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China-Pakistan axis: 'The best may be yet to come'

By Nikhil Lakshman/
February 16, 2015 10:24 IST
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'Whether it's investments in Kashmir, building naval facilities, or selling top-of-the-range military equipment, Pakistan could well benefit more under Xi's watch.'

'Do Chinese concerns about the 'Islamisation' of Pakistan give it pause about how quickly to move forward with security and economic projects? At the moment the indication is quite the opposite: China is doubling down on its support to Pakistan, partly because of its fears about where the country is headed.'

Chinese President Xi Jinping greets Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Beijing. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/ReutersChinese President Xi Jinping will visit Pakistan this year, his first visit to Beijing's 'all weather friend' since taking office two years ago, and the first visit by a Chinese president to Islamabad in nine years.

Xi was scheduled to visit Islamabad after he visited New Delhi last September, but the trip was put off because of Imran Khan's then onslaught against Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

There is talk that Xi will visit Pakistan as early as next month and be the chief guest at a joint Pakistan military parade (shades of Barack Obama's presence at India's Republic Day parade!) on March 23, the first time such a parade has been held in seven years.

The China-Pakistan relationship and its durability has been one of the lesser discussed themes in international affairs. Even though both nations have been at the centre of consistent strategic attention -- for different reasons, of course -- their association which has withstood the swift eddy currents of the many complex issues swirling about them this half century and more has neither been probed or scrutinised as it should have.

Andrew Small's much praised book, The China-Pakistan Axis intends to change all that.

Researched painstakingly over six years, not merely in the ministries and think-tanks in Beijing and Islamabad, but also in places like Kashgar in Xinjiang province, where China combats an increasingly assertive insurgency, Small explains in apparently breathtaking detail the China-Pakistan axis and its role in Asian geopolitics.

Beijing has never abandoned or isolated Islamabad over the years, and continues to provide it sustenance in many forms -- armaments, nuclear know-know, intelligence gathering, strategic support, money when Pakistan needs it, important projects, and other things the world does not know enough about.

In this e-mail interview with Nikhil Lakshman/, Andrew Small -- a Transatlantic Fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United State's Asia programme, which he has helped lead since 2006 -- discusses the China-Pakistan relationship, the challenges it poses for India, a common adversary for both nations, and the direction it is likely to take under the watch of Xi Jinping, China's most powerful leader in more than 20 years.

How has the China-Pakistan relationship evolved over the years? Do you believe it is as strong and resilient as ever?

Has there been a re-evaluation of the association on the Chinese side in view of the concerns about Pakistan lurching towards being a rogue State?

Or are the 'unshakable bonds of friendship,' as Islamabad deems the relationship, as strong as ever?

The relationship today is clearly very different from that of the 1960s -- China's economic take-off, the rise of Islamic militancy in the region, the nuclearisation of South Asia, and the shifting geopolitical dynamics between the United States, China, India, and Pakistan over the last few decades put it in a very different context.

But there are consistent features -- India still provides the strategic glue, and it remains a relationship dominated by security calculations, despite efforts to add a stronger economic component.

The intention was that some of the grand economic projects would provide greater depth and balance to China-Pakistan ties, but in recent years that has been overshadowed by the militancy question.

There have been tensions over the issue of Uighur militant safe havens, as well as major problems facing Chinese investments, and naturally China has its concerns about Pakistan's broader trajectory. But that certainly hasn't led to a fundamental reassessment on Beijing's part.

The relationship has weathered an impressive array of challenges, and its resilience matters all the more over time given how few reliable friends either country has, as recent elections in Sri Lanka and Myanmar's foreign policy rebalance illustrate.

At the moment it appears that China is pressing ahead with its investments despite -- and in some respects because of -- Pakistan's internal challenges, in the hope that these will help to address some of those problems.

If you had to plot a graph of the China-Pakistan relationship over the years, what do you believe was the apogee and what was the nadir?

If you had to identify five reasons for this relationship lasting as long as it has, what would they be?

What have China and Pakistan respectively gained from this relationship?

There is a temptation to assess the relationship by looking at the behaviour of the two sides during moments of crisis -- China offers to intervene on Pakistan's behalf in 1965, sits things out in 1971, and actively pushes back in 1999.

Pakistan's Hatf IX (NASR) missile being fired during a test. China provided great support to Pakistan's missile programme, says Andrew Small.But the most important phases of the relationship have been away from the spotlight: Chinese support to Pakistan's nuclear programme in the early 1980s, for instance, or its missile programme in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

There has always been a sense that even though the two sides come from very different strategic cultures, and may not agree tactically, a strong, capable Pakistan is a Chinese asset in its own right and Beijing will provide consistent support to ensure that some degree of balance in south Asia is maintained.

There was certainly pressure on the relationship in the 1990s, when the China-India relationship was normalising and China was prioritising economic goals in its international diplomacy.

That was the period in which talk of developing greater balance in ties between India and Pakistan took off in Beijing, and Jiang Zemin's visit to the two countries in 1996, when he appeared to pull back from Chinese commitments on Kashmir, is seen by many on the Pakistani side as something of a low point.

The phase after (Pakistan military ruler Pervez) Musharraf's fall was also tricky -- China struggled to get a handle on Pakistani politics during a period where they couldn't just channel everything through a single, dominant army figure.

But although all the twists and turns are interesting, the underlying aspects of military cooperation have persisted and deepened.

In the years ahead, reliable security partners become even more important as China takes off as a global military power and needs quasi-bases it can count on, as well as intelligence services it can trust to navigate the world of Islamic militancy.

For Pakistan, China now matters far more to its economic future than it used to, and the PLA (People's Liberation Army) can increasingly supply the Pakistani army with advanced defense equipment, where it once depended entirely on the United States.

If certain problems between the two sides are addressed, there is a good chance that the best period of the relationship is yet to come.

The China-Pakistan relationship was spawned by their common antipathy for India. The China-India association is perhaps better today than it was, with improving trade and India and China finding themselves together in formations like BRICS.

Has the improvement in India-China relations adversely affected the China-Pakistan relationship in any way? Why not?

Is it because China needs Pakistan to be a strategic balance to India? Does Beijing enjoy using Islamabad as a pawn to needle and unsettle India from time to time?

China believes that it can maintain these tracks simultaneously -- it can improve economic ties with India, and some coordination on global issues, even as strategic competition grows. That is exactly what has happened with the US-China relationship.

It doesn't diminish Pakistan's role on the strategic track if the economic track and the global diplomatic track with India are on an upward arc. Especially as India's 'Act East' policy moves forward and ties with Washington and Tokyo strengthen, the utility of Pakistan for China is clear: It still provides a means to tie India down in its own neighborhood.

But Beijing hasn't used Islamabad as a pawn -- Pakistan has pursued policies vis-a-vis India as it sees fit, which benefit China without it having to do anything to encourage them.

If anything, China has pressed Pakistan to develop more stable, predictable and economically beneficial relations with India, even as its role as a strategic balancer persists.

China-Pakistan ties also have a momentum that transcends India -- the economic relationship between the two sides and the handling of counter-terrorism and militancy issues don't hinge on Beijing's relationship with New Delhi.

In your research for your book, did you discover any insights about China playing some sort of role in trying to improve the India-Pakistan relationship?

China has never provided Pakistan with unconditional support against India -- the degree and nature of Chinese backing has always depended on the context.

In particular Beijing has been reluctant to provide comprehensive support when it has felt that the problems are of Pakistan's making -- Kargil in 1999, Mumbai in 2008, or Abbottabad in 2011, for instance.

But it is possible to hypothesise scenarios in which China would swing in behind Pakistan militarily if it felt that India were the culpable party, some of which I cite in the book.

Economic ties with India are unlikely to be the determining factor, in my view -- it is still not that big an economic relationship by comparison with China's other major partners.

And in recent years, if anything Beijing has been more willing to swallow economic costs for the sake of political and security goals. You need only look at China-Japan relations to see that, and it's a much more important economic relationship for Beijing.

Privately, China certainly encourages Pakistan to improve its ties with India, particularly on the economic front -- it thinks Pakistan should be able to benefit far more from trade relations with its neighbour without jeopardising the essence of its strategic calculations.

Did the Chinese officials you spoke to for your book nurse any doubts about elements in the Pakistan establishment and their encouragement of Islamist elements?

Are there concerns in Beijing that separatists in Xinjiang are being trained by Islamists in Pakistan? Are the Chinese apprehensive about the ongoing battles with the Islamists within Pakistan?

In what ways has China engaged Pakistan on terrorism? Has there been any Chinese initiative to nudge Pakistan to rein in the Islamists?

China has its worries about the long-term future of the Pakistani army, and Islamist elements within. That isn't to say that those fears are well-founded, but there are developments in Pakistan that Beijing finds uncomfortable to navigate -- the more secular-minded the army, the more the PLA can go drinking with their Pakistani counterparts, the more at ease they are.

Historically Beijing has at least acquiesced to Pakistan's use of militant proxies, and has been able to take advantage of Pakistan's relationships in this regard: The ISI could discourage Islamist groups from offering support to Uighur militants and deter them from attacks on China.

Beijing has had an extremely narrow set of concerns on counter-terrorism -- the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and its backers, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- and hasn't much cared what went on with other groups.

The concern for Beijing now though is that the whole situation has run outside the Pakistani army's control, providing risks to China and to the Pakistani State itself.

Uighur groups have found safe haven in FATA (Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas) over the last decade, and China has certainly pushed Pakistan to crack down harder on them.

The recent (Pakistan army's) operation in North Waziristan operation, for instance, was something the Chinese were keen to see.

But they are also cautious about pushing too hard, too broadly, or too openly -- the Lal Masjid siege, for instance, which came about partly due to Chinese pressure, was clearly a disaster for Pakistan and for perceptions of China among militant groups in Pakistan.

And it's important not to over-emphasise the degree to which Chinese concerns about Pakistan's handling of the Uighur issue mirror, for instance, the sort of problems that the United States has faced with Pakistan on this front.

For the most part Pakistan is willing to do as China asks, not least because its requests are so specific and restricted, and mostly don't impact on the army's broader strategy.

How do you perceive the Chinese projects in Pakistan going forward? Will we see real momentum or incremental acceleration? How do these projects really help China?

We keep hearing of China promising Pakistan help in setting up more nuclear facilities. Is this mere talk, as a counterweight to the India-US nuclear agreement or are we going to see real assistance on this front?

We are in a different phase in the economic relationship now -- at times one side has been pushing while the other has been more reluctant, but now there is real momentum from Beijing and Islamabad.

The PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) government has been easier for China to work with than its predecessor, and Xi's plans for a Silk Road Economic Belt, as well as the broader stabilisation and development of China's western periphery, mean that there is more Chinese political capital behind these initiatives.

The push to develop China's interior provinces through better infrastructure connections to the neighbourhood is genuinely important as the Chinese economy slows and return on investment in China for such projects diminishes.

China is also concerned that the Pakistani economy is struggling and needs external support, especially for its energy sector. This doesn't mean that Chinese investments are purely a matter of goodwill, but there is a strategic calculation -- don't let Pakistan fail -- that helps to underpin them.

The nuclear facilities are certainly moving ahead -- Chashma 3 and 4 were agreed in the aftermath of the US-India nuclear deal, partly as a tit-for-tat, but construction of a new phase of 1000 MW Chinese reactors is also underway, and will have a far greater impact on Pakistan's energy situation.

These are a serious showcase for the Chinese nuclear industry, not just a political play.

Whether some of the more ambitious infrastructure projects come off -- the Kashgar-to-Gwadar link -- is another question, but the existing initiatives that are underway will amount to a substantial increase in Chinese investment in Pakistan regardless.

In recent months we have seen China taking a larger role on Afghanistan. How will the China-Pakistan relationship play out in this arena?

Will China and Pakistan work to diminish India's interests in Afghanistan after the Western forces leave?

Will Washington work with China to push Pakistan to rein in the Taliban so that it does not undermine President Ashraf Ghani's government?

Greater Chinese involvement in Afghanistan has advantages and disadvantages for Pakistan. On the one hand, the diplomatic and economic engagement of its closest partner reduces the risk that its interests won't be accommodated.

On the other hand, it means that it has a less free rein to pursue its own strategy there without taking China into account.

The two sides will certainly coordinate closely, but they don't entirely see eye-to-eye -- China prizes stability in Afghanistan more highly than does Pakistan, and is particularly concerned about the prospect of safe havens for Uighur militants.

It is also far more sanguine about India's role, and sees value to New Delhi's political and economic engagement if it helps to stabilise the country.

The China-Pakistan relationship is too close to be prised apart over this, and any expectation that China will squeeze Pakistan hard on the Taliban issue is likely to be disappointed.

But coordination between Washington and Beijing over Afghanistan has grown much closer in recent years, and China is no longer willing to outsource its policy there to Pakistan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to be the chief guest at Pakistan's military parade when it is held for the first time in seven years next month. What does this symbolism tell you?

Is it at one level telling the Indians that if you can get President Obama for your Republic Day, we have our friends too? :)

Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader in 20 years or more. How do you expect the China-Pakistan relationship to evolve on his watch? Will we see greater Chinese pragmatism towards Pakistan under Xi? Or will it much the same as before?

We'll see whether that actually happens -- there is a bit of a debate underway about whether this like-for-like symbolism is entirely sensible, as that's certainly the signal that the two sides would be sending.

China wasn't above receiving the chief of army staff, Raheel Sharif, on the same day as Obama's visit to India, but that was considerably less visible.

From Xi, Pakistan can certainly expect pragmatism -- he is unsentimental about old principles and hang-ups in Chinese foreign policy, and if Pakistan doesn't get its act together on certain issues, he could push them quite hard or simply de-prioritise the relationship.

But Xi is also far more comfortable with China's position as a great power than his immediate predecessor, which means less nervousness about other countries' reactions to Chinese strategic moves and greater willingness to work with friends and allies.

Whether it's investments in Kashmir, building naval facilities, or selling top-of-the-range military equipment, Pakistan could well benefit more under Xi's watch.

What can India expect from the China-Pakistan relationship going forward? What must the strategists in Delhi watch for in the signs coming from Beijing and Islamabad?

What can the world expect from the China-Pakistan relationship? In the event that Islamists take power in Islamabad, what role will China take in subduing their expected hostility towards India and anyone else it considers an enemy?

In the highly unlikely scenario that Islamists took power in Islamabad it would have extremely far-reaching consequences for the relationship, and China would do its very best to help head off such an eventuality.

Women mourn Mohammed Ali Khan, 15, a student who was killed during the attack by Taliban murderers on the Army Public School in Peshawar, December 16, 2014. Photograph: Zohra BensemraMore important is whether Chinese concerns about the 'Islamisation' of Pakistan give it pause about how quickly to move forward with other security and economic projects, though at the moment the indication is quite the opposite: That China is doubling down on its support to Pakistan, partly because of its fears about where the country is headed.

A few aspects of interest to follow in the coming years are: Will the strategic economic projects come off, and how quickly?

A lot will hinge on whether they actually happen, or just get embroiled in another set of political, security and logistical problems.

Will China-Pakistan ties move more openly in the direction of a quasi-alliance?

Of course, Beijing doesn't want to take on treaty obligations, but there are various aspects in which Pakistan could de facto become China's only real ally (North Korea doesn't count...); the development and use of facilities for the PLA navy, whether at Gwadar or Karachi, will be an interesting indicator.

How much of the PLA;s very best equipment will Pakistan get its hands on? This mattered less in the past when the PLA was still relatively technologically backward in many areas, but in the next decade and beyond it will start to have more of an effect on the conventional balance.

Will China move from its extremely narrow focus on Uighur groups to look at the enabling conditions for terrorism in the region? The North Waziristan operation and China's shifting stance in Afghanistan is an indication of the sort of pressure that could be brought to bear if the terrorism problem in China continues to worsen and if Beijing decides that its previous approach is no longer working.

Broadly speaking, this whole region of the world is one where a more assertive Chinese stance in looking out for its interests would be beneficial to all parties, including India.

Please tell us about your book. You spent six years researching the China-Pakistan relationship, not only in the ministries in Beijing and Islamabad it is said, but also in places like Kashgar and Gilgit. What did you discover?

Did you encounter a loquaciousness in Islamabad and a reticence in Beijing to discuss the association? What can we expect to find in your book that we have not known before?

It is somewhat true that there is more openness on the Pakistani side about the relationship than from the Chinese, but when it comes to the most sensitive aspects both sides keep pretty tight-lipped.

Chinese officials and analysts did grow more willing to talk about the relationship though -- especially as their worries about developments in Pakistan grew, alongside the need to start coordinating more closely with the West over the militancy situation in the region.

The book benefits from some of that frankness, which made it easier to give behind-the-scenes accounts of a host of different episodes in the relationship, and probe more fully into current issues between the two sides than had been possible in the past.

Much of the book focuses on recent political history -- from the Red Mosque to the present day, and ranges from China-Taliban relations to the story of the Obama administration's effort to solicit Chinese cooperation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Some of the early reviews have focused on the previously unreported levels of tensions between China and Pakistan, whether over kidnappings, Pakistan's handling of Uighur militant groups, or even the PLA's worries about major contingencies that it might have to address in Pakistan.

The book goes further back through the history of the relationship too -- at almost every important juncture for Pakistan in recent decades, somewhere in the background the Chinese have been present, and that parallel set of stories have rarely been laid out before.

The book was also intended to pull together in one place a lot of the disparate material that is out there -- on China's support to Pakistan's nuclear programme, on China's involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or on Pakistan's role in the Saudi-China relationship.

These all help to place in context the current debates in Beijing about the future role that Pakistan should play in Chinese foreign policy: There are some wild rumours that the book refutes, but the China-Pakistan relationship has been at the heart of some of the most dramatic and strategically consequential developments in Chinese policy in recent decades and that is likely to remain true.

Images: Top: Chinese President Xi Jinping greets Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Beijing. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Middle: Pakistan's Hatf IX (NASR) missile being fired during a test. China provided great support to Pakistan's missile programme, says Andrew Small.
Bottom: Women mourn Mohammed Ali Khan, 15, a student who was killed during the attack by Taliban murderers on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra

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Nikhil Lakshman/