“¦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.