Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics (C. Hurst & Co, 2015).
The Red Mosque assault (2007) and the Nanga Parbat attack (2013), two of the episodes that are discussed in Andrew Small’s new book, tell us that the most recent years have been among the most difficult in the history of China-Pakistan ties. They also tell us, as the author repeatedly highlights, how resilient this relation has remained throughout the decades, despite the number of factors that might have jeopardized it.
In The China-Pakistan Axis, Small comprehensively retraces the main phases of this unique friendship, often described by the two sides as “higher than the Himalayas” and “deeper than the Indian Ocean”, “sweeter than honey” and “stronger than steel”. Yet despite those linguistic extravagances, this very particular bilateral relation is lacking of authoritative scholarship on it. Small’s new book convincingly fills this gap, and it is particularly significant as it relies on years of research and interactions with officials on both sides of the border, not to mention sound historical research. The result is particularly noteworthy if one considers the secrecy that surrounds this relation, “the only relationship in Chinese foreign policy that is essentially led by the PLA,” and the sensitivity of many of the topics analysed in the book: from Pakistan’s nuclear programme, to China’s support for the mujahideen in the 1980s.
From the very beginning it clearly emerges that the roots of this friendship are strategic, founded on a shared enmity with India. It is in fact in the course of the three Indo-Pakistani wars (1962, 1965 and 1971) that, Small argues, the relation is first defined in its scope and depth, but also – and perhaps most importantly – in its limits. If in the 1962 war made clear to both sides the mutual advantages of close cooperation, eventually leading to the resolution of their border dispute; China’s outspoken support of Pakistan in 1965 – though backed with no real military help – cemented the view of an “all-weather friendship” across the Karakoram. Many of the expectations generated in 1965 would be let down in 1971, when China not only refrained from committing any troops on its ally’s behalf, but also closely worked with the United States in order to avoid a crisis in the subcontinent. Beijing would act similarly in future cases as well, such as the Kargil crisis and the Bin Laden killing.
The argument will return constantly throughout the book: China is Pakistan’s most reliable backer in the international arena, but not at all costs and only “up to a point.”
The military roots of China-Pakistan ties emerge clearly when looking at the economic engagements between the two countries. Despite the frequent proclamations of mutual collaboration on grand-scale projects – last of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the development of the Gwadar port – economic interactions remain weak: “a problem to fix rather than a source of strength.” China’s investments in Pakistan, moreover, have traditionally been very limited, and concentrated in a few, strategic sectors such as energy, defence and infrastructure. Thus in many cases, Small convincingly argues, “the strategic nature of the supposedly economic initiatives is not only beyond doubt, it is almost the only reason they are going ahead.”
The Karakoram Highway is one of those cases, and as such it can be in many ways considered a mirror of the China-Pakistan friendship. Arguably one of the greatest achievements of this relation, the road that connects Islamabad with China’s Xinjiang had since the very beginning little economic value. China, moreover, at the time the Karakoram Highway was first planned, had little or no interest in the perspectives of cross-border trade, but rather saw the potentials for the road to alter “the balance of geographical politics on the subcontinent,” providing Pakistan with access to its northern areas, and Beijing with a fundamental “backdoor” against its fears of encirclement. The project, Small argues, “would have been killed off quickly if its economic value had been the only thing it had going for it: the highway was conceived as a political and territorial project, not as the most logical trade route between the two sides”.
Today the main obstacle to the development of a serious economic dimension to the China-Pakistan axis is security, the main destabilizing factor in the relation. Particularly evident is China’s increasing concern over the presence in Pakistan of Uyghur militants from Xinjiang, “China’s Achilles heel”, and more generally the perceived “Talibanization” of the Pakistani state. Small’s book is particularly precious in this regard, as it shows China’s long-lasting interactions with militant groups operative in Pakistan, as well as Beijing’s attempts to use them to its advantages in various historical phases. From the arming and training of insurgents in India’s northeast in the 60s, to the support of Afghan mujahideen in the 80s, and the ongoing relations with the Taliban leadership, Beijing has consistently succeeded in securing its borders from the influence of militant groups operating in their vicinities.
In recent years, however, repeated attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan, as well as the presence of increasingly active Uyghur groups in North Waziristan – important as a “propaganda hub” if not as a direct threat to China – has raised concerns in Beijing over Pakistan’s ability to actually control those groups to its advantage. Particularly, recent failures on the Pakistani side to tackle down on Uyghur militants as requested by Beijing – over the last couple of years American drone strikes have been more effective than the Pakistani army in decimating ETIM leadership and supports – has made authorities in China suspecting of a certain sympathy for the militants, “thus escalating fears of an “Islamization” of the army. Moreover, as Pakistan seems to have – at least partially – lost control over the various and fractured militant organizations operative along its border with Afghanistan, some of these groups have willingly targeted China and its economic activities in Pakistan as a way to exert pressure on the government in Islamabad.
Within this scenario of growing uncertainty, what are the prospects for China-Pakistan friendship? China’s support to Pakistan, Small clearly shows, is not unconditional. With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, moreover, Beijing seems to share, at least partly, Washington’s vision for the future stability of Afghanistan. Particularly, Small writes, “without the geopolitical threat of “encirclement” by U.S. bases that had such a hold on China’s strategic imagination, Beijing has started to view the future of the region through a very different prism.” This will not, however, destabilize its relations with Islamabad, for at least two reasons. First, China is well aware that the United States’ pre-eminent position is strengthened by a system of long-term alliances around the world. China, on the other hand, can count only on a handful of countries, and as China’s most tested friend Pakistan can play an important part in “China’s transition from a regional power to a global one.” Secondly, China sees its friendship with Pakistan as a central counterweight in its relations toward both Washington and New Delhi, one also able to keep India tied to its conflict with Islamabad rather than raise as a strong global competitor.
Pakistan, on the hand, knows to be in China’s debt. Although Beijing never committed troops on Pakistan’s behalf, it provided it with “the ultimate means of self-defence,” the atomic bomb, as well as with international backing in times of crisis. Pakistan, moreover, realizes that China does not need Pakistan to do anything that it would not already do for itself. “China’s policy sees a strong, capable Pakistan as an asset to China in its own right”, writes Small. Despite all the concerns about Pakistan’s military adventurism, its shady relations with Islamist militants, and poor economic performances, the leitmotif underneath remains the following: “an India that is forced to look nervously over its shoulder at its western neighbour is easier for Beijing to manage.” It is precisely this latest view that promoted the China-Pakistan friendship in the first place, and it has since remained its main pillar. Despite Pakistan’s growing instability, then, there is no reason to think that this will not continue to define the relation for the following years as well.