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Dynamics of the Multifaceted Pakistan-China Relationship

Pakistan's longest serving Ambassador to China traces the roots and looks at the key elements of this extraordinary bond of friendship and cooperation that has invited much envy. While affirming the multi-tiered relationship has taken a quantum leap in the form of CPEC, he explains why imperatives of regional peace and security and congruence of interests steer Pakistan-China relations.

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In May, Pakistan and China will complete seventy years of an epic journey started together. Pakistan recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1950, and diplomatic relations were established on 21 May 1951.

Major General. N.A.M Raza was Pakistan’s first Ambassador to China, who served there twice, first from 1951 to 1954 and then from 1962 to 1966. I was the twentieth Ambassador in line and had a single stint of six and a half years from 2013 to 2019.

My extended stay enabled me to look closely at the dynamics of Pakistan-China relations, which is now viewed as a ‘model in inter-state relationships’ and envied by many. Over the years, politicians, officials and scholars have coined catchy phrases to describe this partnership; “Deeper than oceans; higher than mountains; sweeter than honey; strong as steel; all-weather friends; good partners; good friends; and good neighbors”- all encapsulating the depth of this relationship.

However, the best elucidation is given by no less than President Xi Jinping, who calls Pakistan an “Iron Brother” or “Batie.” This term is now etched in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. They spontaneously address Pakistanis as ‘Batie’ when they meet them. No other country has deserved this accolade from the Chinese people.

It is puzzling for many, especially western scholars, to see these two countries, ideologically and culturally so divergent and economically different, to gel so well together and express such warm sentiments. However, the sustained effort to build this impregnable edifice is often unappreciated.

Both shared a common outlook on many issues, even when they were emerging as infant states. Both were developing countries; both had bad colonial experience; both opposed hegemony and imperialism; both had civilizational links dating back to the seventh century when Chinese Buddhist monks visited fabled valleys of Swat and Taxila and studied Gandhara Art and Buddhist scriptures, which were then introduced in ancient China.

Read More: Pakistan-China ties: Diplomacy to strategic partnership

Rediscovering each other

After their independence, both commenced their journey of rediscovering each other and reviving old links. Soon after establishing diplomatic relations, the architect of New China,
Chairman Mao Zedong, sent handwritten instructions to his Foreign Ministry to build ties with Pakistan.

When nominating his second Ambassador General Geng Biao to Pakistan in 1956,
Chairman Mao instructed him to strengthen relations with Pakistan, a friendly country, with whom “China had a history of communicating for over a thousand years.”

This was despite Pakistan being part of the anti-communist western alliance and heydays of India-China relations, reflecting the proverbial Chinese wisdom and sagacity.Both countries ensured that their words and actions did not cause any ill will in their relations. Both retained an understanding and empathy towards each other’s position.

Despite American pressure, Pakistan refused to contribute any military contingent for the Korean War in 1950; it “regretted” China’s absence at the San Francisco Conference, called to conclude a Peace Treaty with Japan.

Pakistan even assured China at the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference in 1955 that its membership of SEATO was not meant against China, a deed publicly welcomed by Premier Zhou Enlai. Two meetings between Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra and  Premier Zhou Enlai in Bandung set the ball rolling in laying the foundation of a long-lasting relationship between the two countries.

Soon leadership level visits were exchanged. Hussain Suharwardy became the first Prime Minister of Pakistan to visit China in October 1956, and barely two months later, in December, Premier Zhou Enlai paid his maiden ten-day visit. He was given a warm welcome in both the wings of the country. (Zhou Enlai visited Pakistan record five times).

Read More: Celebrating 70 Years of Pakistan-China Friendship

When in the same leg, Premier Zhou Enlai visited India, he was invited to visit Srinagar. He declined Prime Minister Nehru’s invitation showing deference to Pakistan’s sensitivities on Kashmir. Such gestures by both sides helped to build confidence in the relationship and promoted amity and goodwill.

On the other hand, China’s disenchantment with India grew when Dalai Lama was given asylum there, and Prime Minister Nehru failed to respond positively to China’s earnest efforts to settle their mutual border. Differences accentuated, and both sides went to war in 1962, resulting in a humiliating defeat for India. Shedding its Non-Aligned facade, Prime Minister Nehru pleaded with President John F. Kennedy to dispatch urgent military help to India.

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Diplomatic cooperation

China now began to appreciate Pakistan’s problems with India better. While a distrust had set-in in Sino-Indian relations, Pakistan-China relations witnessed an upswing due to the farsighted approach of Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who convinced President Ayub Khan to build ties with China.

Bhutto’s speech of 1962 in the National Assembly of Pakistan indicated the shift Pakistan was making in its Foreign Policy. Both countries concluded a Border Treaty in 1963, and Pakistan became the first noncommunist country to provide an air corridor to China when Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) landed in Shanghai in 1964.

PIA was used to carry Chinese personnel and Chinese mail to foreign countries. Pakistan also denounced the “Two China Policy” of the United States when President Ayub Khan visited China in March 1965. Frustrated with American support for India after the 1962 war, Pakistan had now tilted scales towards its northern neighbor.

In the 1965 war with India, China gave vital military and diplomatic assistance to Pakistan. Its ultimatum to India to dismantle military infrastructure on the Sikkim and Laddakh border provided a strategic advantage to Pakistan, relieving pressure. Indeed China’s support to Pakistan in 1965 war with India helped cement a closer bond.

Pakistanis now viewed China as a trusted friend as opposed to USA, which despite Treaty obligations failed to help us against India. Another landmark decision taken by both countries was to construct the Friendship or Karakoram highway, which is now the main artery for CPEC.

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About one thousand Chinese and Pakistani workers lost their lives during the construction of the elevated highway. This futuristic joint venture will help Pakistan enhance its connectivity with China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asian Republics as per various SCO, ADB, and CAREC Institute studies.During the 1971 crisis, China again lent valuable support to Pakistan.

It exercised its first veto on the question of Bangladesh’s membership in the United Nations. Chinese delegation at the UN in New York had heated exchanges with the former Soviet Union, who, along with India, was supporting the move.

China made its support for membership conditional to the safe return of Pakistani POWs. Earlier, Pakistan had extended full support to China to restore its rightful place at the United Nations.

Another building block in our relations was the critical role played by Pakistan in facilitating a rapprochement between the United States and China in 1971 when it arranged the secret visit of Dr. Henry Kissinger to Beijing. This was a historical development that restructured global politics. Premier Zhou Enlai reminded Kissinger never to forget the bridge (Pakistan) that enabled China and the US to achieve that breakthrough.

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All-weather ties?

Today, Pakistan and China feel proud to have evolved a partnership based on mutual trust
and mutual respect nurtured over decades. A vision and idealism guide this relationship. Pakistan considers its relations with China as the cornerstone of its foreign policy while China terms it its highest priority.

President Xi Jinping told Prime Minister Imran Khan that China would stand by Pakistan no matter how the international situation changes. These are the words of a true friend. A redeeming feature of this partnership is its resilience and allweather character.

Read More: Forever friends: Enduring Pakistan-China relations

Both countries have stood together through thick and thin and supported each other on core issues of their interest at critical times, notwithstanding pressures. Pakistan supports China’s position on Taiwan, Hongkong, Xinjiang, South China sea, human rights, etc.

At the same time, Pakistan receives Chinese support on many issues, including Kashmir, Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), FATF, UN sanctions & listings, and UN reform. China supported Pakistan’s membership of SCO.

Both also cooperate in counter-terrorism efforts not only bilaterally but also in the multilateral domain.Multitiered relationship Pakistan and China have evolved a comprehensive framework to steer their multitiered relationship. This cooperation covers practically all important areas; security, defense, economy, trade, education, science & technology, culture, and media.

Linkages between think tanks and academia have shown positive trends. More than 28,000 Pakistani students in China are goodwill ambassadors and the torch bearers of our friendship. Over a dozen cities and provinces have reached twinning arrangements augmenting cultural and business ties.

Collaboration in the defense field is an essential component of our bilateral relations. Pakistan procures its major military supplies from China. The co-production of JF-17, a flagship project of PAF, is a shining example of this collaboration. We are also collaborating in the production of ships, submarines, tanks, and other equipment.

Two-way visits of the military leadership and joint military exercises are also an important feature of this partnership. China is concerned about the rising strategic imbalance in South Asia due to India’s arms buildup.

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Read More: Sino – Pakistan Defence and Strategic Cooperation

Traditionally, China has been a strong economic partner of Pakistan. Its help in setting up Pakistan’s industrial base and defense production capacity in the seventies has been an invaluable contribution.

Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra, Heavy Mechanical Complex, Heavy Rebuild Factory at Taxila, and Chashma Nuclear Power Plants were notable projects completed with Chinese help. Now, this economic partnership has taken a quantum leap in the form of CPEC, a signature project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Pakistan was amongst the first few countries to join BRI.

CPEC – transforming Pakistan into a geo-economic hub?

The historic visit of President Xi Jinping in April 2015 resulted in over fifty bilateral agreements, with China committing over $46 billion worth of investment in agreed areas of power generation, transportation infrastructure and Gwadar under CPEC.

CPEC has made steady progress in the last six years, more importantly addressing Pakistan’s acute energy shortfall. The energy sector was our priority, and at our request, Chinese companies came forward and completed some high-capacity power projects in record time.

Similarly, some big infrastructure projects like the Multan-Sukkur motorway, KKH up-gradation, and the Orange Line were completed. The work on Gwadar Port and the city’s allied infrastructure began and is picking up pace now. With the completion of these early harvest projects, CPEC has entered into its next (second) phase.

The emphasis will be on industrial cooperation, agriculture, education, science and technology, oil and gas, tourism, and socio-economic livelihood projects. CPEC’s scope has also been enlarged to extend to the region, and in this regard, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan are discussing the feasibility of few joint projects.

CPEC and its regional extension will induce development and prosperity and help eradicate terrorism and extremism. CPEC was launched by China when no other country was willing to invest in Pakistan. CPEC is a rare window of opportunity for Pakistan to overcome its development deficit.

Read More: Pak-China agricultural cooperation to improve Pakistan’s livelihood

CPEC is a breather in Pakistan’s economic life and has introduced a new public discourse in Pakistan on its development and geo-economics. All the provinces are keen on its dividends, reflecting a national consensus. Pakistan can be on the road to self-reliance, taking advantage of the learning curve offered by CPEC.

Thus, greater synergy and coordination is required between the center, provinces, and all relevant implementing arms of the Government. It is no surprise that seeing its long-term benefits to Pakistan’s economy, CPEC is facing stiff opposition from our adversary India.

Resistance by India and some other powerful countries manifests a self-serving agenda to keep Pakistan vulnerable and embroil it in the crossfire of US-China rivalry so as to weaken Pakistan’s time-tested ties with China. Pakistan and China are not new to such machinations and are determined to foil any attempts to derail their cooperation.

It is necessary to forcefully counter those interest groups which are against this people-centric project. A well-calibrated joint strategy with China is required to ensure seamless implementation of agreed projects.

The greater BRI initiative

While BRI is at a crucial stage of its evolution, it faces the headwinds of world politics, which is fraught with great uncertainty and potential risks compounded by the Covid 19 pandemic. The rise of China has brought about a “tectonic shift in the global balance of power.”

The world order has transitioned to a new power equation where the US and China are two poles with other centers of power adjusting to co-exist. Shifting alliances and realignments currently underway portend a new power structure whose shape is yet to evolve.

China has positioned itself soon to be a world leader in technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computers, and space sciences which will drive our future. The new strategic construct will be around Asia, with China in the lead. China’s progress over the last three decades has been astounding.

Pakistan-China Relationship

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It has lifted eight hundred million people out of poverty; constructed 150,000 km of highways; 35,000 km of high-speed rail; first-ever landing on the far side of the moon; developed Maglev train with a top speed of 600 km; first seaborne space launch; commercial launch of 5G and Beidou navigation satellite; and operationalization of new Beijing airport, are only some of the mega feats achieved in recent years.

BRI has opened new passageways from Asia to Europe for commodity trade, reducing China’s dependence on the Malacca Strait and cutting costs. China has initiated over 200 agreements with 138 countries under BRI.

There are 890,000 Chinese students overseas and 155 million Chinese tourists visited abroad in 2019 and, more importantly, returned to China. In the last over 40 years, China has never gone to war with any country. It is the second-largest contributor to the UN budget and a significant contributor to UN Peacekeeping Operations.

It identifies itself with the developing needs of poor and underdeveloped countries and does not accept the label of a “developed country.” Its target of achieving “national rejuvenation” by 2049, the centenary year of New China, is likely to make China the world’s biggest economy.

US’s ‘China containment strategy’ bound to fail?

It is this prospect of China’s rise which makes the United States apprehensive. Its China containment strategy is, in fact, more to arrest the decline of the US pre-eminence in world
affairs rather than reverse China’s rise, which is now an established reality.

The formation of QUAD and the mantra of an Indo-Pacific strategy based on an alliance with Japan, Australia, and India would backfire as China’s containment will not be possible due to its expanding influence and economic footprint globally. Even the US allies would not like to choose sides between the US and China.

Further, given its staggering domestic issues of economy, the fallout of Covid pandemic, race-based divide, crumbling infrastructure, and the migrants’ pressure, the US will remain off balance and incapacitated to retain its primacy globally.

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Although militarily still the most powerful country, the US has seen the limits of its power in recent years in war theatres of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where despite cobbling alliances with like-minded countries, the US failed to achieve its objectives. In our region, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years is a telling reminder of its
failed policies.

Another factor that may hamper US outreach is the erosion of its soft power and public opinion fatigue in the US concerning conflicts. An array of opinion-makers in the US are cautioning against confrontation with China.

Pakistan-China Relationship

Fareed Zakaria believes that China’s challenge is being exaggerated, and the consequences of not getting it right could be enormous for the United States. Henry Kissinger has also advised the Biden Administration to work with China to avoid a catastrophe.

However, experience attests to most US administrations prone to repeat follies out of hubris and arrogance. In South Asia, the US policy to assign a “net security provider” role to India and project it as a counterweight to China is destabilizing the region.

Bolstered by US military and strategic support, India has stepped up repression in the Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir, heightened tensions with China and Pakistan on LAC and LoC, and intensified discriminatory policies against Muslims and other vulnerable groups.

Conclusion of agreements like BECA, COMCASA, LEMOA, and GSOMIA, described as “foundational defense pacts” by Indian experts, underscore the strategic nature of the US-India alliance and their convergence on common security threats in the context of Indo-Pacific strategy.

This nexus will play out in South Asia to the detriment of both Pakistan and China. They both face the prospects of growing instability and turbulence in their immediate neighborhood. The recent developments in Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East may result in unpredictable outcomes impacting the vital interests of both China and Pakistan.

In this backdrop, Pakistan-China relations have acquired even greater importance as strategic partners and require close coordination and communication to face common threats.Pakistan considers China to be an anchor for peace and security in the region.

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Pakistan shares the Chinese perspective that connectivity and development are critical to the region’s peace, progress, and prosperity. Pakistan appreciates China’s support for its sovereignty and independence and its vital economic and financial assistance. Pakistan fully shares China’s stance of a peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.

Pakistan is of the view that the BRI presents a win-win scenario for prosperity. China’s policy of peaceful neighborhood, its offer of cooperation and coexistence rather than confrontation and conflict with the US is a rational and responsible response. The world would like to see stability in relations between China and the US.

No single country can handle the myriad of challenges faced by the world today. Peaceful coexistence and cooperation between the two giants is essential for peace and stability in the world.

China’s rise – a irreversible phenomenon?

The Communist Party of China (CPC) is celebrating 100 years of its founding this year. Chinese are preparing to celebrate the event in a befitting manner. In the last three decades, the progress made by China is a tribute to CPC and the Chinese leadership. From a modest start, CPC now has a membership of over 90 million.

Some key figures of the US administration have called for toppling the CPC. This is not only unrealistic but outrightly offensive since CPC is China’s persona. Any attempt to destabilize China is bound to fail and will cause irretrievable damage to US-China ties.

Chinese leaders have emphatically discounted the theories of “China’s threat,” asserting that China has never been and will never be a hegemonic power. Similarly, the theory of “China’s collapse” is also false as China’s peaceful rise is a historical and irreversible phenomenon.

They contend that China will become a superpower at its own pace. Pakistanis feel happy over the achievements made by China and wish our friends greater glory and a bright future. Imperatives of regional peace and security and congruence of interests steer Pakistan-China relations.

In the changing international environment, this relationship is a bright spot and a constant in Pakistan’s foreign policy. It enjoys support across the entire political spectrum, and our political and military leadership attaches the highest importance to it.

The level of bilateral cooperation is deep, and substantive, and constantly expanding. China has shown the understanding, capacity, and willingness to help Pakistan. Seven decades of the relationship proves that our destinies are tied together. We shall continue to march ahead and take this friendship to newer heights to serve as a beacon of light for our future generations.

Ambassador Masood Khalid was the longest-serving Ambassador of Pakistan to China. A career diplomat, Ambassador Masood Khalid joined the Foreign Service of Pakistan in 1979. He was appointed as Ambassador to China in January 2013 following ambassadorial assignments in South Korea and Malaysia.

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