Back to the Future: Tracing the roots of China-Pakistan cooperation

220 million Pakistanis are only 11 percent of the nearly two billion strong Islamic civilization. China Pakistan cooperation, therefore, is not between two entire civilizations, rather it is a cooperation between one whole civilization under one state and a small but important part of Islamic civilizations (Pakistan) which is only one of the 57 Muslim countries.


While imagining China Pakistan relationship, I cannot help but recall the 1985 Hollywood sci-fi film which presented how the protagonist’s existence in the ‘present’ and ‘future’ was compromised. He was left with little choice but to make timely intervention by traveling through a time machine to fix the past and present, thereby securing his future.

Pak-China relationship is far from sci-fi fantasy, however, to understand its future one has to delve into its past where we find not just two nations cooperating with each other but two entire civilizations involving various nations that couldn’t have been what they are today if they hadn’t mutually formed and enriched each other. Today, many members of these two civilizations are not aware of their mutually enriching relationship with each other. It is important that they understand this historical relationship correctly in order to conceive of bright and mutually beneficial relations in the future.

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97% of the global Chinese civilization of 1.5 billion people reside inside China

On the other hand, 220 million Pakistanis are only 11 percent of the nearly two billion strong Islamic civilization. China Pakistan cooperation, therefore, is not between two entire civilizations, rather it is a cooperation between one whole civilization under one state and a small but important part of Islamic civilizations (Pakistan) which is only one of the 57 Muslim countries.

Pakistan conceives of itself as a part of the larger Islamic civilization whose boundaries spill over beyond the 57 states into other very large minorities that resides under other civilizations such as inside the Russian Eastern Orthodox, Indian, African and Chinese civilizations, not to forget large numbers of Muslims living inside the West. Hence, whereas Pakistan-China cooperation can be easily conceived of at a bilateral national level, it may require some intellectual effort to conceive of it at a civilizational level.

In traditional Islamic and Chinese cultures, the whole is considered more important than a small part. To gain an insight into the past, present and future of Pak-China cooperation, we must not lose sight of the relationship between the two wholes, the greater Chinese civilization and the greater Islamic civilization. If we look at one entire whole and its relationship with only part of the other whole, it may do injustice to the vastness of its past, and hence belittle its present.

China and Pakistan are not only national neighbors but civilizational neighbors

Islamic and Chinese international relations are not guided by the maxim that ‘there are no permanent friends and allies, only permanent interests. This maxim reflects a rather narrow and petty-minded mentality of modern political thought because it is not based on virtue but selfishness. Just as the prophet of Daoism Lao Zi said “regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain and regard your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”, the eleven principles of good neighborliness in Islam are identical, for the state: “You must help your neighbor if he asks for your help; give him relief if he seeks your relief; lend him if he needs a loan; Do not block his air by raising your building high without his permission;

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Do not harass him; Give him a share when you buy fruits; if you do not, bring what you buy quietly and let not your children take them out to excite the jealousy of his children; You must visit (and take care of) him when he is ill; You must attend his funeral when he dies (and help in burial arrangements); If he commits a sin, hide it from others; Congratulate him if he is met with good fortune; Grieve in sympathy if a calamity befalls him. In the light of our own beliefs, we aspire to be good neighbors for China, however, we feel that China has already performed the role of an excellent neighbor for us over decades and centuries, as a nation and as a civilization.

Compared to the Chinese civilization, the Islamic civilization is very large in its geographical expanse. If we compare the Western borders of the Muslim world with its Eastern borders, we see a sharp contrast. Unfortunately, from crusades to colonialism to contemporary Islamophobia, we see an adversarial relationship with the Western world whose painful memories are present in 1492 when Muslims and Jews were expelled from their eight centuries-old domiciles in Europe.

On the eastern borders of the Islamic civilization, however, there is no 1492

Instead, we find cooperation, integration and connectivity. The Silk Route is living proof of how people, goods and ideas traveled across the Eurasian continent and enriched everyone along its path. Chinese familiarity with this region predates Islamic civilization. Monk Marananta spread Buddhism in China and South Korea from Taksashila (today’s Taxila, near Islamabad). Similarly, under various Chinese dynasties, spiritual and scientific ideas traveled omni-directionally across different parts of Asia.

This condition was a norm until the rise of the modern West when the civilizations succumbed to narrower and parochial national identities. Today, when contemporary Chinese scholars talk about the rise of a civilization state and President Xi welcomes the rise and cooperation between civilizations in his book Governance of China, it gives great hope to the Islamic world that the chance to overcome the 19th-century externally-imposed fragmentation can perhaps be overcome soon. After all, the Islamic world was always a system of sub-civilization states, just as China was a civilization-state.

Out of the two millennia-old histories of the Silk Route, over a millennium of its history is also part of Islamic and Chinese histories. The later millennium of the silk route was more secure than the earlier one because of the security provided by various emperors, kings, caliphs and sultans. Without adequate security, there could not be any trade. Hence, in the light of history, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is not a new thing.

It is a revival of an older phenomenon that had unfortunately halted temporarily. However, there are still powerful forces that want to maintain the status quo in an attempt to hegemonize Asia. They spread the politics of fear and hate in form of Sinophobia, Russophobia and Islamophobia. People of Pakistan, China and Russia have little choice but to defeat and overcome these challenges by preserving their unity for the heart of Asia.

Read more: China to issue commemorative coins for 70 years of Pak-China ties

Muslims throughout history were called al-Muahidoon, the people of unity, because Islam was a religion of unity that emphasized unity at all levels, unity of soul and mind, unity of a family, unity within a country, and unity among countries. Similarly, the Chinese emphasize the concept of dàtóng(Great Unity) mentioned in the Book of Rites, the Chinese Confucian classic. The five relationships of Confucianism and the five pillars of faith in Islam come from their diverse spheres of spiritual cosmologies but aim to produce an identical goal of peace and harmony in society.

China’s troubles

China pulled itself out of a historical period which the Chinese historians today call the ‘century of humiliation. Many parts of the Muslim world, however, are still in their second century of humiliation. Wars of aggression against many Muslim countries and attacking our beliefs are proofs of that. Can we learn how China successfully secured itself against the forces of aggression? I think so. One of the things that China did correctly is to realize much earlier on that path dependence was not good for China. It had to chart its own course. This meant having its own unique political system suited to the genius of its own people.

China, Russia and various Muslim countries have now entered a phase of their modernization programs that doesn’t accompany westernization as it did in the last century. The future modernization in Asia will be about building sensible and eco-friendly infrastructure leading to moderate prosperity. The new Asian paradigm of modernization must address flaws in the older types of modernization. Instead of path dependence, the new modernization is more likely to revive our common Asian values and traditions to form thriving regional communities with shared destinies. If history repeats itself and if our past is of any significance to our future, then it will be inevitable that we will go ‘back’ to the future.

Prof. Dr. Ejaz Akram is the Chairman of National Rahmatul Lil Alamin Authority (NRA), Prime Minister of Pakistan’s initiative of Ethical Revival in Pakistan. Prof. Akram is also a Visiting Professor of Religion & World Politics at the Southwestern University of Political Science & Law, Chongqing, China.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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