Pakistan’s relationship with China is constantly hailed as an ‘all-weather friendship’, but what actually lies behind the diplomatic façade?
There is no doubt that the two countries enjoy remarkably positive relations for such different neighbours, and China is an immensely important partner for Pakistan. However, it appears the depth of those ties are sometimes overstated within Pakistan. This has led to reports that China has committed to directly defending Pakistan’s territorial integrity and that it supports Pakistan’s claims over Kashmir. The problem is, they aren’t true.
To understand why, it is necessary to grasp the two fundamental goals of China’s South Asian policy. Firstly, it wants Pakistan to balance against India. Secondly, it wants to improve relations with all countries. China is playing a balancing game. Pakistan and India have different interests, and China is trying to satisfy both while pursuing its own interests. This does not involve openly siding with Pakistan against India.
China will of course continue to support Pakistan’s ability to defend its own territory through diplomatic, economic and military assistance. China wants a stable and secure Pakistan to prevent India dominating South Asia, wary of India’s deepening ties with the US and potential containment strategies. However, it seems many commentators conflate China being pro-Pakistan with it being anti-India. This is not the case. While India and China have had their difficulties in the past and still have issues to overcome, relations are improving through careful management.
China doesn’t want India to be a regional hegemon, but it still wants a healthy and prosperous India which is well-disposed towards China. China’s vision for future prosperity depends on economic growth and it will only seek to improve ties with India, with whom it conducted $84 billion worth of trade last year. Given the immense political and economic costs involved, it is unlikely that China would even entertain the possibility of going to war with its nuclear-armed neighbour, much less firmly commit to doing so, should Pakistan be threatened. Indeed, during recent crises averting war has been more important to China than defending Pakistan’s interests.
As for Kashmir, China wants no part in it. Despite reports to the contrary, China has repeatedly stated it is a bilateral issue to be resolved by negotiation. This has been made abundantly clear since the 1999 Kargil conflict, when China refused to take the issue to the United Nations despite drawing international attention being a core component of Pakistan’s strategy.China has even abandoned references to plebiscites and the will of the Kashmiri people, and discourages militant activities in concessions to India aimed at better relations.
As things stand, China is opposed to any attempts to unilaterally change the status quo. Supporting Pakistan in such endeavours would come with substantial political costs. It would raise Indian suspicions about China’s intentions and likely cause it to more stridently oppose China’s interests elsewhere in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Maldives which are all important to China’s economic development, and push India closer to the US.
So why is China’s commitment to Pakistan’s interests frequently exaggerated? With US relations hitting all-time lows, leaders may seek a crutch to demonstrate their foreign policy credentials. Poor relations with India and Afghanistan fuel a sense of insecurity which can be alleviated by portraying China as a comprehensive ally, and claiming to have engineered such an alliance boosts popularity. The media may also be responsible — some reports make unsubstantiated claims which contradict official Chinese policy.
This mismatch between perception and reality is reminiscent of an earlier period in Pakistan-US relations. During the 1950s and 60s, the two countries were bound by military agreements and treaties. However, both had different goals for the partnership. The US needed Pakistan to help build stability in the Middle East but had no wish to oppose India. On the other hand, Pakistan wanted assistance to improve the balance of power with India and had little interest in US goals for the Middle East. Pakistan’s leaders deceived the population about the true nature of the partnership for the sake of domestic popularity. Such mismatched expectations were never going to produce a successful relationship, and the 1965 war exposed cracks from which it would not recover.
Fortunately for Pakistan and China, geography means the two share more mutual interests and have managed to build a sustainable relationship. Pakistan’s survival and prosperity is important to China and it will continue to provide valuable assistance for the foreseeable future. However, despite the rhetoric of “all-weather friendship” the fundamental principle that there are no friendships in international relations, just shared interests, must not be forgotten. To ensure relations remain productive, it is important for policy makers in Pakistan to be fully aware of the limitations in how far China will go to support Pakistan, and the public should manage their expectations accordingly.
Note: Article originally published in Daily Times on August 9, 2018.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.