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China-Pakistan Special Relationship: An Alliance Changing Geopolitical Picture Of Asia
Matija Šerić
2023-03-27
Region : Pakistan, China, Economy,
Issue : Security, Politics,
Asia is a key continent where bilateral and multilateral relations are largely created, which determine the constellation of forces in Asia and the world. Asia is the continent of the present and the future, it’s not only home to the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, but also an area of great potential in every respect. It is precisely on the Asian continent that humanity has recently made great strides in the field of education, science and technology. Great strides and changes are also taking place in the field of international relations. One of them is the special relations between communist China and Muslim Pakistan.
Historical context
The People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan established diplomatic relations in 1951. Pakistan was the first Muslim country to recognize the new communist China in early 1950, a year after the communists won the Chinese Civil War. While initially ambivalent about the idea of a communist state on their borders, Pakistani policymakers hoped that China would serve as a counterweight to India’s Hindu influence. Accordingly, Islamabad was among the first to recognize the People’s Republic of China as China’s representative in the United Nations and cut off relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan). In 1956, Pakistani Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sign the Treaty of Friendship, marking closer bilateral ties. In the beginning, the famous Chinese diplomat Zhou Enlai was the architect of the partnership between the two countries.
Sino-Pakistani relations became more serious after the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. With little hope of resolving the border disputes, India became a strategic threat to both countries. In 1963, Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley to China, an area claimed by India. China then supplied Pakistan with weapons, material to build a nuclear program and large amounts of economic aid. The Karakoram Highway, also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, was built by the governments of Pakistan and China. It was started in 1962, and was completed and opened to the public in 1978. It is 1,300 km long and connects China’s Xinjiang region and Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region. The first veto in the UN Security Council ever used by China occurred in 1972 and was in favor of Pakistan. The Chinese used a veto when considering the admission of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), and it was conditional on the safe return of Pakistani prisoners of war from India. On May 27, 1976, 105 days before his death, despite a serious illness, Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, at the age of 83, received his last foreign guest, Pakistani President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
An untrustworthy partnership
However, Beijing has not wholeheartedly embraced the relationship with Islamabad for a number of reasons. First and foremost, China then did not see India as an equal rival or a dominant strategic threat. That role was reserved for the United States. That is why in the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971, China did not intervene militarily in favor of Pakistan. Although Beijing at least publicly supported Pakistan in 1965, it did not do so in 1971, despite Pakistan playing an important role in China’s historic opening to the US.
Second, China became deeply concerned about Pakistan’s reputation in the international community, which began to perceive it as a dangerous nuclear power due to its protection and support of Islamist terrorists. The Chinese province of Xinjiang is home to the ethnic Uyghur Muslim community. China has long been concerned about Islamist radicalism among the Uyghurs, and their alleged ties to militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan have exacerbated those concerns as well as relations with Pakistan. That is why China distanced itself from Pakistan during the 1999 Kargil War and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
Two factors that connected Islamabad and Beijing
In 2005, the Agreement on friendship, cooperation and good neighborly relations was signed. The treaty defined Sino-Pakistani relations as a “bilateral strategic partnership of good-neighborly friendship”. Around the mid-2000s, two factors became important. The first factor was the shift in US-India relations. Although the Americans already talked about India as a counterweight to China during the Cold War, their military and economic partnership with India progressed more seriously after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1991 and was a factor that deeply worried the Chinese political elite. Sino-Indian border incidents in the Galwan Valley in 2020-2021. they further worried Beijing considering the deepening ties between New Delhi and Washington, while China’s relations with Washington were getting worse. The Chinese do not want to make concessions to the Indians in terms of border disputes and see an alliance with the Pakistanis, who are suffering from the same problem, as a solution.
Another factor is China’s ambitions to restructure the international order. In 2013, President Xi launched China’s New Silk Road, a massive multilateral infrastructure and investment project aimed at making China a dominant economic and political power. One of the backbones of the New Silk Road is certainly the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). More precisely, the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif established in April 2015 CPEC – China’s mega-project of investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure. He was defined by Sharif as a project that changes the geopolitical game in the region. Although China has previously given Pakistan infrastructural aid and economic support, CPEC is different. It consists of a three thousand kilometer long Chinese network of infrastructure projects. It contains numerous initiatives: the development of infrastructure and energy networks, numerous economic zones and the development of the strategic port of Gwadar. All the projects within the CPEC are estimated to be worth a staggering $65 billion. The project primarily seeks to connect southwest China and Pakistan. Essentially, the success of the New Silk Road largely depends on the success of CPEC as CPEC has become the hallmark of Chinese power in South and West Asia. These two factors mean that Pakistan has become an important partner for China.
“Higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey”
For many years, the leaders of China and Pakistan have praised their relationship as “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey.” In June 2022, a survey was conducted in Pakistan on how 1,200 citizens view China. Respondents were selected from all regions and included all age groups and genders. The same questions about China have been asked in many other countries and rarely have the answers been so positive. The first survey question asked respondents what comes to mind first when they think of China. The most common answers were “friend”, “best friend”, “good friend” and even “trusted friend”. The Chinese were perceived as a friendly and hardworking people. The respondents labeled China as a strong and developed country, and many gave it the epithet of a superpower. The connection between the two countries is described as “fraternal”.
The second question aimed to find out whether the attitude of Pakistanis towards China has improved or worsened over the past three years and why. The vast majority of respondents (85%) gave a positive answer. Only 9% of respondents stated that their perception of China had worsened, while 6% expressed a neutral attitude. Those who stated that they see China in a worse light than before cited reasons such as Covid-19, looking only at China’s own interests and the attitude towards the Muslim Uyghur community. Respondents whose perception of China improved mainly focused on China’s economic support to Pakistan, investment and medical support during the pandemic. Pakistanis have a positive view of China (far more so than other nations), due to China’s long-standing economic support for Pakistan and Pakistan’s isolated position in South Asia where Islamabad is bereft of reliable allies.
In particular, the positive attitude correlates with Chinese investments flowing into the country under the guise of CPEC. Although the investment program progressed more slowly than expected, notable successes were recorded. The Chinese are building the transport and energy infrastructure that Pakistan desperately needs to develop faster. The new power plants provided additional amounts of energy to Pakistan’s electricity grid. Roads and railways are being built. The ML-1 high-speed railway connecting Karachi with the northern city of Peshawar is the most significant project being built by Chinese companies. It is estimated that ML-1 employs around 24,000 workers. However, more money and efforts are needed, especially in terms of energy, as Pakistan is still prone to power shortages.
Sharif in Beijing – Pakistan’s support for Xi
In early November 2022, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif paid an official two-day visit to the People’s Republic of China. Sharif is the first statesman to arrive in Beijing since Xi Jinping assumed a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the end of October. During the visit, Sharif met with Premier Li Keqiang and other senior Chinese officials. The two countries signed a number of interstate agreements on cooperation in culture, economy, trade, investment, digital economy, security. During the meeting, Xi emphasized the importance of Pakistan in China’s diplomacy in the neighborhood and said that the two countries are “good friends, good partners and good brothers”. He added that the two countries “supported each other and made progress, demonstrating firm friendship” and that China is ready to “raise the level of comprehensive strategic cooperation and give new impetus to their all-time strategic cooperative partnership.”
CPEC was an important topic in the talks between the two leaders. Xi stated that Beijing and Islamabad will further accelerate the development of CPEC and make it an example of high-quality cooperation. The Chinese leader stressed the importance of accelerating the construction of supporting infrastructure for the Gwadar port in Balochistan in order to achieve greater development in the region. He also stressed that his government would push for the upgrading of a number of development projects including ML-1 (Karachi-Peshawar High Speed Rail Project worth $9.8 billion) and the Karachi Circular Rail Project. Sharif underlined the importance of deepening Pakistan’s strategic partnership with China.
Sharif believes that special relations with Beijing form the main backbone of Pakistan’s foreign policy, around which there is a national consensus. He expressed full confidence in the People’s Republic of China and Xi’s “extraordinary vision” to “lead China to even more outstanding achievements and create an even brighter future for the world.” He thanked China for all the help during the coronavirus pandemic as well as for the support during the terrible floods. He expressed confidence in Xi’s initiatives: the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative, stressing that the Pakistan-China strategic partnership is “unbreakable”. The most pleasing to Chinese ears were Sharif’s statements of support for the “one China” policy and his agreement with China’s position regarding crisis hotspots such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and the South China Sea.
Cooperation with some conditions
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China wants to work on infrastructure and other projects with Pakistan, but at the same time demands the signing of an agreement that will protect Chinese personnel and institutions in that country. The security of Chinese citizens working on CPEC projects has been compromised for some time and is causing concern in Beijing. The two sides agreed that Pakistani institutions should be strengthened to prevent attacks on Chinese nationals on the ground working on project implementation. These attacks speak more about how Pakistan’s constitutional and legal order is weak on the ground than they symbolize the hatred of the population towards the Chinese. The joint statement highlighted strong strategic defense and security cooperation as “an important factor for peace and stability in the region” and promised to continue and increase their cooperation in areas such as military training, joint military exercises and military technology. Both sides reiterated their condemnation of all forms of terrorism and criticized the politicization of the issue.
Financial conflicts
In a political sense, Sharif’s visit is a success and once again showed that the relationship between Beijing and Islamabad is at the level of a special partnership. However, good political relations can be a mask for financial conflicts between two friendly countries. The point is that Pakistanis have to pay off huge debts to China, which is not at all easy for them considering the difficult economic situation at home. According to Pakistani media, Sharif asked the Chinese to delay repayment of their $6.3 billion debt due between the end of 2022 and June 2023. Of this debt, Chinese commercial loans amount to $3.3 billion, and the remaining $4 billion dollars are government loans. Additionally, Pakistan has more than $900 million in Chinese debt that will be ready to be repaid in the current fiscal year. Meanwhile, Pakistan sought a new Chinese loan to repay the debt due in 2023. Pakistan’s Finance Minister Ishaq Dar told the media that during Sharif’s visit to China, the Chinese leadership promised to defer payment of US$4 billion in government loans, refinance US$3.3 billion USD loans from commercial banks.
Alliance strengths and weaknesses
At a strategic political and economic level, Pakistan is extremely important to China. Xi personally stated that China approaches Pakistan “from a strategic and long-term perspective”, which means that Pakistan’s current political and economic difficulties are unlikely to have a negative impact on the further development of relations. As far as Pakistan is concerned, even though it may establish better relations with other powerful countries such as the US, the special relationship with China will remain. Why? Because rivalry and fear of India is something that will always be an important determinant of decision makers in Islamabad. Unfortunately, Pakistan and India are

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