In the recent period, relations between Washington and Islamabad have developed into a full-blown crisis. According to some analysts, the trust gap between these erstwhile allies has put a damper on the Obama administration’s plan to withdraw a significant chunk of troops from the battlegrounds of Afghanistan during 2011. The subject of discussion has been a plaintive one: whether to hit Pakistan harder or to deal with Islamabad with kid gloves. Washington has no clue which of the two options will enable the American president to bring U.S. troops home during the upcoming election year. For some time now, knee-jerk reactions to developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan have substituted for policy. The outcome is there for all to see: the Pakistani people have become virulently anti-United States, pushing even America’s best friends in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to distance themselves from Washington.
The expanded basing agreement with Australia is just one of several initiatives the Obama administration has taken that have surely put Beijing on edge.
As if that were not enough, Washington is now engaged in a grand plan to weaken, and eventually change, the regimes of Syria and Iran. The originators of this plan are the colonial forces in Europe, who, of course, cannot achieve their goal without Washington’s “helping hand”—namely its killing machines, such as drones and missiles. This foolish policy has antagonised both China and Russia. India, much compromised and weaker, has stayed silent, unwilling to criticise such plans. But it is almost a certainty that, though not a member of the U.N. Security Council, India will find it domestically suicidal to back any Europe-United States effort to remove Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the clerical regime in Tehran using military force. So the Manmohan Singh government will do what it does best, sit on the fence and quietly cheer for the colonials.
It is likely that neither Russia nor China will endorse the effort either, although it is possible that Syria could be used by both Beijing and Moscow to cut a deal with Washington—a deal that would benefit them directly. Both had spoken out against the violent methods used to oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and kill him, but that did precious little to change the geometry.
Obama is aware that the Chinese leaders do not want Chinas economy disrupted when the global financial system is undergoing death pangs and preparations are being made to transfer power to a new leadership next year.
At the same time, despite the financial disaster staring the West in the face, and perhaps because of it, forces in both the United States and a couple of European colonial powers—Britain and France, in particular—have also begun beating the drums for another Cold War with China as the new villain. In mid-November, President Obama announced that he would send military aircraft and up to 2,500 marines to northern Australia to man a training hub to help allies and protect American interests across Asia. He declared that the U.S. is not afraid of China, by far the biggest and most powerful country in the region. (About 250 U.S. marines will begin a rotation in northern Australia starting next year, with a full force of 2,500 military personnel staffing up over the next several years. The United States will bear the cost of the deployment, and the troops will be shifted from other deployments around the world.)
The expanded basing agreement with Australia is just one of several initiatives the Obama administration has taken that have surely put Beijing on edge. The U.S. is China’s second-largest trading partner, and the economies are deeply intertwined. Obama is aware that the Chinese leaders do not want China’s economy disrupted when the global financial system is undergoing death pangs and preparations are being made to transfer power to a new leadership next year.
Beijing did not respond to Obama’s muscle-flexing speech immediately. But on 12 December, Chinese president Hu Jintao told the Central Military Commission that its navy should modernise in the interest of national security. The Chinese navy has grown in recent years from a coastal protection force to one planning to span the globe, and it has already sent ships as far as the Caribbean on goodwill missions and to the Mediterranean to escort vessels evacuating Chinese citizens caught up in the fighting in Libya. Beijing is considering an offer from the Seychelles to host Chinese naval ships in the Indian Ocean island nation, highlighting the increasing global reach of a navy that recently launched its first aircraft carrier.
“¦these developments, the Sino-Pakistani relationship is becoming a significant factor in its own right on the U.S. strategic radar screen, and a thorough understanding of its dynamics and implications is clearly essential.
The Chinese navy also began sea trials in August for its first aircraft carrier, the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, towed from Ukraine in 1998 minus its engines, weaponry and navigation systems. China’s claim that the carrier is intended for research and training has led to the speculation among some military analysts that it plans to build future copies.
Given these developments, the Sino-Pakistani relationship is becoming a significant factor in its own right on the U.S. strategic radar screen, and a thorough understanding of its dynamics and implications is clearly essential.
Sino-Pakistani Ties: The Cold War Groundwork
The ground in which relations between China and Pakistan—two nations with very different regimes—took root, with helpful watering from Washington, was made up of the arguments and justifications provided internationally by the United States during the Cold War from the 1950s through the 1980s. U.S. policy was to support any regime—communist, monarchic, dictatorial, feudal or democratic—that opposed the Soviet Union and its form of communism. Washington did not discriminate among the leaders in power around the world as long they were not pro-Soviet. Pakistan’s leadership was firmly in the hands of two groups of people (as it still is)—the uniformed army and the land-based feudals, who drew their political power from maintaining the country’s vast rural population under their control. China was, at the time, under the control of a Maoist clique, but that clique’s main objective was to bring China out of the morass it had been in for centuries.
“¦geographical proximity and security issues led the two states to come together, without doubt the United States played a key role in supplying the glue for the Sino-Pakistani relationship.
A strange marriage of two entirely different political systems from the outset, the Sino-Pakistani relationship was based strictly on the two nations’ shared security concerns. In Washington, those who note that Sino-Pakistani relations took root during the Cold War to counter common enemies point to a series of security-related events in the region over the years to explain why this bilateral relationship “deepened.” Tarique Niazi, for instance, of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, notes that the two countries have never had a public disagreement over any bilateral, regional or global issue. If there was any wrinkle in their mutual relations, it was amicably resolved in private, outside the view of the world’s eye. The key to this closeness, Niazi avers, has been the frequency of highest-level contacts between the two countries, which yielded unprecedented results (“Thunder in Sino-Pakistani Relations.” China Brief 6, no. 5).
Similarly, American scholars Rizwan Naseer and Musarat Amin, in the abstract to their recent treatise, “Sino-Pakistan Relations: A Natural Alliance against Common Threats” (Berkeley Journal of Social Sciences 1, no. 2), state that in the early days of their relationship, China and Pakistan confronted challenges to their survival. Pakistan had to engage in war against India over Kashmir (1948), and China was dragged to the Korean War (1951). The Soviet-Chinese union provided strength to China, but the Sino-Soviet China was left with no real support internationally. Meanwhile, Pakistan had joined the U.S. as an ally against the expansion of communism by joining Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) (1954) and the Baghdad Pact (1955). And although this alliance provided Pakistan with economic and military aid, Islamabad was virtually abandoned in its hour of trial (1965 Indo-Pak war), Naseer and Amin note.
According to these two scholars, because both China and Pakistan had fought wars with India, they had a common threat in the neighbourhood. India, a nonaligned state, received economic and military aid from both superpowers (USSR and the U.S.). When USSR supported India, a noncommunist state, against China, officially a communist state, during the Sino-Indian border clash in 1962, Naseer and Amin claim, Beijing realised that it should normalise relations with Washington—a capitalist state. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan played a key role in bringing the United States and China to the discussion table and bridged their differences by identifying the Soviet Union as their common enemy. Naseer and Amin argue that the 1971 Indo-USSR Treaty of Friendship posed another challenge to both Pakistan and China. The treaty perhaps strengthened Pakistan’s relations with the United States.
“¦according to Washington, India smelled more and more like a part of the Soviet “empire” than a “nonaligned” nation. Under the circumstances, Washington was quite comfortable with the Sino-Pakistani bonding.
There were also geographical realities that brought China and Pakistan closer. During the 1950s and 1960s, of course both were considered weak states. Geographically, both were in near proximity to their rivals. China, which harboured a historical animus toward Japan, and fell off with both India and the Soviet Union during those two decades, has adjoining borders with all three. Pakistan had unfriendly neighbours—India and Afghanistan—to both its east and its west, a fact that figured prominently in Pakistan’s security perspectives. Though geographical proximity and security issues led the two states to come together, without doubt the United States played a key role in supplying the glue for the Sino-Pakistani relationship. While Pakistan was driven by its paranoia about India, the United States’ entire foreign policy at the time was geared to containing the Soviet Union. And according to Washington, India smelled more and more like a part of the Soviet “empire” than a “nonaligned” nation. Under the circumstances, Washington was quite comfortable with the Sino-Pakistani bonding.
An “All-Weather Friendship”
In their January 2010 Brookings Institute policy paper, “U.S.-China Relations: Seeking Strategic Convergence in Pakistan,” Bruce Riedel and Pavneet Singh assert that for China, the motivations for pursuing a relationship with Pakistan have evolved over time. In the early 1960s, Beijing was driven to obtain a hedge in South Asia against what it perceived as India’s ambitions. Islamabad’s support in the Sino-Indian boundary dispute validated China’s period of outreach to its neighbours, and China’s anti-India policy provided the foundation for the Sino-Pakistani relationship to move forward.
Riedel and Singh characterise the subsequent five decades of the Sino-Pakistani relationship as an “all-weather friendship,” in which the two nations have forged civilian and military contacts, traded nuclear secrets, exchanged intelligence and, importantly, cooperated against common Indian and Soviet adversaries. The relationship started in 1950, Riedel and Singh point out, when Pakistan became one of the first countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But it did not gather real momentum until 1962, when China and India engaged in a war over the disputed territory of Aksai Chin and the territory then known as the North East Frontier Agency.
India considers that the land constitutes the state of Arunachal Pradesh while China considers it part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. China quickly and thoroughly defeated an unprepared and overmatched Indian military.
Today, India considers that the land constitutes the state of Arunachal Pradesh while China considers it part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. China quickly and thoroughly defeated an unprepared and overmatched Indian military. In a last-ditch effort, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent a request to U.S. president John F. Kennedy for military support. Kennedy saw Nehru’s plea as an opportunity to gain a foothold in South Asia against the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism and began providing armaments such as automatic rifles, heavy mortars and recoilless guns to India.
America’s other partner in the region, Pakistan, did not look favourably on Washington’s support to its existential enemy, Riedel and Singh note. Pakistan had eagerly joined the SEATO as well as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1954 as part of U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles’s efforts to erect a barrier around Soviet and Chinese communist power. Pakistan even gave the U.S. use of a top-secret air base near Peshawar to fly U2 reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. In return, the U.S. equipped and trained the Pakistani military, which used the equipment and training to bolster its negotiating position with India in talks over Kashmir and to prepare for a conventional war with India. For Islamabad, American support to India in the Sino-Indian Meanwhile, war was a betrayal—the first of many to come.
China took advantage of this schism to reach out to Pakistan. In the early 1960s, Beijing and Islamabad concluded two landmark agreements and began joint construction of a major roadway, which added significant ballast to their relationship. The first agreement was a bilateral trade pact signed in 1963. The second was the 1963 Sino-Pakistan Frontier Agreement, whereby China ceded more than 1,942 square kilometres to Pakistan, and Pakistan, as a quid pro quo, recognised Chinese sovereignty over 5,180 square kilometres of land in Northern Kashmir and Ladakh.
Construction began in 1966, and nearly 1,000 Pakistanis and 100 Chinese workers died during the 20 years it took to complete the road, which is considered vital for commercial and strategic purposes today.
Lastly, the two countries began collaboration on a major project to build the Trans-Karakoram highway, often referred to as “Friendship Highway.” The highway connects the northern areas of Pakistan to the Xinjiang province in China and traverses one of the old Silk Road trading routes. Construction began in 1966, and nearly 1,000 Pakistanis and 100 Chinese workers died during the 20 years it took to complete the road, which is considered vital for commercial and strategic purposes today.
The friend of my enemy is my enemy
During the 1960s and 1970s, the calcification of India’s relationship with both China and Pakistan and Washington’s intensification of its anti-Soviet Union crusade gave further impetus to the Sino-Pakistani relationship. Keen on bringing down the Soviet Union, the United States looked aside when “the enemies of our enemy” joined hands to accomplish something, legal or not, that both wanted as long as it undermined the enemy or a “friend” of the enemy, such as India.
“¦China served as a key ally for Pakistan in the United Nations, providing diplomatic support to Islamabads position on Kashmir.
During those decades, China relinquished its neutral stance on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan and tilted toward the latter. In the 1965 India-Pakistan war, started by Pakistan, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is reported to have assured Islamabad that “China was prepared to put pressure on India in the Himalayas ‘for as long as necessary’” (Navnita Behera. Demystifying Kashmir. Brookings Institution Press, 2006). In addition, China served as a key ally for Pakistan in the United Nations, providing diplomatic support to Islamabad’s position on Kashmir.
As Riedel and Singh point out, in the aftermath of the 1971 Pakistan civil war, which led to the dismemberment of Pakistan (with a significant amount of military help from and eventual war with India), China also vetoed Bangladesh’s application for recognition as an independent country in the U.N. General Assembly because it considered Bangladesh to be a rebellious province of Pakistan. This veto was a remarkable testament to China’s regard for its friendship with Pakistan. Incidentally, it was the PRC’s first-ever use of its veto power in the UN Security Council.
Chinas support for Pakistan and the broader Muslim umma comported with its effort to be an advocate for the rights of the third world in the face of great-power imperialism. Importantly, Beijing wanted to demonstrate that states could coexist peacefully despite having different social, political and ideological systems.
At the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the entire West along with the Muslim nations of Arabia and the Maghreb sent their Islamic foot-soldiers to strike a mortal blow against the infidel Soviets, China did not sit on the side lines. Not unlike the strategists in Washington and London, Chinese officials viewed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as an attempt by the Bolsheviks to expand into South Asia. “China feared that if the Soviets were able to gain control of routes to the Indian Ocean, its own lack of an early warning system and sufficient naval forces would not be able to match up with Soviet naval supremacy, and therefore China would be at the Soviets’ mercy from all sides,” says Yaacov Vertzberger in his book China’s Southwestern Strategy: Encirclement and Counter-Encirclement (Praeger Publishers, 1985).
Riedel and Singh describe the thinking in Beijing and Islamabad at this time: “Beijing assumed that Moscow’s newfound control over Afghanistan would enable the Soviets to locate nuclear weapons just outside the Xinjiang province along the border that Afghanistan and China shared. Further, the Soviets had already stationed 1,000,000 troops on the Sino-Soviet border. Beijing therefore felt that a direct military response in Afghanistan would ignite the Soviet forces along its northern border. Meanwhile, Pakistan was in crisis mode. Islamabad felt that the Soviets would next march into Pakistan, and Beijing concurred. The mutual concern with the Soviets led Beijing to start providing strategic and military support to mujahideen fighters already being funded and trained by Islamabad to avoid direct military engagement with the superior Soviet forces.
“In order to assure Pakistan, Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua also gave a security guarantee that if the Soviets invaded, China would come to its defense. The intensification of Sino-Pakistani relations in warding off the Soviets presaged another important Chinese motivation for befriending Pakistan—the Islamic Republic served as a gateway to forging relations with the Muslim world, as well as a physical channel to the rest of Southwest Asia, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean. In response to the Soviet invasion, China became very public in its concern for Soviet aggression against Muslim countries. At the 1980 meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference held in Islamabad, Beijing addressed the forty-two foreign ministers of Muslim nations and made the case that if Islamic countries did not oppose the Soviet Union, then other Muslim countries might fall victim to Soviet expansionism.
Today there is no end to the hue and cry within the Obama administration and among lawmakers and the media that Pakistan poses a security threat not only to the region but also to the distant United States.
“China’s support for Pakistan and the broader Muslim umma comported with its effort to be an advocate for the rights of the third world in the face of great-power imperialism. Importantly, Beijing wanted to demonstrate that states could coexist peacefully despite having different social, political and ideological systems. Beijing placed particular emphasis on the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations—a principle that would guide its foreign policy for years to come.”
Change of tune in Washington
The collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which occurred at a time when China’s communist rulers were busy shifting the country’s external facade, changed the world’s security and political geometry. But the China-Pakistan relationship continued for some time as if nothing had happened. Today, reality is catching up with this illusion.
Constantly tuning and retuning its foreign policy to maintain the image as the sole superpower in the post-Cold War period, Washington began to take serious note of developments in Pakistan as well as in China during the 1990s. Among other things, Washington was forced to acknowledge the fact that the ten years (1980–1989) of violent lawlessness unleashed by Pakistan and the West to give the Soviet Union a bloody nose had begun to change Pakistan. Washington saw the effects in a weakening of the Pakistani military, its keystone in that country. But as history shows, Washington nonetheless chose to set aside those signals until its new arch enemy Osama bin Laden made his appearance with his retinue in Afghanistan.
Although it was Afghan leaders such as the late president Burhanuddin Rabbani and Taliban supremo Mullah Omar whom Washington blamed for sheltering and harbouring the dreaded terrorist, it was known from the get-go that the ISI, Pakistan’s military-run intelligence service, was as much a part of the show as was Washington’s another ally, Saudi Arabia. Following the 2001 U.S. invasion, Washington began to slowly disseminate the facts of Pakistan’s involvement with the terrorists to the American public but continued to pretend that the Pakistan military would make an effort to extricate itself from such involvement in the post-9/11 days. It was, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, a cover for Washington’s inability to deal with this complicated situation.
“¦areas of cooperation between China and Pakistan is now being watched in Washington with a suspicious eye.
But now that the chickens have come home to roost, Washington’s policymakers and the academics who follow their every mood and turn have come to the conclusion that Pakistan’s terrorist gambit was indeed a bad thing. Today, in 2011, there is no end to the hue and cry within the Obama administration and among lawmakers and the media that Pakistan poses a security threat not only to the region but also to the distant United States. In this context, a handful of analysts in Washington have begun to look at the “negative” security aspects of the Sino-Pakistani relationship.
Though it has so far been mostly muted, this discussion is expected to grow louder in the coming days if the present trend in U.S.-Pakistan and U.S.-China relations continues. The discussion centres on China’s contribution to strengthening Islamabad in three areas. Each of these areas of cooperation between China and Pakistan is now being watched in Washington with a suspicious eye.