Evolving China-Pakistan Relations

Like all successful and happy relationships, as Pakistan celebrates 70 years of relations with China, they still have much to share and cooperate with each other. CPEC has brought a dimension of its own, but in addition, there is much to explore and learn in the socio-economic, cultural and high-tech fields.


The region comprising today’s Pakistan has long held a seminal place in ancient China’s statecraft and worldview. Historical accounts show exchanges even before the advent of the Christian calendar (Birth of Christ). For example, the name ‘Cheen’ in Urdu for China is derived from Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who united and ruled China from 247 BC to 221 BC.

The Kushan dynasty based in Gandhara had an envoy permanently based in Chang’An, the ancient Chinese capital. Similarly, a Kushan ruler gifted two Lion cubs to Emperor Zhang (87-88 AD) of the Eastern Han dynasty, whose arrival proved auspicious as the King was blessed with a son from his favorite queen.

Even the famous Chinese ‘Lion Dance’ we see has Pakistani origins. Most Chinese children know the folk tales of Xi Wang Mu (the Queen Mother of the West), who held annual banquets of ‘longevity peaches’ (brought from Hunza) to unite rulers of 300 Chinese kingdoms.

Monk traveler Fa Xian (399-414 AD) described the people of Punjab in the most eulogizing terms. Chinese children are also taught the ‘Pilgrimage/Journey to the West’ based on part fiction, part historical travel accounts to South Asia from 630-645 AD of Monk Xuan Zang and the legendary character Sun Wukong (the Monkey), who ate one of these peaches and was blessed with ’72 transformations’ to fight the demons to fetch the Buddhist Sutra.

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Historically, this region had been the refuge for Buddhism after the collapse of the Mauryan dynasty based in Magadh (Bihar) and the resurgence of intolerant Brahmin Caste dynasties in northern India. Hence, the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy was ‘Pakistan’s first export item to China,’ and from thereon to Korea and Japan.

Friendly Silk Route exchanges with South Asia are part of the historical record. Interestingly, even before the birth of Pakistan, the transliteration of ‘Jinnah’ the founder of Pakistan, as ‘Zhen Na’ in Chinese language, meaning forthright, upright, and truthful, was a reflection of the Chinese people’s positive attitude to independence struggle for Pakistan from 1940-1947.

Emergence of the People’s Republic of China

The emergence of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 resulted from the widespread awakening of the Chinese people against the forces of aggression, exploitation, and abuse for 200 years.

The dawn of the People’s revolution meant that the Chinese had stood up, as Chairman Mao Zedong stated in his famous speech on September 21, 1949, at the Tiananmen in Beijing. The Communist Party of China, after their victory in 1949, had a rudimentary set-up dealing with foreign relations.

Pakistan became the first Muslim country to recognize the People’s Republic of China in January 1950. On the Korean Conflict, Pakistan abstained from US-sponsored resolution branding China as an aggressor. Both countries established diplomatic relations on May 21, 1951.

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In the first five years, China lived under the shadow of the former Soviet Union. However, the Chinese leadership was keen to explore the regional landscape, and Premier Zhou Enlai attended the 29 nation Afro-Asian Conference from April 18-24, 1955, in Bandung. It proved to be China’s first ‘foray’ in regional politics of Asia.

The Chinese leadership promoted peaceful coexistence, non-interference, respect for territorial integrity, and sovereignty of all the countries at Bandung, what came to be known subsequently as the Panchshila or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

At Bandung, the Chinese leadership came face to face with the leaders of India and Pakistan. Pakistani leader of the delegation was ably assisted by Pakistan’s first Ambassador in Beijing, Major General (Retired) N.A.M. Raza.

The Chinese showed understanding for Pakistan joining the Western-led anti-communist pacts, including the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). It was also evident that the Chinese were probing the ‘Asian turf’ for friends and allies.

Despite the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai slogans, they found the Indians’ haughty, arrogant and cunning’, as described by their ancient travelers Fa Xian and Xuan Zang centuries ago. Remarkably, the Indians have not changed at all. The Chinese people have followed a policy of amity, as per the Confucian heritage of ‘prosperity thy neighbor’.

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Pakistan-China strategic partnership

The Indian hostile attitude exhibited by Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ resulted in Sino-Indian War from October to November 1962. While India was badly thrashed, a weak and isolated China looked for allies. Pakistan was an obvious choice.

President John  F. Kennedy swayed President Ayub Khan not to capitalize on the ‘opportunity of the century to solve the Jammu and Kashmir issue. Failure of the US leadership to facilitate the Jammu and Kashmir dispute resolution compelled Pakistan to make a ‘strategic shift’ in relations with China in 1963 by signing several agreements, including boundary demarcation, border trade, etc.

Pakistan’s national flag carrier Pakistan International Airlines became the first Airline from the non-communist world to launch air services to Shanghai in 1964, breaking the containment of China by the West. Pakistan thus provided China a ‘window to the outside world’ for which the Chinese people remain forever indebted.

Pakistan also became a source of the latest knowledge, skills, and technology for the Chinese people during the three decades, the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Of course, China has exponentially grown in power, influence, and economy over the past four decades.

Yet, this critical contribution, along with the geographical location of Pakistan and the natural goodwill of the Pakistani people, will al ways influence their strategic calculations. No wonder, Sino-Pakistan relations have kept progressing since Pakistan recognized the People’s Republic of China in January 1950 and established diplomatic ties on May 21, 1951.

Bilateral cooperation ever since has flourished in all sectors, particularly in defense, nuclear energy, infrastructure, and communications – growing by leaps and bounds. In the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan War, during Bhutto’s visit to Peking from January 31 to February 2, 1972, the Chinese government converted four previous interest-free loans, amounting to USD 110 million – the equivalent of nearly USD 3 billion (at the current rate of exchange) – into an outright grant.

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In any case, it  subsequently transpired that the Chinese had converted all their previous loans to Pakistan into grants. China became Pakistan’s largest arms supplier for more than six decades, followed by the US.

The Western strategists can now discern that Beijing has a long-term interest in a sovereign, secure and stable Pakistan. The Chinese remain beholden to Pakistan for many reasons, including the transfer of technology, when the Western nations had shunned them for three decades (1960-1990).

Pakistan facilitated diplomatic contacts between the United States and China through the now much-publicized secret visit of former US Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger to China in 1971. However, little known is the fact that Pakistan also facilitated China’s diplomatic contacts with the Gulf States and several other countries.

Evolving China-Pakistan Relations
Participant of Pak-China Friendship Car Rally poses while carrying flags of China and Pakistan. —APP

Deep-rooted romance

A foreign diplomat based in Beijing shared with me that his counterpart in the Chinese Foreign Ministry told him that “if they loved China, they have to love Pakistan too.” Similarly, a Chinese scholar confided in me that “Sino-Pakistan relations are ten times more important than US-Israel relations.”

He also listed the ten reasons that can be a subject matter of a separate write-up. China-Pakistan romance has many strange and not so strange characteristics, typical of epic folk tales of lovers, which no Western or Indian scholar, strategist, or columnist can fully comprehend.

The only issue is that Pakistan does not have enough ‘China expertise’ and depends far too much on the English language and Google for  knowledge about China. Even thousands of Pakistani students who travel to China to seek higher education avoid learning the Chinese language seriously.

Those who dare to do it, due to its complexities, only do it rather superficially – which is a tragedy of the highest proportions. The ordinary Chinese population, leadership, and “institutional wisdom” see Pakistan as China’s most trusted friend from its difficult days, when the Western nations boycotted it.

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Pakistan was at the forefront of states supporting China at all regional and international forums. At the United Nations, Pakistan was at the forefront of countries, supporting China’s demand for its rightful place as a member of the global community.

When China became a UN member in 1971, it utilized the venue of Pakistan’s Permanent Mission in New York. Such a level of diplomatic ‘bonhomie’ is rare in contemporary foreign relations. Pakistan also wholeheartedly supported China’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The Chinese diplomats have been highly appreciative of the professional insight and advice on pressing regional and global issues offered by Pakistan’s finest diplomats in global capitals. Pakistan has steadfastly supported China’s position on human rights issues in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.

For seven decades, China-Pakistan friendship has been marked by mutual trust, sincerity, understanding, respect, and support for each other. Irrespective of the changes in the regional and global situation, China-Pakistan relations have shown remarkable continuity and growth.

The “India factor,” which is promoted by the Western intelligentsia, as the basis of close Sino-Pakistan all-weather strategic partnership is, therefore, not only misplaced but mischievous too.

China has never been an opportunistic power. It plays a positive and constructive role in South Asia and globally. For example, the events of 2001 were the most recent example of Chinese acceptance of US support for Pakistan.

There were two previous instances: at the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference in 1955, when Zhou Enlai understood Pakistan’s decision to ally with the United States, and in 1980 when Beijing approved renewed Pakistan-US strategic cooperation in the aftermath of the ‘Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.’

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China has provided valuable support to Pakistan in nation-building, infrastructure, science, technology, and defense fields. Its achievements during the last four decades make Pakistan uniquely positioned to benefit from the expertise.

The advantages for Chinese companies to utilize opportunities in Pakistan by harnessing its rich human resources, natural resource endowments, maritime resources, and location advantages have also grown with time.

The presence of China as the moving force as the founder of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and its presence as an observer state in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) since 2007 inspires confidence for peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.

Similarly, China’s trade and investment in South Asia is on the rise. Pakistanis have watched China’s rise and foreign policy of promoting peace, development, security, and stability in the Asia-Pacific Region with enthusiasm, respect, and admiration.

Both countries enjoy a trouble-free relationship of complete trust, goodwill, and cooperation, as demonstrated by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China has never interfered in Pakistan’s internal matters nor applied any pressure. It has assisted Pakistan without any quid pro quo.

It provided critical material support in 1965 and moral and diplomatic support in the 1971 conflict with India. China exercised its first’ veto power’ as a permanent member of the UNSC, withholding the recognition of Bangladesh until the issues left over by the 1971 conflict, such as repatriation of Pakistani POWs, civilians, etc., were resolved.

China is the largest trading partner of Pakistan. Since 2015, bilateral trade has hovered around USD 15-20 billion annually. Pakistan’s exports have a short-term potential of expanding by ten times if a dedicated effort is undertaken. China has been the largest investor for five consecutive years, making Pakistan its largest investment destination in South Asia.

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

Harnessing the true potential of CPEC

CPEC is a flagship project of President Xi Jinping’s USD 1.3 Trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as part of his vision to revive the ancient Silk Route, promoting connectivity to build a community of shared destiny. Unfortunately, Western and Indian scholars do not fully understand CPEC, BRI, or the nature of Sino-Pakistan friendship and cooperation.

The successful implementation of the first phase of USD 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s early harvest projects in energy, infrastructure, roads, highways, and ports, despite formidable distractions, is commendable.

It gives hope that the more critical second phase envisaging cooperation in ten areas; including agriculture revival, re-industrialization, launching of special economic zones (SEZs), business joint ventures, higher education, health sector, tourism, environment, science and technology, and poverty alleviation, etc. will proceed smoothly.

After helping Pakistan achieve defense and nuclear technology invincibility, China is sincerely helping Pakistan restore its economic sovereignty. However, there is a need for new comprehensive policy initiatives in every sector of society to harness the full potential of CPEC in nation-building.

History informs us that natural resource endowments, geographical advantage, population, ideology, leadership quality, systemic organization, climatic conditions, foreign assistance, etc., all play their roles in the development of nations. Still, it is the “mindset and inclusiveness” that critically determine their successful outcomes.

Pakistan needs to ignite the energy of its people and leave it to  them to achieve the wonders, just as China did. These are discussed in my recently published book ‘China’s Model of Development-Lessons for Pakistan’. I describe therein ‘100 strategic policy initiatives of Deng Xiaoping. Pakistan can continue with its Westernized elitist culture of dependence and avoid hard decisions at very high costs.

The two countries are celebrating 70 years of what is truly a unique relationship, which all kinds of euphemisms fail to reflect truly. Despite the outstanding achievements in the Sino-Pakistan friendship, there is still massive scope for enhancing cooperation in several areas. Our bilateral relations have traditionally focused on defense, political and strategic ties.

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It will now have to encompass economic, business, culture, knowledge, and high-tech fields. China is willing to help Pakistan realize its ‘dream’ as its dream. The key to this will be ‘China’s expertise and implementation machinery’ for 3,000 MoUs and agreements signed with the People’s Republic of China during the past four decades (1980-2020).

While China’s rise creates opportunities for most countries of the world, especially the Eurasian region, and in particular Pakistan, it has, however, shocked the Western world. The incumbent US President Joe Biden is aggressively pursuing Trump’s policy of containment of China, with ominous global signs, termed as the advent of “Cold War II.”

The trend towards peace and development is, however, becoming the dominant global trend. But can history be repeated provided that China is neither the Soviet Union nor Japan? Today, Pakistan finds itself at a crossroad to demonstrate its ability once again to adjust to the changing global realities.

The 20th century vindicated Pakistan. The 21st century belongs to Pakistan. It will be shaped by ideas, soft power, economics, and technology. The CPEC, when fully completed by 2030, envisages employment generation of 1.5 to 2 million jobs. Already, CPEC projects created 80,000 job opportunities, equal to the total jobs created in the public sector of Pakistan.

The national interest of Pakistan requires to let CPEC achieve its true potential. Our Western friends wasted our precious seven decades by making Pakistan run on the runway without take-off for promoting India. CPEC comes as an opportunity for Pakistan’s sustainable economic take-off.

The underlying potential of Sino-Pak relationship and CPEC can only be fully harnessed if the pent-up energy of the society and the economy are ignited by innovative homegrown comprehensive policy reforms. CPEC’s successful implementation as part of the “One Belt, One Road” vision of long-term Eurasian integration will be the first step in realizing the dream of Pakistanis for a prosperous, secure, and peaceful country.

It will change the fate of the South Asian region forever. There is a Chinese metaphor: “History teaches us that challenges are only meant to elevate persons, nations, and societies to their due place on the High table.” Pakistan is among the most blessed and wellplaced nations for the future, and China knows that if it is the future, the key is Pakistan.

Ambassador (Retired) Syed Hasan Javed served in the People’s Republic of China in two diplomatic assignments in the Embassy of Pakistan for nearly a decade. Has also had diplomatic postings in Brus- sels, Geneva, Harare, and Dushanbe. He speaksuent Chinese and is the author of several bookson China, including Pakistan’s Bestseller ‘Chinese Made Easy. He joined the Civil Service of Pakistan in 1979. He holds a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Karachi.

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