- Where Is the China-Pakistan Relationship Heading—Strategic Partnership or Conditional Engagement?
Andrew Small’s book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics provides a fascinating account of the Sino-Pakistani “all-weather friendship,” covering various facets of this relationship. This is a substantial contribution to the existing debate on the subject. Small very eloquently explains both countries’ perceptions and understandings of each other and reveals the complexities and conditionality of the bilateral relationship. An additional strength of the book lies in the author’s use of primary sources to substantiate his various arguments. Yet while the book covers various aspects of China-Pakistan relations, in my view this relationship can at best be characterized as strategic and instrumental in nature.
The China-Pakistan partnership is one of the long-standing relationships in the region, one that continues to grow stronger in an era that is witnessing significant changes at the regional and international levels. However, Beijing’s approach and strategy to engagement with Islamabad has changed over the years as China’s economic and military influence continues to grow. Recently, ties have been further deepened by China’s huge financial commitment to infrastructure development projects in Pakistan as part of the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is connected to Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative. China views Pakistan as an important neighbor with a geostrategic location, having land-route access to the Persian Gulf and occupying an important position in the Islamic world. Pakistan’s key role in facilitating normalization of relations has also been acknowledged by the Chinese leadership. Former Chinese president Hu Jintao’s statement that “China can give up gold but not its friendship with Pakistan”1 and President Xi Jinping’s statement that “China and Pakistan are good neighbors, good friends, partners and brothers” and that “the friendship between the two countries is deeply rooted and [End Page 160] unbreakable”2 are indicative of China’s long-term commitment to Pakistan. This aspect of the relationship is well captured in The China-Pakistan Axis.
The first chapter of the book looks at India as a key factor in the formation of the China-Pakistan friendship during the early years. Here, Small provides a comprehensive account of how the relationship developed between the two countries over three crucial wars (the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, and the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War). The book rightly argues that
China and Pakistan have never been treaty allies and their armies come from such radically different traditions that the two sides have often talked past each other on matters of strategy. But after Pakistan’s devastating defeat (in 1971), China helped the country to develop a set of military capabilities to ensure that it would never face the same fate again.(p. 3)
To enhance Pakistan’s military capabilities, China fully backed and supported Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions through close cooperation, making Pakistan the only nuclear weapons country in the Islamic world. The central motive was to neutralize India’s nuclear weapons.
The second chapter presents a fascinating narrative account of this nuclear cooperation. Small depicts China’s role in helping Pakistan obtain nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles by supplying not only technology but also the necessary expertise and materials, including highly enriched uranium. Small correctly notes that “if the military relationship lies at the heart of China-Pakistan ties, nuclear weapons lie at the heart of the military relationship” (p. 29). But the most interesting dimension explained in the book is what this relationship actually has meant both for the Pakistani military and for its Chinese counterpart. When Pakistani foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto traveled to China in 1965 to tell leaders there that India had built a plutonium plant and ask them to help Pakistan build a similar one, China suggested that Pakistan get assistance from Canada. The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant subsequently became operational in 1973, one year before India’s nuclear test. When Pakistan’s clandestine program was discovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Bhutto instead turned to A.Q. Khan for help with enrichment, using the latest European design from Urenco...