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  • Sino-Pakistani Relations:Axis or Entente Cordiale?
  • Feroz Hassan Khan (bio)

Andrew Small’s book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics traces the perplexing relationship between Beijing and Islamabad. Small’s geopolitical assessment is familiar, but his dubbing of relations between two important Asian states as an “axis” is somewhat mystifying. The notion of axis in international politics harkens back to World War II [End Page 155] between the Allies and Axis powers. More recently, President George W. Bush famously described three countries—Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—as an “axis of evil.” Given the negative historical connotation of the term, the book’s title suggests a sinister intent behind Sino-Pakistani relations; in fact, the partnership is no more than a classic manifestation of neorealism in international relations. Small’s crisp and descriptive work follows the research of John Garver, whose seminal book Protracted Conflict: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century accurately describes the Sino-Pakistani relationship as an “entente cordiale.”1

China’s friendship with Pakistan was not preordained at the time of India’s and Pakistan’s independence. India-China relations initially blossomed before the India-Pakistan regional rivalry and Cold War dynamics resulted in the current South Asian geopolitical alignment. Small describes the “all-weather friendship” between Beijing and Islamabad as if it were simply “forged by war” (with India) and later cemented through “nuclear fusion” (see chapters 1 and 2). However, the dependability of the partnership during times of isolation and need, more so than shared animosity toward India, is what deepened the relationship. As it became disillusioned by Western policies, Islamabad saw the fracturing of “brotherly relations” between China and India as an opportunity to mend its relationship with Beijing. The Sino-Indian crisis came after China had suffered humiliation at the hands of the United States in the Taiwan Strait in the mid-1950s and had been abandoned by the Soviet Union. By the mid-1960s, China could only depend on Pakistan during its worst moments of isolation. Pakistan’s China policy, spearheaded by the ambitious young leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, capitalized on the strategic opportunity presented by India’s faltering forward policy and the Sino-Indian border war in 1962. As a result, Beijing received vital access in Xinjiang through the Karakoram Highway, and Islamabad found a trustworthy ally.

China’s geopolitical fortunes changed with the great strategic somersault of the Cold War. Islamabad was the conduit to the Sino-U.S. détente in a time of acute tension between China and the Soviet Union and China’s internal crisis (the Lin Biao incident).2 China could not support Pakistan in the 1971 war with India because it was concerned that the South Asian crisis could escalate into a broader conflict given the [End Page 156] Soviet Union’s support of India (especially after Washington fed Beijing details of Brezhnev’s intentions to strike China with nuclear weapons at the height of the Sino-Soviet border crisis in 1969).3 More poignantly, Small observes that despite President Richard Nixon’s directive to “tilt” toward Pakistan, Washington still neglected to prevent the dismemberment of its formal ally (p. 11). Beijing took notice and used this opportunity to set the tone of its relations with Islamabad.

India’s 1974 nuclear test again dramatically changed South Asia’s geopolitical landscape. Pakistan, reeling from conventional defeat and India’s primacy, feared nuclear coercion. Facing a Western arms embargo and emerging barriers in the nascent nonproliferation regime, the once-proud Muslim nation-state was struggling to survive in a system seemingly stacked against it. Beijing empathized with Islamabad’s strategic anxieties, recalling its own “never again” moment two decades earlier, when the sudden cutoff of scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union forced China onto the path of self-reliance.4 Small adroitly explains the “nuclear fusion,” though the term is somewhat exaggerated. He draws substantially from my book Eating Grass but also provides insights from sources that were beyond my reach during my research.5 However, as I maintain, and as Small notes, China only supplemented Pakistan’s scientific prowess in nuclear weapons development. Pakistani scientists were determined to develop a nuclear capability...


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pp. 155-159
Launched on MUSE
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