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  • Friends in Need…
  • Andrew Scobell (bio)

China’s rise to prominence in Asia has been both dramatic and seemingly inexorable. The country has significantly expanded its economic and diplomatic involvement and considerably extended its military reach. However, despite growing hard power and greater global presence, Beijing feels vulnerable and has very few reliable partners. Within this context China’s close and enduring friendship with Pakistan stands out. Indeed, as Andrew Small astutely observes in the opening sentence of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Beijing’s ties with Islamabad have “run closer than most formal alliances” (p. 1). In this impressive book, Small outlines in considerable detail the main contours of this fascinating and secretive relationship.

While all states are dysfunctional to some degree, China and Pakistan appear to be defined by the extreme nature of their respective dysfunctionalities. In addition, judging from Small’s analysis, their relationship is itself highly dysfunctional. In psychology, codependency is defined as a pathological relationship where two parties are dependent on each other to an unhealthy degree. Each party has feelings of extreme insecurity and fears being alone. This condition appears to have defined the China-Pakistan relationship since the 1960s. Both Beijing and Islamabad suffer from high anxiety and believe they have a dearth of trustworthy friends in other capitals. Accordingly, each side views this partnership as essential to maintaining its own national security. Implicit in The China-Pakistan Axis is the idea that codependency is an apt diagnosis of the partnership’s dysfunctionality, or at least that significant elements of this condition apply. Whether the author concurs with this characterization, it does seem consistent with his reference to Chinese and Pakistani “pathologies” in their foreign relationships (p. 7).

China has enjoyed a warm relationship with Pakistan since the 1960s, with the leaders of both countries often referring to the bilateral relationship as an “all-weather friendship.” It considers Pakistan a pivotal state that will decisively influence the course of events in surrounding countries, notably Afghanistan. Moreover, Beijing also thinks of Islamabad as a longtime but deeply troubled ally on a geostrategic fault line between [End Page 164] South and Central Asia—a region where China has had few friends. Yet Beijing’s support has become more restrained than in the past as Pakistan has gradually declined in overall geopolitical significance. Although Pakistan is still an important partner and a major arms market for Chinese defense firms, its value as a conduit to the Islamic world or facilitator on the global stage has been greatly reduced. In the 21st century, China has robust relationships with every country in the Middle East and globally has full diplomatic ties with all but 22 microstates. In particular, India looms ever larger as a major economic partner for China. As a result, China’s interests in Pakistan are increasingly regional and aimed at restraining Islamabad. And yet despite these developments, Islamabad continues to be Beijing’s key capital in South Asia precisely because it is a counterweight to New Delhi.

Labeling the China-Pakistan relationship an “axis” is controversial. Yet Small’s meticulous research suggests the term is appropriate to characterize this rather unique partnership. At least in terms of cooperative relationships, China has maintained few enduring friendships. After all, the country has tended to not play well with others. Formal alliances, such as with the Soviet Union, ended badly, and China’s relationship with its sole remaining official treaty ally—North Korea—has been extremely tumultuous across the decades. Beijing’s ties to another erstwhile Communist comrade in arms—Vietnam—have also been characterized by considerable turmoil, leading to extended border unpleasantries and outright war in 1979. By contrast, Beijing’s ties with Islamabad have been remarkably steady, with high levels of security cooperation in the conventional and nuclear spheres. Pakistan would not likely have become a nuclear state without China’s assistance, and today its armed forces rely very heavily on conventional armaments supplied by China. The People’s Liberation Army (which includes all of China’s military services) has almost certainly conducted more field exercises in the post–Mao Zedong era with Pakistan’s armed forces than with those of any other...


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pp. 164-167
Launched on MUSE
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