In Review Books

Axis of friendship

Updated May 23, 2015 03:30pm

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Chinese President Xi Jinping at Nur Khan Air base in Islamabad, April 2015 | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
Chinese President Xi Jinping at Nur Khan Air base in Islamabad, April 2015 | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

China’s foreign policy attracts a lot more attention today than that of most other countries. As the world’s second-largest economy – set to the be the largest in about a decade – the country’s importance to the global community is underscored by a seemingly endless stream of focused monographs, academic articles and policy briefs, to say nothing of journalistic coverage addressing a gamut of issues: trade and investment, energy and security, regional cooperation and global governance.

With their ties celebrated as an “all-weather friendship” – and said to be higher than the mountains and deeper than the sea – one would expect an abundance of academic scholarship on China-Pakistan relations. These relations have received some focused coverage in single-author monographs including, but not limited to, The Pakistan-China Axis (1968) by Brij Lal Sharma, Syed Anwar Hussain’s China and Pakistan: A Diplomacy of Entente Cordiale (1974), Rasul Bux Rais’ China and Pakistan: A Political Analysis of Mutual Relations (1977) and Samina Yasmin’s Pakistan’s Relations with China (1980). An updated monograph on the subject, however, was overdue, especially given the revolutionary transformation in China since the 1970s when the majority of earlier monographs were written. Although a number of recent compilations of writings by different authors have addressed different aspects of China-Pakistan relations, even the most recent single-author publication, Ijaz Butt’s Focus on China’s Relations with Pakistan, came out a good eight years ago.

The recent publication of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, therefore, is an important development. The author, Andrew Small, who works for the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank in the United States, highlights the strategic and military convergence in China-Pakistan relations in the framework of South Asia’s geopolitics. He also addresses China’s relations with India, issues related to nuclear proliferation, regional trade and China’s internal security concerns in the wake of 9/11. With all these subjects, the book will appeal to a wide readership within Pakistan, as well as to a global policymaking establishment interested in Chinese-South Asian relations.

It helps that the book is highly readable: the writing is accessible throughout, the ideas are clear and at no point does it drag. General-interest readers will have little difficulty making their way through it. Small must also be commended for the generosity with which he has referenced the text: with up to 200 notes per chapter, readers cannot possibly fault the author for not revealing his sources and a hundred pages of endnotes, along with a useful bibliography of English-language sources, contribute to the relevance of the book. For many years to come, it will justifiably become the source of first resort for people trying to understand China-Pakistan relations.

The China-Pakistan Axis is, first and foremost, a work on geopolitics with its feet planted firmly in the present. Within its contemporary focus, the emphasis is more on security and strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan than on anything else. One reason for that, as the author acknowledges, is that cultural ties between the two countries have been nonexistent. This is a significant point but more on it later.

The recent publication of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, therefore, is an important development. The author, Andrew Small, who works for the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank in the United States, highlights the strategic and military convergence in China-Pakistan relations in the framework of South Asia’s geopolitics.

The book’s focus on the current geopolitical framework can be limiting though. The China-Pakistan Axis suffers from this predicament in part due to the nature of the sources of information it utilises. Working on the present limits archival research, as current government documents – which become declassified and available for research only after they have become old – remain inaccessible. The unavailability of an extensive archive in the form of official records means that the author ends up relying on either official declarations and informants reluctant to disclose their identity or the deluge of information on the Internet. Put differently, the actual workings of the state – or in this case, the workings of foreign policymaking institutions – remain obscure.

And Small seems to be aware of these limitations. Writing about the difficulty in ascertaining facts, he says: “The […] relationship encompasses some of the most sensitive areas of the two sides’ national security policies. Officials in China and Pakistan are naturally circumspect when discussing it. Exploring this relationship, quite clearly, is a daunting undertaking for any researcher.”

The book also displays a tendency to subsume other narratives within the framework of geopolitics. Consider: Although Beijing and Islamabad established diplomatic relations in March 1951, Small tells us little about the first decade of their ties. Given that both countries emerged as independent states at the same historical juncture, and drew legitimacy from the similar promise of centralised nationalist modernisation, a comparative analysis of the development of their respective foreign policies could have yielded some important insights. But we learn little of their diplomatic agendas in the 1950s. There is also nothing in the book about the role Pakistan played in reducing China’s isolation (Pakistan International Airlines was the first national carrier from a non-communist country to fly to Beijing). Similarly, there is no mention of the diplomatic and people-to-people contact in the 1960s and the 1970s which still resonate in popular memory — mention “Pakistan” on the streets in China and you are likely to get a response from some elderly person who may recall the fraternity between the two countries from half a century ago. All these developments, which arguably form a backdrop to later-day China-Pakistan ties, are absent from Small’s narrative.

Instead, the author opts to trace the relationship between the two countries through the prism of regional conflicts. He describes their ties as “a friendship forged by war”. The war(s) that serve as the temporal starting point for Small’s narrative are: the 1971 crisis in East Pakistan which culminated in the creation of Bangladesh (tellingly, the author concludes that “Chinese public expressions of support … fell well short of what many in Pakistan had hoped for and […] even expected”); the 1965 war, when the Chinese provided verbal support but stopped short of extending material assistance (Chinese leaders such as Zhou Enlai and General Chen Yi are alleged to have advised General Ayub Khan to launch guerilla attacks on India and prepare for protracted war) and the 1962 war between China and India. This last war was preceded by souring of relations between Beijing and New Delhi since the mid-1950s. A young Zufikar Ali Bhutto, who was Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time, seized upon this situation to both forge a closer relationship with Beijing and to resolve differences that Pakistan had with China over international borders, on terms broadly sympathetic to his own country.

According to Small, China-Pakistan relations deepened in the 1970s as both sides sought broader military cooperation. He correctly notes that the relationship between the two countries does not constitute an alliance — there is no formal agreement between them to come to aid of the other. As the author demonstrates, China refused to come to Pakistan’s assistance in both 1965 and 1971. Another insight offered by Small that begs deeper reflection is the importance, or otherwise, of Chinese military hardware for Pakistan. Despite the fact that China has been a steady supplier of arms and armament to the Pakistani military, Pakistan’s most prized military equipment tends not to be Chinese but American. Put differently, the author encourages the readers to inquire critically the role of Chinese military hardware in Pakistan’s military build-up.

Islamabad heartily welcomed the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jingping last month | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Islamabad heartily welcomed the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jingping last month | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

The book’s brisk treatment of China-Pakistan relations over the course of the three wars and their sharing of nuclear technology largely sidesteps the role of the US in the last two decades of the Cold War. In doing so, the author also glosses over the role Islamabad played in the Beijing-Washington détente — the so-called “Kissinger moment”. Although Pakistan’s role in secret diplomacy is repeatedly narrated in accounts on China-US normalisation, its omission from Small’s account underscores his book’s regional emphasis: while trilateral relations between China, India and Pakistan are sufficiently discussed, the global dynamics of the Cold War are not.

Here is another example of how a global focus could have yielded more insights: Small points out how Pakistan brokered the “establishment” of relations between Saudi Arabia and China, too. This channel of communication was forged by Saudi Arabia’s desire to acquire missile technology, beginning in 1985. Here, again, Small brings in geopolitics – the Saudi urge to acquire missiles – preferring it over a historical approach towards the analysis of Sino-Saudi relations. He, for instance, does not mention that the actual establishment of relations between the two countries did not occur until June 1990, nor does he highlight the fact that Saudi Arabia was the last Middle Eastern country to establish diplomatic relations with China. Labelling the opening of a channel of communication between the two countries a “Kissinger moment” is to give it great importance. But then, this should have been analysed further.

In the same way, the historic importance of the 1980s deserved more attention. This was the pivotal decade that saw the opening up of China and new orientations in its foreign policy. Crucially, these new orientations included thawing of China’s relations with the Soviet Union after 1982 — leading to normalisation of their ties by the end of the decade. These developments were taking place even as China remained a source for weapons that the US and Saudi Arabia were funnelling to the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan.

As Small demonstrates, China retained an interest in Afghanistan even after the Soviet withdrawal from there. At one point, he even speculates that China could have been the first non-Muslim country to extend diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime in Kabul. He notes that the Taliban, too, made efforts to allay Chinese fears that they were supporting Islamist separatists in China’s Xinjiang region. Chinese engagement in Afghanistan – which receives extensive treatment in the book – picked up again towards the end of the Hamid Karzai regime as China invested heavily in Afghanistan’s natural resources sector, including a copper mine at Aynak.

Entangled with Chinese engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the support that some Muslim separatists operating in Xinjiang found among terrorist outfits based on both sides of the Durand Line. Although the issue of separatist violence in China comes up repeatedly in the book as an important bilateral concern between China and Pakistan, the author suggests that it never threatened to derail their relations. The number of people involved in acts of violence has remained limited and, in any case, Beijing enjoys the full support of the Pakistani government, military and mainstream religious parties against Muslim separatists. All segments of society in Pakistan, indeed, consider China’s policies towards its Muslim population strictly its internal affair.

Although the issue of separatist violence in China comes up repeatedly in the book as an important bilateral concern between China and Pakistan, the author suggests that it never threatened to derail their relations.

Although the book has a chapter titled “Trade Across the Roof of the World”, there is little discussion of the modalities of Pakistan-China trade — much of which is informal, financed by Punjabis and Pakhtuns and run by traders domiciled in Gilgit-Baltistan. While there is a discussion in the book on Gwadar Port and the so-called trade corridor that will link it to China, there is surprisingly no discussion of mining in Saindak, one of the largest Chinese operations in Pakistan, especially considering that this mining is happening in that part of Pakistan where thorny issues of foreign investment, resource appropriation and ethno-nationalist politics converge.

The volume and type of goods being traded between the two countries, too, do not get due coverage in the book. What is traded between them and in what quantities, the book does not tell. Who the stakeholders are in this trade – whether Chinese or Pakistanis – is likewise not disclosed. The book also does not cover the 2006 Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that is controversial among Pakistani traders, nor does it take up the fact that the FTA failed to achieve its target of tripling bilateral trade to 15 billion dollars within five years. The impact of Chinese imports on local manufacturing and commerce is, similarly, not analysed.

If The China-Pakistan Axis is aimed at general-interest readers and the policymaking establishment, these two groups of readers are unlikely to find these omissions significant. They are also unlikely to be critical of the fact that many segments of the narrative are drawn from previously published secondary sources. On the contrary, Small’s accessible writing style, fast-moving narrative and lively chapter openings will keep the reader engaged. The China-Pakistan Axis will go a long way in informing readers about this bilateral relationship.

But academic specialists on China are likely to be more circumspect in their reception of The China-Pakistan Axis. For Sinologists, the dearth of Chinese -language sources will undermine claims to represent Beijing’s point of view. China has an extensive publishing culture and, over the last two decades, there has been a flood of Chinese writings on the country’s foreign policy which have become essential reading for academic work on the subject, even for those writing in the English language.

The China-Pakistan Axis also lacks a chronological order, a comparative perspective and an analytical framework. To be useful for an academic readership, it should have at least one of these features. The first of these are the easiest to disregard even though, as pointed out earlier, focusing the narrative on geopolitics comes at the expense of a carefully delineated historical chronology.

China gifted a tapestry of the Great Wall of China to Foreign Office Pakistan in February 2014 | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
China gifted a tapestry of the Great Wall of China to Foreign Office Pakistan in February 2014 | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

But it is hard to deny the importance of a comparative framework for such a book as this. Comparisons could have allowed the author and the readers to step back and ask important questions: how critical are Chinese relations with Pakistan in the light of Beijing’s relations with other countries in Asia? Pakistan’s trade volume with China – currently in the range of 12 billion dollars – is less than half of China’s trade volume with Turkey and four to five times less than China’s trade volume with India. Also, between 2004 and 2010, Pakistan was not among the top 10 recipients of Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (that list included countries such as Australia, Myanmar, Russia and the US). Despite all the hyperbolic phrases used to describe relations between Islamabad and Beijing, Pakistan is still not a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where China is widely believed to be the steering member. Pakistan, indeed, has made repeated attempts to upgrade its observer status to full membership in the organisation — so far, to little avail.

Seen in light of the recently unveiled Silk Road Economic Belt – a blueprint for economic connectivity across Eurasia – there is little indication that Pakistan will have any major role in this network, or, indeed, if there is anything about China’s relations with Pakistan so far that could be deemed exceptional. Although the subtitle of the book is Asia’s New Geopolitics, I wonder if the use of “Asia” here is not an exaggeration. The continent’s geopolitics with reference to a rising China will include security of the Korean peninsula, Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, Japanese investments in armed forces and its implications for China, Washington’s foreign policy pivot to Asia and closer economic integration between Southeast Asian nations, India and China. I am yet to be convinced that China-Pakistan relations, significant though they may be, are as important as any of the factors mentioned above within the context of Asia’s geopolitics.

Most importantly, a foreign policy framework is likely to explain China-Pakistan relations better than a geostrategic one. “All weather friendship” that is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the Arabian Sea is an expression of fraternity. It is not a policy statement, let alone being an analytical framework. Small’s suggestion that this is a secretive relationship forged through strategic cooperation may be partly true but it ignores critical disconnects in the interface between the two countries. These disconnects are yet to be adequately explained. Consider, for example, how China’s diplomacy is increasingly region-specific with a strong emphasis on multilateralism. Pakistan, on the other hand, relies on bilateral channels in its foreign policy. China is increasingly eschewing favourites, looking to build ‘win-win’ cooperation with every country; Pakistan plays favourites (China, Saudi Arabia) all the time and hopes for leverage against antagonists (India and, for many Pakistanis, the US). China seeks resources on a global scale and is on the lookout for new markets, including for the export of Chinese labour; Pakistan, on the other hand, finds its exports drying up. Future scholarship on the relations between the two countries will need to address these seemingly contradictory aspects of their bilateral ties.

Finally, for two countries which enjoy cordial relations, it is surprising how little people on either side know about each other. This is especially surprising given that the public in each country holds their counterpart in the other in high regard. How many people reading this review in Pakistan will be able to name a Chinese novel or a Chinese movie that isn’t about martial arts? How many Pakistanis will consider spending holidays in China? Ironically, in terms of popular culture, Pakistanis know exponentially more about India and the US, the two countries that Pakistanis love to hate, than they do about their closest friend. As Chinese engagement with Pakistan grows in the future, the comparative lack of Chinese soft power to affect the fraternal perceptions that Pakistanis have of that country and its people may assume a critical dimension.

None of this, however, takes away anything from Small’s important and pioneering contribution. The China-Pakistan Axis is a highly welcome book — one I will recommend without hesitation to those seeking to learn more about China-Pakistan relations.