- Author’s Response:Beyond India-Centricity—China and Pakistan Look West
The year since my book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics was published has been an unusually dramatic one in the Sino-Pakistani relationship. The launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Xi Jinping’s landmark visit to Pakistan, and China’s increasingly public role in the Afghan peace process all imply—as Daniel Markey notes in his essay—a partnership that has finally stepped out of the shadows. Yet despite its heightened profile, there is still much that remains opaque, from the details of the vast array of new infrastructure deals to the contours of Chinese policymakers’ thinking about strategy in the country’s western periphery. This comes through in the reviewers’ strikingly divergent assessments of the state of the relationship, its geopolitical context, and its likely trajectory. The disagreements are partly a reflection of the fact that we are each putting our limited pieces of the puzzle together in ways that imply quite different overall pictures.
Nonetheless, I would posit that a few clear trends are emerging, all of which have accelerated over the last year. First, there has been a consolidation of the shift traced over the course of the book from a relationship that was essentially India-centric to one in which Pakistan now plays a weightier role in China’s pursuit of a series of westward-facing policy goals. Second, after a decade in which Pakistan was in danger of being left behind, the country is finally proving to be a beneficiary of the new, China-driven geopolitical and geoeconomic context in which it finds itself. Third, this dynamic now encompasses opportunities and pressures that are likely to see the [End Page 167] relationship both deepen and normalize, moving from a mythically elevated status—“higher than the highest mountain”—to somewhere closer to earth.
This puts me in a somewhat more optimistic position than the reviewers, who place greater emphasis on the emerging tensions in the relationship and the risks inherent in this new phase of Chinese engagement with the wider region. Those lines of analysis are also laid out in the book itself, which provides ample grounds for skepticism about the two sides’ economic projects and discusses many of the private disputes and frustrations that the Chinese side, in particular, has expressed. But I would contend that events in the last eighteen months have tended to reinforce the case set out in the epilogue: a convergence of different factors that include Xi’s assumption of power, the election of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) government, shifts in the structure of the Chinese economy, and the drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has put the relationship on a very different course from the one we saw during the era of Hu Jintao, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and Asif Ali Zardari. Although components of CPEC and other associated new initiatives may well fail, there are good grounds for thinking that they will at least fail better.
The central question to address is related to the book’s subtitle: what is the geopolitical context in which the relationship is now playing out? This is the issue on which the reviewers are perhaps most at odds. If the partnership is considered over a period of several decades, Andrew Scobell is clearly right to state that for China Pakistan has “declined in overall geopolitical significance” in contrast with the days when it was a “conduit to the Islamic world” and a “facilitator on the global stage.” As China has developed diplomatic ties with all but a small subset of states around the world, Islamabad’s brokering role has evidently faded. Equally, the normalization of China’s relationship with India and the subsequent expansion in economic relations between the two Asian giants have long threatened to place Pakistan in an even more modest role—a legacy friendship rather than one with real utility. John Garver goes much further, suggesting that as a result of fears that India will align with Japan, the United States, and Australia, Beijing has since 2013 adopted a “new management” of Pakistan, placing it on...