On the 100-year centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan unequivocally asserted that Pakistan would not bring any change in its ties with China. Speaking with the English-language China Global Television Network (CGTN) the prime minister said: “Why do we have to take sides? We should have a good relationship with everyone. And, it’s not going to happen if there’s pressure put on Pakistan to change its relationship or downgrade relationship with China, it won’t happen. No matter what pressure is put on us, [the bilateral relationship] is not going to change.” Both China and Pakistan have for long presented Sino-Pakistan relations as a special relationship that has survived the test of time. But the all-weather relationship on closer inspection largely exists on paper; aside from a common enemy the relationship lacks any strategic dimensions.
Both Pakistan and China emerged in different circumstances as nations despite both being occupied by foreign colonial powers. After the defeat of the Japanese in WW2 the communists led by Mao Zedong and the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek battled it out to rule over China. The victory of Mao’s communists led him to expel all foreigners and bring the buffer regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Manchuria under Beijing’s control. Getting rid of foreign influence was necessary for the communists to bring China’s century of humiliation to an end.
Pakistan emerged very differently to China. The British Empire was looking to transfer power to India as a confederation, but both the Congress leaders and Muhammed Ali Jinnah rejected this Cabinet Mission Plan. British calculations were then revised in the spring of 1947, and the creation of Pakistan was deemed advantageous to their interests as Pakistan would remain in the British Commonwealth unlike the congress leaders who wanted a complete separation from Britain. When partition took place on 14 and 15 August 1947, Pakistan received little of British India resources. Pakistan only received six armoured divisions to India’s 14 and eight infantry regiments to India’s 21. Pakistan got only 2.8% of its allocated ordinance. Pakistan was woefully prepared for the influx of refugees, relief camps were not in any position to deal with the influx and amid all of this Kashmir erupted. Pakistan’s leadership and the military saw wooing the US and becoming a key player in the emerging Cold War as the most practical way to deal with the circumstances it was facing. When General Ayub Khan became Pakistan’s Commander-in-Chief in January 1951, he was an unabashed pro-American and embarked on a relentless campaign to co-opt the US into its Cold War containment strategy. Unlike China who saw independence as cutting all ties with foreign powers, Pakistan jumped into bed with the US.
Both Pakistan and China emerged in different circumstances as nations despite both being occupied by foreign colonial powers
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
Whilst Pakistan was vehemently part of America’s Cold War strategy of containing the spread of communism, in 1956 Pakistan and China signed the Treaty of Friendship. But it was events in October 1962 that defined the Sino-Pakistan relations. China and India’s dispute over the demarcation of the international border between them led to aggressive claims by Indian nationalists over Aksai Chin, which China occupied. After India’s wrestling of Goa from Portugal in December 1961 a war of liberation was demanded by hawks in India and forces were dispatched to the mountainous terrain. China responded with a huge force and defeated India and occupied 15,000 square miles of Kashmir territory. Despite help from the US and Britain, India was unable to change the facts and was soundly defeated.
For Pakistan, this defeat represented the first opportunity since the loss of Kashmir in 1948 to strike at India. With India at its weakest, hawks in Pakistan such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were in favour of opening a front against India who would then be fighting on two fronts. In the end General Ayub Khan did not take the opportunity in 1962 to launch an attack on India in Kashmir, he would however do so with disastrous consequences in 1965. But a common enemy resulted in the Chinese courting Pakistan. China saw Pakistan as a low-cost secondary deterrent to India whilst Pakistan saw China as a high value guarantee against India.
In order to surround India, defence relations between China and Pakistan significantly increased after the 1963 China-India war. China and Pakistan agreed to the demarcation of the international border between them where Pakistan ceded parts of Kashmir to China. For decades now China has been a steady source of military equipment to the Pakistani Army, China helped establish ammunition factories and provided technological assistance. The Shaheen missile series is considered to be modifications of Chinese missile imports. Pakistan’s air force was for long the most prolific user of China’s Chengdu J-7. But the most significant support that deepened relations was China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear programme which included centrifuge equipment, warhead designs, highly enriched uranium (HEU), components of various missile systems and technical expertise.
The American Factor
Pakistan’s most important relationship since its origins has been the US and the superpower’s shadow always colours Pakistan’s relations with other nations. Pakistan played a leading role for the US during the Cold war, it was a key nation when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980 and it was a key nation in the US invasion of Afghanistan when she invaded the country in 2001.
Pakistan’s founders were reaching out to the US before independence as they saw relations with the US as the most practical and cost-effective path to develop Pakistan who lost out to India when British India was divided. Pakistan came to exaggerate the threat to South Asia of communism and presented itself as an erstwhile ally to the US. The US and Pakistan signed the US-Pakistan Mutual Defence agreement in May 1954. Pakistan joined SEATO and CENTCO, collective security organisations to contain the Communist bloc. The mutual defence pact with Pakistan contained one interesting clause:
“The Government of Pakistan will use this assistance exclusively to maintain its internal security, its legitimate self-defence, or to permit it to participate in the defence of the area, or in United Nations collective security arrangements and measures, and Pakistan will not undertake any act of aggression against any other nation. The Government of Pakistan will not, without prior agreement of the Government of the US, devote such assistance to purposes other than those for which it was furnished.”
The US made it expressly clear that its defence alliance was not to be used against India, it was expressly for the Cold War against the spread of communism. The US wanted to develop ties with India as it viewed her as the power in the region, rather than Pakistan. The US from the beginning wanted to cultivate India as the democratic alternative to Communist China and Soviet Union in the region. But as Jawaharlal Nehru refused to take sides in the Cold War, Pakistan therefore came to be seen by the US as the nation that can be the forward base in the region against communism. By the end of the 1950s both Secretary of State John Dulles and US President Dwight Eisenhower came to express doubts of their alignment with Pakistan, they came to see that Pakistan’s motivation was less to do with communism but more to stand up against India. When Pakistan used US military platforms against India in the 1965 and 1971 wars, the US froze military transfers and placed sanctions on Pakistan. US President Kennedy also told General Ayub Khan on 28 October 1962—while the Sino-India border war was at its height that he should write to Nehru, assuring him that Pakistan did not have any intention of attacking India during its war with China. The general, despite complaining, compiled with the US order.
US President Kennedy also told General Ayub Khan on 28 October 1962—while the Sino-India border war was at its height that he should write to Nehru, assuring him that Pakistan did not have any intention of attacking India during its war with China. The general, despite complaining, compiled with the US order
After the Sino-Soviet split from 1962 the US stopped viewing Sino-Pakistan relations negatively, it came to see China’s drift away from the Soviet Union in positive terms as it weakened the Communist bloc. It was Pakistan’s relations with China that were used for rapprochement between the US and China in 1970. It was General Yahya Khan that delivered an oral message to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai on behalf of US President Nixon for rapprochement between both nations. Henry Kissinger on a visit to Pakistan in 1970 made a secret visit to China to meet Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Pakistan has played a major role in US political plans since WW2, China has never been able to get Pakistan to undertake such actions for her.
The rise of China in the 21st century and its actions around the world receive considerable media attention. Today, China is the number one trade partner for over 130 countries in the world and its economic clout has grown significantly. In the case of Pakistan many see the country moving from being a US vassal to a Chinese vassal state. The loans, infrastructure and trade all wrapped in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which itself is part of the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is cited as evidence. This huge economic project took place under the nose of the US and the US has been rather quiet in the face of this possible game changer.
The US has however been rather quiet as she does not view the BRI and the CPEC project as threats to her global position, for the moment. These Eurasia based projects are expensive and will require significant security and will keep China occupied away from Southeast Asia – the region the US does see China as a threat. CPEC took place despite America’s deep relations with Pakistan’s political class. The US has long viewed Pakistan as not fully committed to US global goals whether it was the Cold War or now the War on Terror (WOT). It viewed Pakistan as joining the alliance for economic purposes or to stand-up to India. As a result, the US relationship with Pakistan became a transactional one where the US pays Pakistan for services and then criticises her performance. Successive congressmen have questioned the return the US is getting on constantly funding Pakistan. The US has restricted aid, loans and military equipment to be used solely for US foreign policy goals. Pakistan’s political class have ruined the country with their short-term policies and endemic corruption and always need a bailout to balance the nation’s budget. The US sees this as Pakistan’s internal problem that she needs to deal with and is not prepared to provide the help for this.
China has for long been looking for alternative trade routes for its huge exports. It has been looking to expand its domestic economic model to outside the country as Chinese citizens cannot consume the huge manufacturing output that takes place in China. China also needed to find countries that could consume its excess iron, coal and steel and it was in this light the BRI project came about. Pakistan became a critical route to the BRI and many grand promises have been made of its prospects. But despite all these economic moves, China has not been able to get Pakistan to support it in its political goals.
The continued skirmishes between India and China in the Himalayan mountains since 2020 have not seen Pakistan open a new front against India that would greatly aid China in its battle with India. Despite all the infrastructure, loans and economic deals China cannot rely on Pakistan to politically support it. During this same period the US has treated Pakistan as an abused partner and got her to conduct actions in Afghanistan, in the tribal areas and within Pakistan in support of US political aims. Pakistan military top brass and politicians don’t just provide verbal support but carry out actions that support US political plans. With China Pakistan claims to be in an alliance but no actions have taken place by both nations to support the other’s political plans, this includes both of them moving against India.
Pakistan military top brass and politicians don’t just provide verbal support but carry out actions that support US political plans. With China Pakistan claims to be in an alliance but no actions have taken place by both nations to support the other’s political plans, this includes both of them moving against India
Relations between Pakistan and China are greatly exaggerated, and this serves for both domestic consumption and the world. In practice China can see she cannot rely on Pakistan as its political class is too close to the US and China just doesn’t have such influence in Pakistan. But both nations can agree that India is the enemy and here they can use this to create an impression to India that they are in an alliance together against her. As the US has built relations with Pakistan since the 1950’s its hands go deep into Pakistan’s political class, institutions and political medium. China for the moment doesn’t have the plan, capabilities or know-how to lure Pakistan away from being a Vassal for the US and work with China to achieve her political plans. Until this time Pakistan’s political class will always prioritise its relations with the US over China.
 PM Imran rules out China ties downgrade (tribune.com.pk)
 T.V. Paul, Chinese-Pakistani Nuclear/Missile Ties and the Balance of Power,” The Nonproliferation Review, 2003.
 Khan, Muhammed Ayub, 2006, Friends not masters, A Political autobiography, Oxford University press, 1967