SUPERLATIVES are often used in both Pakistan and China to describe their mutual relationship. It is said that this friendship ‘’is deeper than the oceans and higher than the mountains”. China is described as Pakistan’s ‘’all-weather friend”. However, most experts agree that, in international relations, there are no permanent friends and no permanent foes: only permanent interests. So how do we explain this seeming paradox in Pakistan-China relations, the more so because these two countries neither have a common ethnic background nor a common political system? In actual fact, behind the emotional clichés, relations between these two countries have followed the same motivation that inspires international alliances elsewhere viz. mutuality of national interests. Over a period of decades, the two countries have found that working together brings them important benefits in diverse ways. They complement each other in geopolitical terms. In addition, relations are fortified by the immense goodwill that pervades between not only the two governments but also the two peoples.
Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, must be given high marks for the strategic vision shown by him in extending a hand of friendship to the Communist regime in China soon after it seized power in October 1949. In the teeth of US opposition, on January 4, 1950, Pakistan became the first Muslim, and the third non-Communist, country to extend recognition to China. The two sides established diplomatic relations on May 21, 1951. The first Chinese Ambassador arrived in Karachi on September 3, 1951, just a month before Liaquat’s martyrdom. In late 1949, India had stopped trading with Pakistan on a dispute on devaluation and Pakistan found China a good market for the export of its cotton and jute as also import of coal. In strategic terms, Pakistan saw China not only as a big neighbour but also one which was expected to hold veto power in the UN Security Council. It made no sense to have bad relations with China, which would have seriously aggravated Pakistan’s security concerns.
Pakistan’s vulnerability vis-à-vis India obliged it soon thereafter to join the US-sponsored military pacts. SEATO was actually conceived by USA and its allies as a pact to counter China. Pakistan’s membership of pacts could have caused serious misgivings in China but for the fact that Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra reached a good understanding with Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai at Bandung Conference in 1955. After this meeting, Chou said that he had been “assured that although Pakistan was party to a military treaty, Pakistan was not against China.” Bogra received an invitation to visit China though it was Prime Minister Suhrawardy who became the first Pakistani leader to visit China in 1956. There was a return visit to Pakistan in December 1956 by Premier Chou.
Encouraged by these talks, Suhrawardy declared in 1957 that “I feel perfectly certain that when the crucial time comes, China will come to our assistance.” On the part of Chinese leaders Mao and Chou, there was also a strategic vision that Pakistan would be a long-term friend in the context of China-India rivalry, which started to take a concrete shape with border clashes in late 1950s. Moreover, since China’s relations with the Soviet Union came under serious strains around this time, Moscow’s strong ties with India caused misgivings in China. Under President Ayub Khan, China-Pakistan relations reached a high watermark. In early 1961, both sides agreed to demarcate their border in Kashmir, despite Indian protests. Tension between India and China erupted in a brief but deadly border war in October 1962. This gave a big boost to China’s relations with Pakistan: 1963 saw the signing of a border agreement, a trade accord and inauguration of PIA flights to China, opening China’s only air link with the rest of the world.
In January 1963, Foreign Minister Bhutto told Parliament that in case of Indian aggression, Pakistan would not be alone as such an Indian attack would involve ‘’the territorial integrity and security of the largest state in Asia.” In February 1964, Premier Chou visited Pakistan and declared China’s open support for Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute. When President Ayub Khan visited China in March 1965, he is said to have been given the biggest ever public welcome in China to any foreign visitor. Soon thereafter, Pakistan-China relations reached their peak when China extended full support to Pakistan in 1965 India-Pakistan War and even threatened to attack India. Later in 1971, Pakistan played a key role in the rapprochement between USA and China.
But the setback suffered by Pakistan in the 1971 War also affected the upward trend in its relations with China. Moreover, China’s rapid economic transformation, beginning around 1980s, resulted in adoption of a pragmatic foreign policy. Ever since, China has sought to improve its relations with India and with other countries. It has adopted a neutral position on Kashmir and wants India and Pakistan to resolve Kashmir and other problems through bilateral dialogue. This has not meant any downgrading of its strategic ties with Pakistan and it stands solidly behind Pakistan on most issues. It supported Pakistan during the Afghan Jihad in 1980s against Soviet military intervention. It values Pakistan’s role in the fight against terrorism.
China has established important joint ventures with Pakistan in the economic and defence sectors. Such collaboration reached unprecedented proportions under the Economic Corridor (CPEC) linking Gwadar with China. This holds great economic and strategic benefits for China. On the other hand, Pakistan will receive investment worth over $60 billion that are transforming its infrastructure, energy sector and industrial development. CPEC is described as a game changer for Pakistan, but China will also derive long-term advantages from it. Such mutually-advantageous collaboration best ensures a durable and thriving bilateral relationship. It is important for both sides to do everything possible to ensure the speedy implementation of CPEC projects. China has some concern about the route’s security, whereas some circles in Pakistan have concerns about the negative trade fallout and over-dependence on China. These concerns should be handled through candid dialogue. Pakistan-China relations are poised to go from strength to strength, particularly in the background of the strategic ties that have developed between USA and India.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.