Call Of Duty: China-Pakistan Relations, Tail Wagging the Dog?

Lt Gen (Retd) Philip Campose examines the context and dynamics of the China–Pakistan relationship and what keeps it going, especially their common hatred for India and the related quest for grabbing Indian territory.

Recently, we had the strange sight, once again, of China blocking a joint bid by US and India to designate Pakistani terror convict Abdul Rauf Azhar, deputy chief of the Jaish-e Mohammed (JeM), as a UN Security Council designated terrorist. JeM has links to the Taliban, ISI and Al-Qaeda. Azhar, also known as Asghar in some UN documents, was involved in the planning and execution of a number of terror attacks in India.

Two months back, in June this year, China similarly blocked the designation of Abdul Rehman Makki, the deputy chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), as an UN-sanctioned terrorist. Many in the global community were not surprised by China’s actions – they describe these as just typical actions by China, among countless others, which prove that China is undeserving of its claim of being a major global power.

Nonetheless, these actions are also reflective of the deep nexus between the two countries, China and Pakistan, where China is willing to appear irresponsible and even stake its regional and global reputation, just to ensure that this close mutual relationship is not imperilled.

Pakistan has always been the key element of China’s efforts at strategic encirclement of India, also known as China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, aimed at limiting India’s ambitions to the South Asian framework. Thus, over the past few decades, China has invested in gaining influence over India’s neighbours and establishing military bases in some of these countries, especially Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar.

To that extent, politically motivated acts of irresponsibility by China against India, which also undermine the sanctity of the working methods of the UNSC Sanctions Committees, are not the firsts of their kind, and surely not the last. In the past too, China had the dubious accomplishment of preventing UN sanctions against another known terrorist, Masood Azhar, Chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, after his involvement in the attack on an Air force base in India’s Punjab province in January 2016 was proved. Also, for years, China has obdurately vetoed India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, insisting that Pakistan, a proven nuclear proliferator, be concurrently provided membership.

Leaders from China and Pakistan, whenever they meet, reiterate that their ‘all-weather’ friendship is “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey.”
So what is the basis of this relationship, which since recently, has seriously damaged Pakistan’s 75-year-old relationship with the United States, to a point that Pakistan is once again in the throes of an existential crisis? Pakistanis would like to believe that it is the strengthening of the India-US strategic partnership which has soured their relationship with the US and resulted in the consequent boosting of their own relationship with China. But recent history and facts clearly belie this contention.

The truth is that China has a strong, though somewhat paradoxical, relationship with Pakistan, which has grown stronger over the years based on mutual animosity towards India – to a point that China has been increasingly treating Pakistan almost as if it is its 35th state. Now, the Pakistanis have fallen completely into the Chinese lap, and are increasingly being seen as a part of China’s diabolical alliance against the West.

So what is the truth of the matter?
Despite Pakistan being the first Muslim state, in 1950, to recognise Communist China and establish diplomatic relations with it a year later, it opportunistically joined the Western anti-China alliance SEATO in 1954, in partnership with the US, Britain, France, Thailand, Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. This was done to get modern weapons for use against India, which, strangely, the US obliged quite generously. Pakistan, in the meanwhile, facilitated the establishment of relations between China and some other Muslim countries.

Pakistan provided diplomatic support to China in its war against India in 1962. A year later, it illegally gifted the Shaksgam Valley, also known as the Karakoram Tract, which was part of the erstwhile J&K State, to China, as a gesture of confidence building and friendship – which clearly lies at the roots of this relationship. After all, it doesn’t need much coaxing to gift away someone else’s property to a third party, if it ends up getting you political and other dividends in the bargain. Significantly, China commenced military assistance to Pakistan soon thereafter.

During the Nixon presidency in the United States, in 1971, Pakistan facilitated a rapprochement between China and the United States, starting with Secretary Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in July 1971, as part of US efforts at building a US-China alliance against the Soviet Union. China, in turn, provided extensive political and economic assistance to Pakistan in the period leading to the Bangladesh War during that year, and thereafter. However, despite desperate calls by Pakistani leaders, both the US and China were unable to provide the desired military support to Pakistan during the War, to prevent the Pakistan Army’s capitulation and the formation of Bangladesh.

Even so, Pakistan had played an active role in the People’s Republic of China being granted China’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council in November 1971. Pakistan also facilitated President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in February 1972. These events ended up throwing Pakistan firmly into China’s embrace, a situation that has only tightened in the years after that.

Politically and diplomatically too, China has always provided support to Pakistan against India over Kashmir and other issues of concern, both regionally and globally. In exchange, Pakistan provides unqualified support to China over Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang, the latter despite extensive persecution of its Uighur Muslim brothers by the Chinese. Pakistan also acts as a conduit to facilitate China’s relationships with various Muslim countries.

The commencement of 2013 of infrastructure projects as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, connecting Kashgar City in China’s Xinjiang province to Gwadar Port on the Makran Coast, has further strengthened economic relations between China and Pakistan. The CPEC project costing 62 billion US dollars, as estimated two years ago, consists of modern roads and railway lines, energy pipelines and special economic zones being constructed in Pakistan by China as the main plank of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Though many economic experts call the project a debt trap for Pakistan, similar to what the effect of the Hambantota Port on Sri Lanka, nonetheless, the transportation and power infrastructure appear to be improving dramatically for Pakistan.

India declined the Chinese invitation to join the BRI in 2017 because the CPEC goes through the Shaksgam Valley and parts of Gilgit Baltistan – both considered by India as its territory, under illegal occupation by China and Pakistan respectively. The strong nexus between the two countries was evident in 2017 when China responded to India’s refusal to join the BRI by intruding into the Doklam plateau at the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan.

However, the most serious manifestations of the China-Pakistan politico-military nexus to date are the unprovoked intrusions of April-May 2020 by PLA troops along the Line of Actual Control, the LAC, in Eastern Ladakh. Many strategists believe that China undertook these intrusions, which led to the Galwan Valley clashes two months later, as a response to India’s changing of the status quo in J&K in the previous year. The fact that the military standoff along the LAC is still continuing despite 16 rounds of talks between military commanders and various meetings at the diplomatic level, with China doggedly refusing to pull back to status quo ante positions, only goes to show the extent to which China is willing to stake its global status, its strategic interests, as also its relationship with India, just to placate its junior partner.

To sum up, the China-Pakistan politico-military nexus is targeted at India, whereby China, as part of a wider strategy, uses Pakistan as its proxy, to checkmate India and limit its aspirations to South Asia, whereas, on the other hand, Pakistan, in exchange, extracts all forms of assistance from China. The fact that China is willing to risk its global reputation and aspirations in keeping up with its part of this deal shows that the tail could well be wagging the dog.