Sino-Pakistan relations are now part of our national folklore. Our public consciousness is suffused with slogans of “Pak-Cheen dosti, zindabad” from the 1960s and 1970s. In recent times, Sino-Pak friendship has been described as “higher than Himalayas” and “deeper than oceans”.
The edifice of this close friendship rests on China’s steadfast diplomatic and military support to Pakistan vis-à-vis India. China’s own border war with India in 1962 further strengthened this bond, forged in the 1950s. Chinese support in the 1965 and 1971 war further entrenched Pak-china friendship in its India-Pakistan matrix. While some left-leaning commentators see China’s uncritical support of the Pakistan military dictatorship as a negative a sign for democracy and left politics in Pakistan, the friendship was strengthened no less by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto popularised the Chinese’s Mao’s cap and lent mass appeal to this relationship.
China’s official glossy magazines were available openly from the bookshops and Zhou En Lai and Mao were known household names. The early decades of Pak-China friendship were thus characterised by military aid and equipment and China’s vital role in building Pakistan domestic defence industry such as up the heavy mechanical complex in Taxilla. Over the years this aspect has formed the nucleus of Pak-China friendship, with China becoming Pakistan’s steadfast and reliable supplier of military hardware. So much so that Pakistan was China’s biggest arms buyer last year, accounting for 41 per cent of its Asian military sales, according to the latest report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
This cooperation is so deep that the US has always been mindful of the fearful possibility of the US defence technology falling into Chinese hands. In more strategic terms, China lent substantial technical know-how to Pakistan’s nuclear programme which remains one of the cornerstones in our strategy of the “balance of terror” in the immediate neighbourhood. In return, Pakistan helped China by playing the role of a facilitator in the US-China diplomatic opening in 1971.
The Sino-Pakistan relationship has also expanded into trade and commerce spheres over the last decades. The signing of the free trade agreement in 2009 capped this long-running trend. In recent years, the Pakistan government, squeezed by declining foreign investment, has been assiduously courting Chinese investment. The Pakistan political leadership has made a flurry of visits to China, with the PML-N leading the way, and the provincial government of Sindh not far behind.
In particular the PML-N’s aggressive courting of China as Pakistan’s prime investor is being touted as a genius policy stroke which is going to propel Pakistan into a new age of economic prosperity. In fact, the PML-N attached so much importance to the cancelled visit of the Chinese president due to the PTI’s sit-in that the dharna was dubbed as economic sabotage.
This development has coincided with China’s deepening strategic role in Pakistan, further underlined by its takeover of the Gwadar project which will help China expand its trade with the Middle East. In addition, Chinese investment in the Pak-China Economic Corridor, part of the Chinese economic penetration into Central Asia and part of the North-South corridor stretching right up to Germany, places Pakistan at an important pole position in this important trade route. China is assuming an important role in Afghanistan in the event of the US drawdown from Afghanistan. The new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, canny enough to appreciate the growing Chinese clout in the region and Chinese’s influence inside Pakistan, has roped in China in unblocking the Aft-Pak stalemate. The US seems to be tacitly backing this new Afghan approach. The early fruits of this approach are already visible in enhanced Pakistan-Afghanistan cooperation on cross-border terrorism.
This suits China just fine, as it protects its economic role not only in Afghanistan and Central Asia as also dilutes the threat of extremist terrorism in its own restive province of Xinjiang province by China’s Uighur Muslim minority.
Peace in Afghanistan and Af-Pak policy reset is a must for Pakistan long trapped in its failed strategic depth fallacy. While these trade relations are projected to lift up Pakistan economically, Pakistan has to play its own cards quite intelligently. This is necessitated by China’s changed status in global politics. Since the 1950s when Sino-Pak friendship was forged in relatively innocent times, China has graduated to the status of a global soft power, developing its own nuanced diplomatic and trade relationship with different South Asian countries. As such Pakistani policy-makers should be extra careful in framing Pak-China diplomatic relationship either as a counterweight to the US declining and less-than-enthusiastic interest in Pakistan or China’s previous role as a steady pro-Pakistan voice in the myriad Indo-Pakistan conflicts in regional and international arenas.
China’s trade with India is of a far larger order than that of Pakistan. Indian-Chinese tourism is booming. Moreover, India, China and Russia have set up a new grouping in recent months to coordinate a joint geo-strategic response to the changing political context of the Asia Pacific region. China is also tied up more intimately with the US economy than is apparent in many press accounts.
This mutually-tied economic relationship is unlikely to change despite the US efforts to rein in China in the south east region as illustrated in the rising tensions with Japan, Vietnam and Philippines over territorial waters in the South China Sea. These nuanced geo-political changes have to be in the forefront of our policy-makers’ minds when recalibrating Pakistan’s foreign policy whose overall thrust should be orientated towards securing Pakistan’s long-term interests — within the larger goals of achieving lasting regional peace and good and trusting relations with all neighbours.
This seems a tall order when set besides our etched-in-stone foreign policy fixations which have turned all of our neighbours into enemies. Of all countries of the region, Pakistan can ill-afford its dogmatic adherence to the dated policy premises at a time when the country is in all sorts of troubles on domestic, foreign and economic fronts.