Pakistan: All-Weather Friendship?

In 2011 Pakistan’s relations with the United States went from troubling to the brink of near collapse. Relations rapidly deteriorated after the arrest of a CIA contractor on murder charges, the United States raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and a NATO strike that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. Concurrently, and coincidentally, China and Pakistan celebrated ‘Friendship Year’ marking sixty years of diplomatic ties with high-profile state visits, multibillion dollar economic deals, infrastructure projects and joint military exercises.

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 22 December 2011 5 minute READ

As Pakistan and China reinforce their relationship, questions have arisen around the changing nature of this alliance, the rhetoric that sustains it, and the implications of greater Chinese influence in Pakistan, particularly for the US and India. Fuelling the fear that China poses a threat to US interests in Pakistan, the Sino-Pakistan ‘all-weather’ friendship is regularly juxtaposed with Pakistan’s ‘fair weather’ relationship with the US by Chinese and Pakistani officials, the media, and hard-line elements in Washington and New Delhi. But the depth of Pakistan’s relationship with China should not be overestimated. China’s engagement with its neighbour is contingent upon the drivers of its own national security, regional ambitions and view of the changing world order. The ‘sweeter than honey’ rhetoric that continues to bolster the veneer of a deep friendship based on common goals and strategic convergence glosses over serious challenges and risks.

A critical pivot of current Sino-Pakistani cooperation is counter-terrorism in Xinjiang as the Chinese government confronts what it has described as a separatist movement linked to elements of the local Uighur population who want greater autonomy or complete independence from the People’s Republic of China. Economic cooperation continues in the form of trade, energy and infrastructure investments but the bulk of Chinese investment is aimed at the public sector to principally benefit China. China also continues to provide Pakistan with nuclear reactors, military aircraft and inexpensive conventional hardware. In return, Pakistan does not directly oppose or challenge any of China’s ‘core’ interests, including Xinjiang, Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea dispute and is routinely thanked by the Chinese leadership for this loyalty.

The dynamics of the Sino-Pakistani relationship are also subject to each country’s bilateral ties at a given time with the US and India, and its parameters are increasingly shaped by countries competing for influence in the changing geopolitical environment in South Asia. Pakistan’s foreign policy is underpinned by the ongoing hostility with India and its security-dominated relations with the United States. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location means it is in a unique position to provide access to key maritime routes to secure China’s energy supplies. Both Gwadar Port in Baluchistan and the Karakoram Highway, which the Chinese helped build, would allow China to diversify its transport links and energy routes bypassing Indian and US influence in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Moreover, Sino- Indian and US-Indian relations also have serious bearings on Sino-Pakistan ties, with growing economic links competing with security concerns and shifting alliance structures.

While significant, there is nothing inherently novel about Pakistan or China seeking closer ties with the other when relations with the US turn sour, as they have done so in the past. First, during the 1962 Sino-Indian war when US support for India was viewed negatively by Pakistan and then after the 1965 India-Pakistan war when the US took a more neutral position. In times where relations with Pakistan and the US have improved, there is less of a reliance on China. In turn, as China’s relations with the US and India have improved it has taken a more neutral stance on contentious issues such as Kashmir and has been more cautious regarding the commitments it makes to Pakistan. Pakistan often receives support from China, for example praising Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts after Osama bin Laden’s death. But sometimes it does not, as President Asif Ali Zardari found to his dismay when China did not give Pakistan the loan it needed in 2008 to prevent it from defaulting. China has provided Pakistan with the political, economic and military support it has needed to balance its relations with the US and India if and when it aligns with Beijing’s geo-strategic priorities.

The US and China may have overlapping interests in Pakistan as part of their wider regional ambitions, but their approach to dealing with Pakistan is markedly different. This has engendered a correspondingly different type of relationship with the country. Pakistan’s relationship with the US is inherently ‘transactional’ in nature, as, for example, economic or military aid is closely tied to fighting militancy. The nature of the Sino-Pakistan relationship, while asymmetric, is better defined than the US-Pakistan relationship. At present, Pakistan is a minor trading partner and market for China but China is Pakistan’s largest trading partner. The US and Pakistan are still struggling to define a far more complex relationship.

Even though the US has provided over eighteen billion dollars in economic aid and military assistance since 2002, it has been unable to secure the kind of influence it desires over Pakistan.

Beijing’s influence on Islamabad is rooted in their history, areas of mutual cooperation, and a shared sense of being ‘misunderstood’. Pakistan and China have nurtured their diplomatic ties and the media in both countries are continuing to promote the image of a strong alliance. China and Pakistan characterise their relations as ‘good brothers sharing weal and woe’, which is reflective of the commonly held sentiment in both countries. They have discussed setting up a media university in Pakistan to jointly tackle ‘western media propaganda’. Although the visibility and interaction of average Pakistanis with Chinese is limited, there is still a strong perception that the Chinese presence in Pakistan is beneficial. The US is seen to be interfering and consequently viewed with great suspicion and animosity. According to a 2011 Pew Global Poll, roughly seventy percent of the Pakistani population saw the US as an enemy with an equally high percentage maintaining an unfavourable view of the US. In contrast, nearly nine-in-ten Pakistanis say China is a partner to their country. The importance Pakistan places on China’s favour is reflected by the frequency of high-profile visits: President Zardari has visited China twice since the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and seven times since becoming president. Additionally, when Pakistan has a democratic government, China hedges its interests by maintaining links with opposition political parties.

Pakistan also finds Chinese interests are easier to support, as often those interests are either shared ones, or of no real significance to Pakistan. It is in both countries’ interests to suppress the insurgency in Balochistan where China has major investments, and Pakistan would likely use the attacks against Chinese personnel to crackdown harder on suspected Baloch nationalists. Similarly, Pakistan has no desire to face China’s ire by supporting a Uighur separatist movement in Xinjiang and can therefore move with great speed and purpose against groups or individuals that threaten the Sino-Pakistan alliance. In contrast, the US has repeatedly asked for a military campaign in North Waziristan against the Haqqani network, but these requests have gone unanswered as it does not align with the Pakistani military’s interests.

As China’s ties with Pakistan seem set to strengthen, it is clear that there are also challenges for the alliance. First, while the existing model of Chinese assistance is beginning to meet the kind of support Pakistan needs in the form of large sums of direct cash infusions and emergency funds, it is still very limited and has focused on public sector investments and loans. China has still not shown a willingness to match the west in lending money to the Pakistani government. China’s cumulative bilateral assistance to Pakistan between 2004 and 2009 totalled just 217 million dollars, and was often driven by disaster relief. China’s stated policy on foreign aid outlines its refusal to impose political conditions and non-interference in a country’s internal affairs. Unlike the US, China has no explicit ‘value’ correlation in its relationship with Pakistan regarding democracy or pluralism, but rather a shared sense of being misunderstood, which plays well to both their domestic audiences. China may not set terms and conditions to its assistance as the US does, but it won’t be writing a blank cheque to Pakistan either. For the 2010 floods that wreaked havoc across Pakistan, China’s contribution was marginal. Although it may have reportedly been China’s largest contribution for disaster relief assistance to a foreign country, it was not the largest to Pakistan; the highest amount of aid was pledged by the US (28 percent of total aid), while China ranked below Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the UK.

Secondly, Pakistan’s internal security problems mean it is restricted on delivering on stability in Xinjiang and protecting Chinese investments and assets in Pakistan. A long-term investor in large infrastructure projects in Pakistan, the country’s volatile security situation is hampering potential Chinese investments. Last September, the privately owned China Kingho Group pulled out of a mining project worth nineteen billion dollars in Sindh reportedly amidst concerns over the security of its personnel following bombings in major cities. Chinese expatriates in Pakistan, mostly engineers, have suffered more attacks than any other country since 2004. As the security risks grow, Beijing will become more reluctant to invest in Pakistan despite Islamabad’s efforts to convince it otherwise.

Thirdly, the Pakistani military does not want to depend solely on military technology from Beijing, particularly counter-terrorism intelligence and equipment whilst the US military dominates that market. Sending troops abroad would go against Chinese policy of non-interference, and the Chinese armed forces capacity for effective counter-insurgency and police training is still fairly limited. Nor would Pakistan’s elite desire to sit squarely in Beijing’s camp, given their cultural affinity and educational ties to America reinforced by the Pakistani diaspora in the US.

Sino-Pakistan relations are not free from misunderstandings, but they are usually resolved swiftly and behind closed doors in contrast to the public admonishments Pakistan receives from the US. During the Lal Masjid siege when Chinese citizens were kidnapped by militants, Islamabad swiftly responded to pressure from Beijing to secure their release. Last year, when the Pakistani Defence Minister reportedly expressed a desire for the Chinese to build a military base at Gwadar port, Beijing promptly denied any knowledge of the request revealing the scope for Pakistan and China to misconstrue each other’s policy and what each is willing and able to do for the other.

Pakistan recognises that it needs both the US and China, and does not want to find itself isolated and without any financial support. Pakistan’s economy saw a mere 2.2 percent GDP growth in 2011, faces acute energy and water shortages, inflation, unemployment and debt. The focus at present appears to be on redistributing the influence of its allies, and sometimes playing them off one another, rather than being heavily dependent on just one.

This raises further questions around the type of links between US-Pakistan relations and the Sino-Pakistan alliance, and whether they are influenced more by rhetoric and circumstances or if there are deeper strategic realignments that are taking place. How these push and pull factors influence regional dynamics will continue to be keenly watched in Washington and New Delhi.

With the US announcing a shift of its gaze back to the Asia- Pacific these developments will also be closely observed by China. In the long-term, Beijing would wish to be the predominant influence in Pakistan, but recognises America’s role in stabilising Pakistan’s border regions with Afghanistan. For now, China seems content to dove-tail off the security and resources the US is willing to provide while it pursues its more narrowly defined interests bilaterally with Pakistan.