The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics
Author: Andrew Small
Publisher: Oxford University Press;
The China-Pakistan axis has its ancestry in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The swift defeat of Indian forces in 1962 by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was closely studied by India’s archenemy. The dictator in charge in Pakistan in 1962, Field Marshall Ayub Khan, tried to shake down concessions from India on the Kashmir dispute during the war but President John F Kennedy told Ayub the US would not tolerate Pakistan blackmailing India in its hour of weakness. After the war, Ayub tilted Pakistan increasingly towards China. Pakistan’s next dictator, Yahya Khan, made probable Richard Nixon’s opening to China. The Pakistani channel was the key to Henry Kissinger’s secret diplomacy with Mao Zedong. Pakistan’s third dictator, General Ziaul Huq, moved the country ever further towards China. Secret cooperation on nuclear weapons gave Zia the bomb and missiles to deliver them. China provided the bulk of the arms for the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, arms paid for by the CIA and the Saudis. If the US was the quartermaster of the mujahideen, then China was their armourer.
Terrorism is the major obstacle in the axis. Pakistan is home to China’s top terrorist enemy, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which fights for Uighur freedom in Xinjiang. As Small relates, US drones have done far more damage to ETIM than Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) spies. Indeed, the ISI plays many of the same games with the Uighurs that it does with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda and ETIM enjoy very close acquaintances, according to Small’s research.
Nor does China want to shoulder the burden alone. When Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, the Chinese gratefully took a careful look at the crashed US stealth helicopter but then rejected Pakistan’s suggestion of a defence agreement and noted, pointedly, that it “was not going to backfill for the US, and Islamabad urgently needed to patch up its relationship with Washington”. Small’s final chapter describes the gradual shift from suspicion towards US bases in the region to growing concern about a hasty US departure. The chapter heading reads, ‘Lord, make them leave — but not yet’. Such is free riding.
The nuclearisation of Pakistan, with heavy Chinese help, as Andrew Small makes clear in The China-Pakistan Axis, had some unintended consequences for China. It may have supplied a useful counterbalance to India but as Chinese politicians have learned many times over, the last few decades, while Pakistan is probably their one most dependable deep ally, it is also a profoundly frustrating and mercurial one. Pakistan may well have played the great mediator role during rapprochement between the US and China in the early 1970s, hosting the secret Kissinger meetings that were the prelude to Nixon himself visiting Beijing in 1972, but by the 1980s and into the 1990s Muslim extremism started to have uncomfortable links with the situation in Xinjiang. Pakistan’s security issues became China’s. This has remained true to this day.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the commotion they gave the US did not have wholly advantageous outcomes for a resurgent China, simply because it brought US military attention and effort to Afghanistan, a country that it shares a tiny almost accidental border with, but which, with the Taliban, created another conduit of extremism flowing into and out of Pakistan. China’s tepid response to the Afghan war has changed with the pull down of US troops up to 2014 and the realisation that the great western regions beyond China’s borders into South and Central Asia also offer strategic and economic opportunities as well as a myriad of well-known challenges and dangers. These are countries that China needs to create a new template of relationships with, something it has done so with Xi Jinping’s recent talk of a “new silk road”.
Pakistan remains a frightening, often unstable, nuclear-armed power where its intelligence services, as Small comments, are riddled with extremist sympathisers and its communities deeply divided. For once, the US and China have a vested interest in solving this grim menu of problems together. That seems to be happening, with a more business and investment minded Pakistan government elected in 2013 that also sees Chinese money as more than just gifts they deserve for their friendship, and more as a crucial way to build the infrastructure and assets they will need to survive as a more prosperous, functional state.
Small finishes his book on a positive note. The US might be wary of Chinese influence in Pakistan and China might be fearful of US containment. However, the challenges, frustrations and demands in this region are so great that a US-China alliance of some sort makes more sense than either of them trying to go it alone.