As the world finds itself at the cusp of a new Cold War, China’s interest in South Asia and Pakistan-China relations is a subject of greater scrutiny. South Asia is of immense strategic significance for China in the context of its “neighbourhood diplomacy”. China has had historical linkages through religion, culture and trade with South Asia. Being home to nearly 25% of the world’s population, a civilisational melting pot, a regional tri-junction, resource-rich and dynamic yet poor, and last but not the least, nuclearized and turmoil-ridden, South Asia presents numerous challenges as well as opportunities for China. Its stability is inextricably linked to China’s own stability. Since the region is least integrated economically, China offers herself to be a partner in South Asia’s regional outreach and development. Moreover, in the evolving geo-political dynamics, South Asia is fast emerging as a sub-region of the larger Indo-Pacific theatre where the US-China rivalry is in full play.
South Asia is of immense strategic significance for China in the context of its "neighbourhood diplomacy". A civilisational melting pot, a regional tri-junction, resource-rich and dynamic and nuclearized and turmoil-ridden, South Asia presents numerous challenges as well as opportunities for China. Its stability is inextricably linked to China's own stability.
An important postulate of China’s Foreign Policy is a “peaceful neighbourhood”. China believes that it cannot insulate itself from the fire in its neighbourhood. Turmoil in the region means annulling the economic gains of the last few decades made by China. While China is in no position to prevent turmoil in South Asia, it certainly can work to encourage interlocking cooperative arrangements with regional countries as stakeholders. BRI is premised on this rationale.
Pakistan was amongst the first countries to join BRI. Its principal offshoot, CPEC, has now entered into its second phase, with a much larger canvass of bilateral cooperation. China is opening up its western regions in close proximity to Pakistan, offering a unique opportunity to leverage its geographic location, through enhanced trade and investment benefitting both South Asia and the wider region. Through CPEC, Pakistan can optimise its potential to serve as a regional trade and energy hub and overcome its infrastructure and development deficit. Being equal stakeholders in CPEC, both Pakistan and China attach high importance to its successful implementation.
It is unfortunate that CPEC has become a victim of US-China rivalry and is being made deliberately controversial to drive a wedge in China-Pakistan relations. CPEC is essentially an economic partnership project with no sinister designs as borne out by the good intentions of its extension to Afghanistan, basically to help the war-ravaged country to stand on its own feet. While India’s hostility to CPEC is rooted in its deep animosity towards Pakistan, the US stance is not comprehensible especially as several countries wish to join the initiative. Pakistan has been approached by key Central Asian countries to allow them access to the ports in Pakistan for their overseas trade. Being landlocked, these countries see CPEC as a silver lining and a window to advance their economic and business interests. And they look to China as a logical partner with the capacity to deliver in this endeavour.
While Southwest Asia appears gearing up to explore new avenues of cooperation, South Asian peace and progress have remained a hostage to India’s ambition to be a policeman of the region. India’s disputes with its neighbours and its frenzied arms acquisitions are destabilizing the region. Riding on the crest of the US embrace as a net security provider, India has abandoned its pretence of being non-partisan or independent in its foreign policy choices. Its association with QUAD, Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), foundational and logistic agreements with the USA, security arrangements with littoral states of the Indian Ocean and its extra-regional power projection through active participation in anti-China military and naval exercises, should put to rest any notions about its much trumpeted” strategic ambiguity”.
Riding on the crest of the US embrace as a net security provider, India has abandoned its pretence of being non-partisan or independent in its foreign policy choices. Its association with QUAD, Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), foundational and logistic agreements with the USA.
In its quest to dominate the region, India has made SAARC dysfunctional, created a dangerous border standoff with China and muzzled Kashmiri’s voice by annexing the Jammu and Kashmir territory in complete disregard of its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions. The dialogue with Pakistan is stalled. By opposing CPEC, it is, in fact, depriving Afghanistan and other interested countries of its fruits.
Ironically, despite being important trade partners, China’s relations with India suffer from deep mistrust. While an uneasy calm prevails on the Pakistan-India border after a ceasefire agreement in 2021, the same could not be said about the India-China border. As recent events have shown, skirmishes between Indian and Chinese forces could lead to a major clash, especially in view of reported reinforcements on the border. Some analysts hold the view that BJP led government can also attempt a strike on Pakistan before it holds elections in 2024 to bolster its electoral support. While that would be a serious miscalculation on India’s part, the cascading effect of perpetual tensions in relations between India and China or India and Pakistan, on the security and stability of South Asia, should not be discounted. US decision to array India vis a vis China has severely undermined security equilibrium in the region. This conflict-prone syndrome has the potential for a wider regional conflagration.
Pakistan’s position is precarious. Pakistan cannot insulate itself from the impact of major power competition nor can it afford to stay away from positive momentum towards regional economic integration. Historically, Pakistan has maintained close relations with the US, notwithstanding highs and lows in the relationship. Its relations with China have throughout been steady and time-tested. Pakistan wishes to pursue the two relationships based on their respective strengths. The trajectory of each relationship is differently grounded on the principles of mutual benefit and bilateralism. Pakistan does not wish to be part of any bloc politics. However, it will have to navigate its diplomacy skilfully as it faces a triangular conflictual situation: US-China; China-India, and India- Pakistan.
Given the past history, Pakistan and China feel confident in their relationship. Imperatives of regional peace and security and congruence of interests drive Pakistan-China relations. In the changing international environment, this relationship is a bright spot and a constant in Pakistan’s Foreign Policy. The level of bilateral cooperation is deep and substantive. China has shown the understanding, capacity and will to help Pakistan. Despite domestic and global changes, the Pakistan-China friendship has displayed remarkable poise. The trust enshrining this relationship is manifest in their mutual support for each other’s core issues. There is no cause for conflict in this relationship, only potential for its future growth as both sides have a convergence of views on key issues. This mutual support is not driven only by geo-political considerations but also by their shared perspective on upholding the principles of the UN Charter and international law, multilateralism and justice in inter-state relations. Both oppose hegemony, unilateralism and a zero-sum approach. This relationship is not against any country. The core principles of mutual trust, mutual respect and non-interference define this relationship. It would not have sustained so long, were it based on expediency. Both Pakistan and China desire that all regional countries, big or small, should be equal stakeholders in South Asia’s peace and development.
China is helping Pakistan with its economic stability. Its assistance in the military sphere is not to unleash an arms race but to enable Pakistan to have a credible defence capability in a dangerously asymmetric security environment. China believes that a strong Pakistan is a guarantee of regional peace and stability and a bulwark against terrorism and extremism. CPEC is also aimed at facilitating Pakistan’s journey on the road of self-reliance through the injection of capital and technology. Being a large country, Pakistan’s significance in South Asian strategic calculus is duly recognised by China.
Since China has invested heavily in BRI and CPEC, it is rightly concerned over the spike in terrorist activities in Pakistan and attacks on its assets, orchestrated by BLA, TTP, ISIS and ETIM. It is also concerned with the fluidity of the situation in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban assumed power in Kabul, China has remained actively engaged with them and offered economic assistance. China has urged the Taliban to show flexibility on the question of girls’ education and respect for international norms. It has also emphasised the need for a broad-based inclusive dispensation in Afghanistan. For a substantial increase in its economic commitment, China has sought guarantees from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be used for terrorism against its neighbours. China has urged the USA to de-freeze Afghanistan’s monetary assets.
China's role in the reconstruction of the Afghan war-ravaged economy and Pakistan's role as a facilitator of logistic support. China's offer of investing in Afghanistan's mineral and energy sectors could be a transformational factor.
China’s role in the reconstruction of the Afghan war-ravaged economy and Pakistan’s role as a facilitator of logistic support through Gwadar and Karachi ports for its supply of machinery and equipment are complimentary. China’s offer of investing in Afghanistan’s mineral and energy sectors and in road and railway development could be a transformational factor in turning around its economy and connecting her in the region. China is aware that inimical forces are working to derail its sponsored projects in Afghanistan. The country’s descent into chaos is a nightmarish scenario for Afghanistan’s neighbours including China, which fears a spillover of terrorism and extremist tendencies in its Xinjiang region, which is a crucial node for BRI’s connectivity with Eurasia. China is, therefore, keen to evolve a regional consensus for stabilising Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and China agree that peace in Afghanistan is indispensable for BRI’s success. Strategic communication and enhanced coordination between Pakistan and China on the evolving situation is extremely important. There are indications of attempts being made to destabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan and China simultaneously by some foreign powers
As close strategic partners and neighbours, Pakistan and China face the prospects of growing instability and turbulence in their periphery. If the security situation becomes precarious, both countries need to ensure that their relationship remains a strong deterrent against forces seeking to undermine it. The fallout of a sharpened competition between China and the US in this region could be quite adverse. It is imperative that regional countries do not drag extra-regional powers into their disputes. While Pakistan and China seek an improvement in their relations with India, their policy is at variance with regional trends to foster connectivity and cooperation. It would not be wise to stop the wheel of progress. China’s rise is a reality. It would be more prudent to coexist with this reality than counter it. For most countries, China is a bigger trading partner than the US, so they would not like to choose sides. Even US allies would not like to choose between China and USA. As Fareed Zakaria cautioned in an article in Foreign Affairs, the China challenge is being exaggerated and the consequences of not getting it right could be huge for the United States. Whereas US in its bid to counter China is expanding its presence in the Asian Pacific Region by employing the strategy of US Forward Defence Ring policy.
Pakistan considers China to be a voice of reason and restraint in international affairs. It is the common choice of Pakistan and China to develop a partnership that serves the fundamental interests of the two countries and contributes constructively to the peace and stability of South Asia. US in its bid to counter China is expanding its presence in the Asian Pacific Region by employing the strategy of US Forward Defence Ring policy.
Pakistan considers China to be a voice of reason and restraint in international affairs. It is the common choice of Pakistan and China to develop a partnership that serves the fundamental interests of the two countries and contributes constructively to the peace and stability of South Asia. On its part, Pakistan needs to address Chinese concerns over the security of its assets and personnel in Pakistan, settle the outstanding payments to Chinese IPPs, facilitate the repatriation of profits of Chinese companies, eliminate red tapism blocking Chinese investments and fast-track the development of SEZs to attract Chinese businesses to invest. Given the fragility of our economic conditions, setting up of export-based joint ventures with China, development of agriculture development and demonstration zones, IT and Science Parks, participation in Chinese exhibitions and expos, business-to-business interaction and youth exchanges should be matters of priority. Chinese involvement is necessary in countering negativity about CPEC, which is no doubt a catalyst for our economic development but not a panacea for all our economic ills. But it is a rare window of opportunity which should not be missed.
Pakistan’s former ambassador to China.