Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Updated: May 23, 2017 1:13 amHoardings in Islamabad of Presidents Xi Jinping and Mamnoon Hussain, and PM Nawaz Sharif. (Source: AP photo)
The countries describe their friendship as being ‘higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey’. To this, CPEC might well add, ‘stronger than steel’. It’s a relationship that has endured nearly 7 decades of changes in geopolitical and strategic interests. It’s a layered, complex story — in which considerations about India have often played a dominant role.
On the night of July 12, 2007, hours after Pakistani commandos stormed Lal Masjid, the mosque in the heart of Islamabad that had become a militant stronghold, General Pervez Musharraf, then both President and Army Chief, made a sombre television address. He explained why the operation that killed 103 people inside the mosque had become necessary. His speech contained a valuable insight into the Pakistan-China relationship, and how the two countries conducted it.
“The worst example [of the extremist takeover of Lal Masjid] is that 7 nationals of our friendly country China were abducted,” Musharraf said. “This shameful incident happened to the people who belonged to our best friend, who always supported us, stood by us in troubled times and also helped us in economic, trades and defence fields. To hold hostage Chinese nationals was a very shameful act. The Chinese President called me over the telephone and asked me to ensure security of its citizens. So, in my mind this is extremely shameful for our country and citizens… If [Chinese] citizens are not secure in a country, for which they did a lot and [are] still doing, [it] is so regrettable for us.”
China did not make a public spectacle over the hostage crisis, it preferred to quietly work the phones instead. Among the militants holed up in Lal Masjid were Uighurs, fighting the Chinese state in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, but Beijing made no public demand that Pakistan act against them. Later, Chinese officials flatly denied having forced Musharraf’s hand in the decision to storm the mosque.
Imagining how the United States might have responded in the same situation helps understand better how Pakistan and China view their relationship, and the rules of their engagement.
Pakistan-China is the only bilateral relationship, other than with Saudi Arabia perhaps, in which Pakistan is happy to play the junior partner. Islamabad, which is wont to cast ties with China emotionally, describes the friendship as one that has no parallel in the world. “Higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans” is the usual description for it from both sides — but how they have built this “all-weather” (and all terrain) relationship is a layered story of several highs and lows. And through all of it, India has been the dominant theme.The Chashma nuclear power plant was built with Chinese help.
Pakistan was among the earliest non-communist countries (India was the first) to recognise the People’s Republic of China. But while the two established diplomatic relations in 1951, Pakistan’s eager membership of the two United States-led anti-communist military pacts, SEATO and CENTO, soon afterward, was not the perfect starting point for their relationship in the same decade in which India and China celebrated Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai.
It was only after India’s defeat in the war with China in 1962 that the Pakistan-China relationship really took off. If Beijing had by then identified Pakistan as a country through which it could contain India, home since 1959 to the “splittist” Dalai Lama, China’s tacit support for Pakistan in the 1965 war was a turning point — the beginning of their enduring defence and, some would say, nuclear, cooperation.
While there is much speculation about the Chinese role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, in 2016, China acknowledged assistance to Pakistan in building 6 nuclear reactors. Two of these, at Chashma, were declared at the time it joined the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group in 2004, and China was allowed to “grandfather” them as part of an agreement that predated its membership of the elite group; since then it has helped Pakistan build 2 more reactors at Chashma, and has declared assistance for another 2 at Karachi, despite protests at NSG.
China, which last year vetoed India’s membership to the NSG, did not oppose India’s civilian nuclear deal with the US, but has on occasion argued for the same kind of nuclear exceptionalism to Pakistan, which the US allowed for India.
Despite the money and military hardware the US pumped into Pakistan over the years, Pakistanis see China as a far more reliable ally. They see the US as using their country to achieve strategic goals in the region, and ditching it at will, constantly asking it to do “more”, and publicly humiliating Pakistan over its “terror factories”.
China, on the other hand, provides Pakistan the security of constant backing by a big power, while Islamabad acts as its unquestioning ally at a strategic crossroads of Asia. Indeed the idea of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — India’s primary objection to China’s staggeringly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — did not come about overnight. The first bit of brickwork was perhaps laid by the Sino-Pak agreement of 1963, under which China ceded 1,942 sq km to Pakistan, and Pakistan recognised Chinese sovereignty over thousands of square kilometres in northern Kashmir and Ladakh. India contests the agreement, which includes land that is part of Jammu & Kashmir.
Possibly the first person to articulate the idea of a “trade and energy corridor” from Gwadar overland into China, was Musharraf. The Pakistan-China relationship, he was arguing, should be about more than simply providing an easy market for Chinese goods. At the time, China was sinking money in Gwadar port, but many dismissed much greater Chinese involvement in Pakistan’s economy (other than in defence production) as a pie in the sky because of Pakistan’s security situation. The CPEC, with its energy, finance, information technology and communications components, along with security and political dimensions, is an upgrade many times over of that basic idea of Pakistan offering its strategic location in exchange for investment.
Pakistan’s great moment in international diplomacy came when it facilitated Henry Kissinger’s secret ice-breaking visit to China in 1971, laying the ground for a visit by President Richard Nixon the following year. It went on to also act as the bridge between China and the Arab world, starting with Saudi Arabia.
But through the years, Pakistan has also learnt not to take China for granted. It suffered a stunning blow in 1971, months after it had helped the US and China find each other again, when contrary to expectations of both Pakistan and the US, and to the dismay of both, China kept out of the war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.Though Nehru, seen in Beijing with Chairman Mao in 1954, enthusiastically embraced China, it was the relationship with Pakistan that the Chinese quickly came to value much more.
Pakistan also watched with worry as India and China re-established diplomatic relations in 1978 after a long hiatus. Through the 1980s and ’90s, as India-China relations improved through trade even as they talked on the boundary dispute, the Chinese leadership’s firm casting of Kashmir as a bilateral dispute was a bitter pill for Pakistan.
China has held on to this position, reiterating it time and again, including after its ambassador to Pakistan suggested last year that his country supports Islamabad on the Kashmir issue.
China also refused to offer nuclear guarantees to Pakistan after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, which Beijing condemned in harsh language, and dismissed contemptuously India’s position that its nuclearisation was to counter the threat from China. When Pakistan tested its own devices, China expressed “deep regret”.
During the Kargil conflict, China refused to give Pakistan any overt lift.
Seeking to balance its growing relations with India, China signed a Treaty of Peace, Co-operation and Friendship with Pakistan in 2005 during the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao, which one former Pakistani ambassador to China described as “a legal framework that has converted an old friendship into marriage”.
Andrew Small, author of The China-Pakistan Axis, contends it was China that kindled Pakistan’s interest in the use of proxies against India, quoting from a meeting between Zhou Enlai and Ayub Khan, at which the Chinese Premier urged Pakistan to take up guerrilla warfare. He also cites China’s own use of proxies in the Northeast, and how Pakistan, when it still had the eastern wing, collaborated with the Chinese on building these up. China also supplied arms and ammunition to Pakistan and US-backed mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Where it comes to protecting its interests, Beijing has drawn a red line on Islamist irregulars such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement, which it has held responsible for terror attacks in Xinjiang. But as was evident from the Lal Masjid episode, it does not publicly denounce Pakistan for Uighur safe havens in north Waziristan or Afghanistan.
In the wave of international condemnation after the Mumbai attacks of 2008, China was unsympathetic to Pakistan, lifting its technical hold on the Security Council 1267 designation of Jamaat-ud-dawa and its chief, Hafiz Saeed. But it has refused to do this in the case of Jaish-e-Muhammad founder Masood Azhar.
In India, each Chinese rap on the knuckle for Pakistan, or each episode of Chinese protection for its client, tends to be viewed as representative of the whole of their relationship. In reality, the China-Pakistan relationship is greater than the sum of these parts, one that has endured nearly 7 decades of changes in the geopolitical and strategic interests of both countries.
In recent weeks, an advertisement for a famous Pakistani masala brand was viral on social media. It showed a Chinese couple in Karachi, the husband telling the depressed-looking wife that she should try and make friends in the neighbourhood. The wife then makes a biryani using the said masala, and takes it across to the neighbours’, where she is received like a long lost family member. The ad isn’t inaccurate in depicting Pakistanis as being emotional about their relationship with China.
Most countries in South Asia and beyond now view ties with China as a strategic necessity, but remain distrustful of the Asian superpower. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, people are putting tough questions to their governments on deals that seem to benefit the Chinese more. Never so in Pakistan. Despite the obvious absence of cultural bonds, it is only in Pakistan that there is so much people love for China. When Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Islamabad in 2005, such was the “people’s” welcome that he was moved to add “sweeter than honey” to the usual frothy allusion to mountains and oceans. CPEC might well add another: a relationship stronger than steel.
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Traditionally, China and Pakistan have cooperated closely at the strategic and political levels. Now the two nations are making efforts to expand their bilateral collaboration economically as well. The construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a milestone that signifies this shift.
At its core, the CPEC is a large-scale initiative to build energy, highway, and port infrastructure to deepen economic connections between China and Pakistan. This initiative has been well-received in both countries, although it is not without its problems.1 Nevertheless, China and Pakistan regard the CPEC as a new source of potential synergy between their respective national development strategies, which may help the two countries translate their close political cooperation into multifaceted economic cooperation, attain mutual benefits, and achieve win-win outcomes. For the economic corridor to reach its potential, however, there are security and political challenges in Pakistan that must be addressed.
China first proposed the corridor project in May 2013. Chinese President Xi Jinping then visited Pakistan in April 2015, and both sides agreed to elevate their relationship to an “all-weather strategic partnership.”2 During Xi’s visit, the two countries signed fifty-one agreements at an estimated value of $46 billion.3
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The CPEC is now moving into the implementation phase. On May 6, 2016, there was an opening ceremony held in the city of Sukkur in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, as construction began on a section of highway between Sukkur and the city of Multan—it will be part of a network of highways that will connect the cities of Peshawar and Karachi.4 This network is a major component of the CPEC’s plans for infrastructure expansion, which highlights the progress the two nations have achieved thus far in the area of transportation. In addition, on November 13, 2016, the first large shipment of Chinese goods went through the port of Gwadar, a flagship CPEC project in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan.5
China considers these development initiatives a potential source of stability and prosperity for both countries. From a Chinese perspective, cooperation in the areas of security and economics are closely intertwined, and improvements on one side can improve the other. It is almost as though security and economics are two separate wheels on the same vehicle, and both need to be spinning to move things forward. China believes economic development can strengthen Pakistan’s internal stability, thus reinvigorating the latter’s economy through investment in infrastructure projects as well as the construction of oil and gas pipelines. China hopes this will create a certain level of stability within Pakistan and in turn stabilize China’s western periphery, particularly the province of Xinjiang.
More broadly, the CPEC has to be understood in the context of China’s strategic interests in East Asia and the way the United States has challenged them. Faced with such difficulties, China hopes it can expand its strategic space by heading west. Pakistan serves as a crucial bridge between China and Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Security and stability in Pakistan will make it possible for China to exercise greater influence in these regions and to ensure security at home. This is why China is willing to pour vast amounts of resources into the economic corridor—based on the logic of improving security through economic development.
Likewise, Pakistan has realized that no other country places such high strategic importance in its economic relationship with Pakistan as China does. Pakistan also greatly values the economic corridor and views it as mutually beneficial in terms of politics and economic development. According to Pakistan 2025—a blueprint for economic development published in 2014 by Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning, Development, and Reform—Pakistan aims to advance from being a lower-middle-income nation to an upper-middle-income nation by 2025.6 To achieve this goal, Pakistan hopes to attract increasing amounts of foreign investment. The country is working to improve its overall economy by constructing energy projects and other forms of infrastructure, to create employment opportunities for its populace, and to improve its governance.
The logic behind this strategy is that fundamentally improving Pakistan’s economy will help alleviate the challenges posed by political extremists, radicals, and jihadists. China and Pakistan share the belief that economic development can help stabilize Pakistan and improve its domestic security situation. However, China also recognizes that the security, political, and cultural risks and uncertainties facing the economic corridor cannot be overlooked.
The first of these risks is terrorism, which has long affected Pakistan’s internal security and stability. Although Pakistan has worked hard to strike at religious extremism and terrorist activities, its problems with terrorism have not substantially improved in recent years. Because the CPEC is so important to the Pakistani government, these projects’ construction sites and engineering personnel may become targets for religious as well as nationalist extremists. Indeed, there already have been numerous occasions when Chinese engineers working in Pakistan have been attacked or even lost their lives. In May 2016, for instance, engineers in Karachi were attacked by Sindh separatists.7 Fortunately, no Chinese personnel were wounded or killed. Then in September, Baloch rebels killed at least two Chinese engineers and injured many others.8 Moreover, several large-scale terrorist attacks in Balochistan have killed dozens of people, which shows that the security situation in this province where China has key projects is far from ideal.9
The security threat posed by terrorism remains ongoing, despite the economic benefits that the CPEC can offer Pakistan. The corridor aims to enhance the well-being of people throughout the country and bring long-term prosperity and stability. The Pakistani authorities, meanwhile, have promised China they will do everything possible to ensure the safety of Chinese workers.10 This is a feasible commitment in the short term. However, over time, it will become more difficult for Pakistan to guarantee the security of the CPEC’s growing transportation networks, which will require increasing investments of security personnel and material support. It will likely become uncertain in the future whether Pakistan can maintain a strong enough military presence to ensure the security of all these transportation routes.
Second, Pakistan’s domestic politics is also important to the CPEC’s success. The country’s political system has never been particularly stable. Political power oscillates between military and civilian leaders. General Pervez Musharraf’s resignation as president in 2008 ended the latest period of military rule, and from that point onward, the military has been pushed from center stage. In the 2013 election, the Pakistan People’s Party lost power after the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz defeated it. The successful completion of this election, as well as the smooth transition of power that ensued, was the first time in Pakistan’s history that a civilian government was able to serve out its entire term. This was a sign of improvement for Pakistan’s democracy.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s traditional political culture, which is almost feudal in nature, also continues to play an important role. Powerful families based in different provinces, such as the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, have typically held political power. Behind the party politics are local interests groups associated with these families.
Various parties within Pakistan have disagreed a lot about how CPEC transportation routes should be mapped out. The competing parties are primarily interested in how the cake should be divided, so to speak. To strengthen its respective standing among the electorate, each of Pakistan’s political parties hopes the CPEC will pass through the region it represents, allowing its local community to enjoy the corridor’s benefits. In fact, since the initiative was first presented in 2013, the debate over which route the CPEC would follow has caused substantial delays. The construction of the corridor has just begun. It is expected that competition among Pakistan’s domestic political groups will continue to affect its future implementation.
Yet the CPEC will not only serve as a roadway that simply connects point A to point B—the initiative is designed to do more. The corridor also aims to facilitate multisectoral economic cooperation in finance, trade, energy, and industry.
Amid a market slowdown and high unemployment rates, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came back into office in 2013 with the intent of reinvigorating the economy, and he undertook a series of measures to improve Pakistan’s economic prospects.11 One was lowering barriers to foreign investment.12 As for addressing energy shortages, Pakistan has been making efforts to restructure its energy industry and increase its electricity production. At the same time, the government has worked hard to strengthen investment in infrastructure, has moved forward with tax reforms, and has focused on increasing revenue and reducing expenditures. In addition, the government has adopted other measures to develop its market economy. It has overseen reforms for state-run enterprises and encouraged market privatization.
These measures are already starting to take effect. The country’s GDP is growing at a stronger rate, and the economy is improving.13 For the time being, however, it will still remain unclear whether these economic advances can actually alleviate Pakistan’s serious security and stability problems.
Cultural considerations and public relations should be also taken into account when evaluating the CPEC’s prospects for economic success. Ordinary citizens in China and Pakistan are not very familiar with each other. The countries’ leaders have built an all-weather friendship and close political relationship over the years, but this is not yet true of the two societies at large.
As China and Pakistan gradually expand cooperation, there will be an increasing number of Chinese corporations investing in Pakistan. Different cultural practices and ways of thinking could cause misunderstandings, and this could negatively affect CPEC projects. For these corporations to be successful, they will need to understand local cultures, norms, and rules. Having information about and services for doing business in Pakistan is also crucial for Chinese corporations.
China should abandon its traditional way of dealing only with the Pakistani government and instead get in contact with local communities to better accommodate local interests so that more Pakistani people can benefit from the CPEC. China and Pakistan need to strengthen their cultural ties and increase people-to-people interactions. This has already begun, due to the increasing economic activity between the two countries, forcing China to become more informed about the complexities of Pakistani society. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Council was founded in 2015 to jointly address the challenges arising in the CPEC projects.14 The council has opened offices in Beijing and Islamabad respectively, and its purpose is to assist with the implementation of CPEC projects.15
China and Pakistan have taken positive measures to help set up the CPEC for success. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s domestic situation is still decisive. Until the country’s political and security conditions turn a corner, it will be difficult to judge the corridor's future prospects. For China, this means neutrality, strategic patience, and caution are needed as the construction of this grand initiative continues.
Lu Yang is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University, working on South Asian politics and China’s diplomatic relations with South Asian countries.
1 S. Akbar Zaidi, “The New Game Changer in Pakistan,” the Hindu, last updated September 20, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/chinapakistan-economic-corridor-the-new-game-changer-in-pakistan/article8656498.ece.
2 An Lu, “China, Pakistan Lift Ties to All-Weather Strategic Partnership of Cooperation,” Xinhua News Agency, April 20, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-04/20/c_134167316.htm.
3 “China’s Xi Jinping agrees $46 bn superhighway to Pakistan,” BBC, April 20, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32377088.
4 “PM Performs Groundbreaking of Sukkur-Multan Motorway,” the Express Tribune, May 6, 2016, http://tribune.com.pk/story/1098275/pm-performs-groundbreaking-of-sukkur-multan-motorway/.
5 Kay Johnson, “Pakistani PM Welcomes First Large Chinese Shipment to Gwadar Port,” Reuters, November 13, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-china-port-idUSKBN1380LU.
6 Government of Pakistan; Ministry of Planning, Development, and Reform; Planning Commission, Pakistan 2025: One Nation – One Vision, http://pc.gov.pk/vision2025/Pakistan%20Vision-2025.pdf.
7 Imtiaz Ali, “Chinese Citizen Targeted in Karachi Blast,” Dawn, May 30, 2016, http://www.dawn.com/news/1261600.
8 Mayank Pratap Singh, “Baloch Rebels Attack Dudher Project Site, 2 Chinese Engineers Killed, Many Hurt,” India Today, September 28, 2016, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/baloch-rebels-attack-kills-two-engineers/1/775273.html.
9 “Pakistan Hospital Bomb Attack Kills Dozens in Quetta,” BBC, August 8, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-37007661; “Pakistan Shah Noorani Shrine Bomb Kills 52,” BBC, November 12, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/37962741; “Quetta Terror Attack: At Least 44 Killed in Pakistan Police Academy Attack,” Times of India, October 25, 2016, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/pakistan/Quetta-terror-atatck-At-least-20-killed-in-Pakistan-police-academy-attack/articleshow/55041063.cms.
10 Shannon Tiezzi, Pakistan Will Provide ‘Special Force’ to Defend Chinese Investments,” the Diplomat, February 5, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/pakistan-will-provide-special-force-to-defend-chinese-investments/.
11 Farhan Bokhari and Victor Mallet, “Nawaz Sharif Takes Steps to Revive Pakistan’s Economy,” Financial Times, May 13, 2013, https://www.ft.com/content/374bc1a6-bbe8-11e2-a4b4-00144feab7de.
12 Government of Pakistan, Prime Minister’s Secretariat, Board of Investment, Investment Policy 2013, http://boi.gov.pk/UploadedDocs/Downloads/InvestmentGuide.pdf.
13 World Bank, “GDP Growth [Pakistan],” World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=PK.
14 “Pak-China Economic Corridor Council Launched in Islamabad,” China Daily, April 09, 2015, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2015xivisitpse/2015-04/09/content_20038726.htm.
15 “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Council: Council Profile,” China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Council, http://c-pecc.com/en/about/about-47.html.
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