In response, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar tweeted that “some history lessons are in order” and cited instances from the Pakistan-China friendship over the decades. “So, ask yourself: were China and Pakistan distant then.”
Pakistan and Chinese leaders describe their ties using metaphors such as “higher than the mountains” and “deeper than the oceans”. So, what’s the history of the relationship?
The initial years
Pakistan had recognised the People’s Republic of China— after India — in the initial years after 1947, and established diplomatic ties in 1951. But, due to Pakistan’s membership of two United States-led anti-communist military pacts, SEATO and CENTO, it was seen as part of the non-Soviet bloc — and China, under Mao Zedong, was on the other side of the aisle.
On the other hand, India had a working relationship with China — emblazoned with slogans like Hindi-Chini bhai bhai. The two had the same anti-colonial, non-aligned approach.
However, there was a complex layer to this bonhomie.
In Buddha’s Warriors: The Story of the CIA-backed Tibetan Freedom Fighters, the Chinese Invasion, and the Ultimate Fall of Tibet, author and historian Mikel Dunham wrote that after Chinese troops invaded in 1950, Pakistan provided transit facilities for US aircraft to supply equipment to the Tibetan rebels.
The 1962 war
The India-China war of 1962 led to Beijing developing closer ties with Islamabad. Pakistan got support from China diplomatically in the 1965 India-Pakistan war. In fact, analysts say that Pakistan was emboldened into aggression after India’s defeat against China in 1962.
The then US Ambassador in New Delhi, John Kenneth Galbraith, wrote in Ambassador’s Journal that he was worried about Pakistan “forming some kind of Axis with Peking”.
In a boundary agreement in 1963, Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley to China. The Shaksgam Valley or the Trans Karakoram Tract is part of Hunza-Gilgit region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and is a territory claimed by India but controlled by Pakistan.
Article 6 of the agreement stated that “the two Parties have agreed that after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the Government of the People’s Republic of China, on the boundary as described in Article Two of the present Agreement, so as to sign a formal Boundary Treaty to replace the present agreement”.
The agreement laid the foundation of Karakoram highway, built jointly by China and Pakistan in the 1970s.
The real diplomatic bonhomie began in the 1970s, when Pakistan ruler Gen Yahya Khan facilitated the outreach between the US led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and China’s Mao and Zhou Enlai. This paved the way for Kissinger’s secret trip in July 1971 and the beginning of the US-China effort to discuss issues that had divided them.
The relationship between China and Pakistan developed over the 1970s and ’80s. Nuclear cooperation was one of the key pillars, especially after India tested its nuclear device in 1974.
China has played a significant role in helping Pakistan develop its nuclear energy technology. In September 1986, they signed an agreement to facilitate the transfer of civil nuclear technology.
In 1991, China agreed to supply Pakistan with its indigenously developed Qinshan-1 nuclear power plant. Construction on Chashma Nuclear Power Plant-1 began in 1993, and the 300 MWe reactor became operational in May 2000. A second 300 MWe power plant at Chashma, C-2, went critical in 2011.
After India tested its nuclear device in 1998, Pakistan followed suit —largely due to help from Beijing.
BBC journalist Gordon Corera wrote in Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity and the Rise of the A.Q. Khan Network’: “If you subtract China’s help, there wouldn’t be a Pakistani nuclear programme”.
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The 1988 rapprochement between India and China with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit became a watershed moment. There was a clear shift for Beijing, where it saw ties with India from an economic lens and focused on trade, while separately talking to India on the border dispute. This was much to the discomfiture of Islamabad.
For Islamabad, the biggest jolt came in 1996 when “the Chinese president Jiang Zemin [then visiting Pakistan] failed to mention Kashmir explicitly… It undercut Pakistan’s position that Kashmir should be resolved through international mediation, not bilateral negotiations,” analyst Andrew Small wrote in The China-Pakistan Axis.
During the Kargil conflict of 1999, Beijing counselled Islamabad that they should withdraw troops, and “should exercise self-control and solve conflicts through peaceful means”. And in July that year, the Chinese foreign ministry asked India and Pakistan to “respect the line of control in Kashmir and resume negotiations at an early date in accordance with the spirit of the Lahore declaration”. This was perceived as a snub to Islamabad.
Beijing adopted a similar cautious approach after the Parliament attack in 2002, the Op Parakram buildup, as well as the Mumbai terror attack in 2008. This was also visible in the way China responded when the Balakot air strikes took place after the Pulwama attack in February 2019. In fact, China signed off at the UNSC statement, while blocking Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar’s designation as a global terrorist in March 2019.
The US nuclear deal
The China-Pakistan tango continued with the turn of the century, as Beijing saw India moving closer to the US. The US-India nuclear deal left Pakistan worried, and the Beijing-Islamabad nexus tried to block the exemption at the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Since 2013, as Xi Jinping’s China sought to flex its muscle with border stand-offs in Depsang, Chumar, Doklam and eastern Ladakh, India has been wary of the axis with Islamabad.
India’s August 2019 move to abrogate Art 370 and revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir has spilled over to the diplomatic front — making Beijing and Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) angry and bringing them even closer.
China’s stand on Kashmir is reflected much earlier. A Chinese diplomatic note to India from 1965, reproduced in J N Dixit’s book, “India-Pakistan in War and Peace,” said, “So long as the Indian government oppresses the Kashmiri people, China will not cease to support the Kashmiri people in their struggle for self-determination. So long as the Government of India persists in its unbridled aggression towards Pakistan, China will not cease supporting Pakistan in her just struggle against aggression.”
It was not a surprise for New Delhi that China tried to bring the situation in Kashmir several times and discuss it, in the post August 5 ‘2019 period.
Pakistan’s economic dependence on Beijing too has increased in recent years. The fact that it has been on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force for terrorist financing, despite Beijing presiding as the chair for a year, displayed China’s limitations in helping its all-weather friend.
China had blocked the listing of Masood Azhar several times before yielding to US and European pressure in May 2019 when it lifted the block. It is also worried about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) getting emboldened and support from Pakistan-based terror groups and creating trouble in Xinjiang province where Uighurs have been marginalised.
Islamabad, which speaks for the rights of Muslims across the world including India, has kept a studied silence on the treatment of Uyghur minorities. Imran Khan has said his country believes in China’s version.
From Pakistan’s perspective, with the US out of the region and Washington losing interest in Afghanistan, Beijing is the best bet for its failing economy, which is dependent on external debt bailouts. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has manifested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It has led to some investments, but there are voices within Pakistan who have started questioning whether the project will provide jobs for people of Pakistan.
From China’s perspective, it offers access to the western Indian Ocean through the Gwadar port in Balochistan.
Small, who is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote in a September 2020 report: “… The Sino-Pakistani relationship of the future is likely to look more like that of the past than the version that emerged after the launch of CPEC in 2015. Deep security ties will persist, and even intensify as the Sino-Indian relationship deteriorates, but without the scale of broad-based economic and political engagement that characterized the last few years.”
Closer defence ties
In 2020, China signed a defence pact with Pakistan. Gen Wei Fenghe, China’s defence minister, visited Islamabad and signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance defence cooperation between the Pakistan Army and the People’s Liberation Army.
The Pakistan Army recently inducted its first batch of Chinese-made VT-4 battle tanks. Pakistan has procured Chinese-made combat drones or unmanned combat aerial vehicles.
The Chinese defence ministry quoted Wei as expressing a desire to “push the mil-to-mil relationship to a higher level, so as to jointly cope with various risks and challenges, firmly safeguard the sovereignty and security interests of the two countries, and safeguard the regional peace and stability.”
Pakistan endorses China’s position on its core issues including the South China Sea, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet.
The growing number of China-Pakistan military exercises are a further sign of the deepening military partnership. The two militaries recently conducted a joint exercise close to the Line of Actual Control in Tibet.
The Afghanistan angle
After Kabul fell to the Taliban last year, China has now sensed an opportunity to get into Afghanistan for influence and resources with help from Pakistan. There have been several meetings between Chinese leaders including foreign minister Wang Yi and Taliban leaders.
China hopes Islamabad will be able to convince the Taliban that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for ETIM attacks, and Beijing would be transitioning towards normalising the Taliban by giving them financial aid.
With Beijing’s rise as a global power, India views its partnership with Pakistan as a greater concern than before. For New Delhi, the Indo-Pacific strategy involving the US, Australia, Japan and European partners is a key bulwark against the axis.