- The Strange Tale of Sino-Pakistani Friendship
Andrew Small’s The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics delivers a comprehensive assessment of one of the world’s most consequential, peculiar, and poorly understood bilateral relationships. [End Page 151] Small weaves together his own interviews and travel observations with extensive use of other histories and narratives that touch on various aspects of China-Pakistan relations but, as he rightly observes, have thus far failed to deliver a full and up-to-date version of the story.
Small’s book took a half-dozen years to write, but its timing is nearly ideal. He concludes his history by observing that “the China-Pakistan axis is almost ready to step out of the shadows” (p. 181). It is now quite safe to remove the caveated “almost” from his phrase. China’s new One Belt, One Road initiative—the grand scheme to extend and improve interconnectivity throughout China’s western periphery through massive state-led investments—is finding its most important test case in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, where, according to Pakistan’s probably inflated accounts, China has pledged $46 billion in new investments over the coming years.
The China-Pakistan Axis is truly one of a handful of books that must be read by professionals seeking to understand Pakistan’s past or hoping to catch a glimpse into its future. And as China’s own fate becomes more intertwined with South, Central, and West Asia, the book will be an increasingly vital resource for serious China hands as well. As Small correctly notes, the study of relations between China and Pakistan is “something of an intellectual orphan, falling between a variety of regions and disciplines” and is complicated by the reality that it “encompasses some of the most sensitive areas of the two sides’ national security policies” (p. 5). To put it bluntly, most China scholars have not bothered to give much thought to Pakistan, while most South Asianists are ill-equipped to contemplate Beijing’s strategies, motives, or capabilities. Those who are interested must crack into the realm of tight-lipped security services, an especially tough task on the Chinese side.
Small ably bounces between strategic perspectives, having spent sufficient time in Beijing, Islamabad, and Washington to build networks of reliable expert sources. He avoids ideology and dogmatism, rendering different perspectives in a dispassionate effort to understand them rather than to mount moralizing critiques. He does, however, pause to debunk myths, such as the claim that 11,000 Chinese troops were deployed to Pakistan’s north (p. 6), and punctures grand illusions like the notion that either Gwadar port or the Karakoram Highway has ever demonstrated any serious prospect of commercial success (p. 101, 106). Small also offers a steady flow of insider tidbits that demonstrate his grasp of the wider political processes at work, such as how Sino-Pakistani defense ties “ensure buy-in [End Page 152] from some of China’s highest ranking party and military families” (p. 108), and wades into controversial and sensitive topics, including China’s troubled policies in Xinjiang (p. 72).
The book’s historical account of Sino-Pakistani ties is useful as a stage-setter for present circumstance, mainly because Small reminds the reader of the many twists and reversals in the region’s geopolitics. The very closeness between Beijing and Islamabad has its roots in the 1959 Lhasa uprising that hastened the death of good relations between India and China (p. 21). With the spirit of “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers) buried, China and Pakistan teamed up to support a range of insurgencies within India, such as the Nagas and Mizo (p. 77). Later, Small recounts how Pakistan was the handmaiden for some of the most sensitive military and intelligence cooperation between China and the United States during the Cold War (p. 36) as well as the more widely recognized cooperation to fund the Afghan mujahideen (p. 123).
Small also delves into China’s many—often dimly perceived—links with the Afghan Taliban before and after September 11. He describes, for instance, how China’s ambassador to Pakistan was the first senior representative of a...