also has an Observer status in the Beijing dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). A buzzword "Chindia", a combination of "China" and "India", is in vogue in the global media symbolizing a sign that China and India will join hands to create a future. But what is certain that the positives outweigh the negatives in the present circumstances.

1 comment:

Carina said...

Congratulations for this fresh re-start!