Forever friends: Enduring Pakistan-China relations

Former foreign secretary gives an overview of relations that go back decades if not longer. Some truths become clichéd, as is often thought of the ‘Iron brothers’ description of the two countries relationship; however, both share a remarkable identity of views on many issues has meant an increasing collaboration between the two countries on international, political and economic fronts.


Pakistan and China enjoy ‘special’ relations. This simple description encapsulates the essence of a multidimensional, timeless partnership endowed by nature and human spirit, shared mountains and rivers — geo-ecological space, centuries of civilizational interaction and a soaring spirit imbued by ideals and principles that defy standard constructs of inter-state conduct. Rooted deeply in the hearts and minds of the two peoples, the bonds of friendship have been fortified by an abiding trust.

Trust is earned, and in this case, time tested too. An all-weather friendship that has been constant; irrespective of changes within each country and the regional and global environment. A complete understanding, mutual respect and readiness to stand by each other at all times have been the hallmarks of this special relationship.

Scholars, historians, strategists, diplomats have utilized their respective prisms to grasp the nature of Pakistan China relations but offered only segmented versions of this unique relationship that verges on fascinations and enchantments alien to cold theories of international relations.

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Earliest Contact of Sino-Indus Cultures

The region, now Pakistan, was the home for civilizational interplay of great consequence for China and the ancient world. Several millenniums ago, Buddhism flourished in Northern Pakistan. Taxila and Swat are well known for the holy Buddhist sites that also dot the topography of China.

It is here that Buddhism came into contact with Hellenic civilization and produced what is the much celebrated Gandharan mosaic in stone and arts. Buddhism was taken across the Karakoram mountains, by foot, to China and thenceforth to Japan, Korea and South East Asia.


The Journeys west by Faxian (Fa Hsien), a Chinese monk, are a fascinating account of his travels to Taxila, Swat and Peshawar during 399 -414 A.D. He crossed the Central Asian deserts “Where there are many evil demons and hot winds. Travelers who encounter them perish all to a man. There is not a bird to be seen in the air above, nor an animal on the ground.”

He also describes his entry into the northern regions of Pakistan as “The Onion mountains, snow rests on them both winter and summer. There are also venomous dragons, which when provoked, spit forth poisonous winds, and cause showers of snow and storms of sand and gravel…the people call then Snow Mountains.”

Faxian mentions the river Indus in the following words “The way was difficult and rugged running along a bank exceedingly precipitous…when one approached the edge of it, his eyes became unsteady, and if he wished to go forward in the same direction, there was no place on which he could place his foot; and beneath were the waters of the river called Indus.”

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Faxian’s account provides one of the first recorded anecdotes of the contacts between Northern Pakistan and China. These regions were part of the ancient fabled Silk Roads that not only exchanged precious wares but also ideas. A certain shared civilizational ‘ethos’ germinated from these contacts and interactions.

Idealism & Shared Aspirations

The peoples of Pakistan and China, through the ages, transitioned through somewhat similar situations and struggles until in the twentieth century both emerged as modern nation-states in 1947 and 1949 respectively. However, the circumstances of their birth were different.

One was the result of a democratic struggle against the British led by the Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the other after a people’s revolution led by Chairman Mao Tse Tung. Their political and economic systems were different. Culturally both were products of varied civilizations, but ethnically and linguistically distinct.


Yet, besides the geographical contiguity and historical links, a common bond was the shared aspirations of the two peoples to preserve their hard-won sovereignty and independence and achieve socio-economic advancement in an unequal and volatile world. The North-South dynamics were a defining feature of those times, also as the Cold War imposed its own frigid political and strategic order.

A noble streak of idealism informed the worldview of Pakistan and China and both completely subscribed to the principles and recognized norms of a World Order based on the UN Charter. It is this streak of idealism that has been a key feature of their respective foreign policies.

The Realist school of strategists and many western scholars tend to discount or disregard these aspects in reaching cold calculations about national power and elements propelling human history. They are therefore unable to give due weight to the importance of values, customs and traditions of ancient eastern societies.

Pakistan was among the first to recognize the People’s Republic of China (January 1950) and set up its diplomatic mission in Beijing on 21 May 1951. Pakistan and China first met at the Summit level in Bandung in April 1955, at the Afro-Asian Conference that coined the five principles of peaceful coexistence.

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China showed complete understanding of Pakistan’s security compulsions that had dictated Pakistan’s enmeshment with the US-led security arrangements against communism. China and Pakistan were thus in opposite camps, but Chinese leaders Mao Tse Tung and Premier Zhou En Lai had the sagacity to view Pakistan through long term perspective.

Pakistan Prime Minister Suhrawardy visited China in October 1956 to a red carpet welcome. In December 1956, Premier Zhou En Lai visited Karachi. The joint statement, inter alia, mentioned that “There was no conflict of interest and that different political systems and outlook on issues should not hamper mutual cooperation.”

Throughout the turbulent period of the ’50s and ’60s, global and regional events propelled the growth of PakistanChina relations — notably the India-China war of 1962, Pakistan-India war of 1965 and the Sino-Soviet differences. Pakistan’s disenchantment with the western alliance came to the fore in the context of troubles with India.

Pakistan turned towards China for military assistance. Significant markers during this period were the 1963 Boundary Agreement with China reached amicably; the opening of an air corridor to China with PIA flights from Karachi to Shanghai (1964); establishment of direct radio and communication links; establishing sea lines of communication enabling their ships to anchor in each other’s ports; Chinese interest-free loans to Pakistan; and Pakistan’s support to China at the U.N. to restore its membership.

The development of Special Economic Zones, industrial parks, and related economic activity requires the total focus of the government and private sector

Premier Zhou En Lai made a historic visit to Pakistan in 1964. On return, he reported to the National People’s Congress that Pakistan had pursued an independent foreign policy. China appreciated that Pakistan withstood various pressures, mainly from the U.S., and consistently maintained friendly relations with China and other Asian-African countries.

President Ayub Khan visited China in March 1965 and was greeted by a million people in Beijing. Defense and strategic ties started to figure. In July 1966, China and Pakistan signed their first military agreement worth U.S. $120 million. China supported Pakistan during the 1965 war with India and replenished military hardware after the war.

Era of Forging Close Relations

In the ’70s and the ’80s, further strengthening of Pakistan and China relations was witnessed. Irrespective of the change of leadership in both countries, the vision of forging close strategic cooperative partnership was dedicatedly pursued by both countries. Pakistan played a key role in facilitating the opening of US-China relations.

The U.S. Secretary of State Dr Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in 1971 was arranged by Pakistan. It proved to be hugely consequential for the U.S., China and the world. China also played a constructive role in the 1971 India-Pakistan war and rendered invaluable support to Pakistan in the U.N. Security Council. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto visited China from 31 January to 2 February 1972, after assumption of power.

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China extended grants of 110 million dollars and a repayment period of a loan of $220 million was extended from 10 to 20 years. Mr Bhutto requested China’s Premier Mr Zhou En Lai to convert the loan to grant and was surprised that the Chinese Premier did not respond to his request. The next day Zhou En Lai explained that we want ‘a relationship of equals with Pakistan’.

‘If we convert the loan to grant, it will be demeaning. We will further extend the repayment period, and even if you were not to repay, we will never ask for its return’.  This anecdote provides deep insight into the Chinese sense of propriety and their conception of friendship and relations with Pakistan.

Military equipment was supplied including the delivery of 175 F-6 fighter aircrafts. An aircraft maintenance facility was established in Kamra, which later became the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. China was also forthcoming in its support to Pakistan on the Kashmir cause.

In 1977, the Karakoram Highway (KKH) built by the Chinese and Pakistani engineers, traversing forbidding terrains, was inaugurated. This 1,300-kilometer road connected Islamabad with Kashgar was opened for general traffic in 1986. China opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and supported Pakistan’s role in securing the liberation of Afghanistan.


Another significant dimension was the strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan. This yielded substantial dividends in bolstering Pakistan’s defense capacities. Besides the Heavy Mechanical and Electrical Complexes in Wah, the civilian nuclear program was initiated. A series of nuclear power plants of 4×300 M.W. capacity each were set up in Chashma in the following years.

Subsequently, it was agreed to build K2 and K3 nuclear power plants of 1200/1400 MW each in Karachi. High-level visits between Pakistan and China have been a key feature of relations. Most notable in this regard were the visits of President Jiang Zemin in December 1996, Premier Zhu Rongji in May 2001, Premier Wen Jiabao in April 2005, President Hu Jintao in November 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao in December 2010, Premier Li Keqiang in May 2013 and President Xi Jinping in April 2015.

President Xi is again expected to visit Pakistan soon. From Pakistan, there has been a constant stream of high-level visits to China. These visits have contributed to developing multi-domain cooperation between the two countries. In 2005, Pakistan and China signed a landmark Treaty of Friendship Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations.

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In 2006, Framework Agreements for cooperation in the fields of economy and trade; energy; science and technology; and defense including defense equipment were signed in Beijing. Both sides also established a Joint Five Year Economic and Trade Cooperation Plan, which was later extended for another five years. Joint Coordination Committee was also set up and later upgraded to serve as the clearinghouse for projects under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

CPEC: Quantum Jump in Economic Relations

The Foreign Ministries and the Military Establishments on both sides have set up mechanisms for regular consultations and close coordination — bilateral and multilateral on all areas of interest and concern. Economic and trade cooperation witnessed a quantum jump with the launching of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which centers on developing infrastructure, energy, agriculture and industrial sector in Pakistan.

The development of Gwadar deep seaport was initiated on Pakistan’s request during the visit of Premier Zhu Rongji. Gwadar holds immense potential for serving as another gateway not only to Pakistan but all the landlocked states of Central Asia and Afghanistan. CPEC is a convenient label for Chinese assisted economic projects in Pakistan.

Chinese concessional credits have made it possible for Pakistan to benefit from China’s economic rise in a substantial manner. Although entirely commercial, its strategic potential has created an international stir, as it is part of the Chinese global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). CPEC is bound to go transnational and span other adjoining regions, thus enabling Pakistan to realize its geo-economic potential as a conduit for trade, commerce and a transportation hub.

Its new dimensions must be revealed in the realm of thoughts, values, morals, culture, traditions and the full spectrum merger — and distilling of the virtues of two ancient civilizations for the benefit of mankind, as a whole

Policymakers in Pakistan are cognizant of the great benefits that can accrue and need to ensure that CPEC projects are smoothly and expeditiously implemented. The development of Special Economic Zones, industrial parks, and related economic activity requires the total focus of the government and private sector. This would require cutting bureaucratic red tape and matching the efficiency of Chinese bureaucracy, which is a challenge.

Chinese do not believe in loud talk but actions. They are speeding ahead at a phenomenal pace. Pakistan cannot afford to remain mired in fruitless discussions and self-doubt. There is an urgent need to enable the CPEC Authority to deliver projects with Chinese cooperation with utmost efficiency. It is rather unfortunate that valuable time was lost with some segments trying to treat CPEC as a political football.

Social development is now part of the CPEC agenda. Establishment of vocational training centers should be expedited to produce the workforce adequately qualified for the tasks in hand. Private sector cooperation will be the modus operandi for taking CPEC forward. A facilitative regime for enabling the private sector to work on cooperative projects, which are commercially feasible, needs to be put in place.

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Energy cooperation has been extremely helpful in overcoming shortages. The hydro-electric potential of Pakistan needs to be realized. The Diamir Bhasha dam project has been launched. Several other projects are under consideration. Chinese corporate entities have evinced considerable interest in these projects. China has also been assisting Pakistan to develop its huge coal reserves in Thar, as well as mines and minerals.

Oil and gas exploration have also been an important aspect of cooperation. China is assisting Pakistan in rail, road infrastructure and in this context, Main Line 1 (ML-1) is due to be taken up for implementation soon. China has also been at the forefront in extending the balance of payment support to help Pakistan overcome its economic difficulties. Chinese government extended concessional credits with favorable repayment terms such as 2 percent interest and 20 to 25 years repayment period.

Pakistan’s debt burden is not on account of Chinese loans. The propaganda about Chinese predatory economics is misleading and entirely self-serving. The Pakistan-China Free Trade Agreement has now entered the next phase, which gives all items of Pakistan export interest a zero-tariff access to the vast Chinese market. Despite this facilitative regime, Pakistani exports have yet to avail these concessions.

Pakistan China Relations

China has been encouraging imports from Pakistan. This area needs more attention at the Pakistani end. The KKH has been widened and is being linked by high grade expressways to Pakistani ports. The freight traffic is expected to increase considerably, once the network is completed.

It is essential that Pakistan must not be just a transit hub but a direct beneficiary of this infrastructure. Technological cooperation has been an extremely valuable aspect of China-Pakistan cooperation. There are framework agreements covering all aspects of technology including earth, marine and space sciences. Pakistan and China have also developed a long-term plan for cooperation in space.

The PAKSAT 1 communications satellite was launched. Remote sensing satellites are being worked upon. In the meanwhile, Pakistan has been given access to the Chinese satellites. Work on rocket engine propulsion technologies is being carried out. Collaboration in agricultural sciences and in preserving the ecosystems is ongoing.

Cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology has registered significant progress. Defense collaboration is robust; defense equipment is being jointly produced. This includes main battle tanks, jet fighters, frigates, submarines and patrol boats.

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Pakistan has access to the state-of-the-art technologies in various domains, including surface to air and air to air missile systems. Here it is important to note that this collaboration is within limits prescribed by relevant international regimes such as the MTCR guidelines and thus entirely legitimate.

Community of Shared Destiny

Political consultations on regional and global issues is a regular feature. It reveals a remarkable identity of views between Pakistan and China. Pakistan has supported the Chinese position on core issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. China has repeatedly expressed support for Pakistan’s sovereignty and independence.

Cooperation at the U.N. and other international forums has been a hallmark of the strategic partnership. China played a key role in Security Council consultations on Jammu and Kashmir following the Indian actions of 5 August 2019 aimed at changing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. It declared these actions as ‘illegal’ and ‘unacceptable’.

Consequently, China took strong action against India in Ladakh and along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), causing India huge damage and embarrassment. In short, China has been a dependable friend and more. China has been a lifeline for Pakistan’s’ security and development. China is programmed to become a developed state by 2049. It is projected to become the number one economy in the world in a couple of years.

Pakistan China Relations

In purchasing power terms, it is already the number one economy. Technologically China has progressed fast. Despite its stellar national achievements, it has never exhibited great power pretensions or aspirations. Its strategic priority has been development. It has eschewed all digressions and made heroic strides towards achieving the goal of ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.

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In fact, what is being witnessed is a veritable renaissance of the ancient Chinese civilization. It is not only in vertical high-rise buildings, fast trains, longest railroad and expressways but also in the realms of intellect, arts, crafts and performing arts. China is now providing the world with an alternate vision, a message of hope and faith in unity in diversity; lessons about common humanity and the catchphrase of ‘community of shared destiny’.

The BRI is an open-ended, voluntary and equal-footed cooperation concept. It is being regarded as the biggest ever transformative project that will alter the geography of the world in terms of economic and trade cooperation. China has already invested about one trillion dollars in BRI projects around the world. China’s moral voice often sounds solitary in a world prone to power play and hegemony.

China has played by global rules and proven itself as a responsible stakeholder in the international system. It is this idealistic streak backed now by China’s tremendous economic capacities that appeal to the Pakistani minds and hearts. Chinese respect friendships and often remind Pakistanis that they will never forget what Pakistan did for China in the past when it was suffering from international isolation.

PIA and Karachi were their gateways to the world. Also, Pakistan supported China in coping with natural calamities such as the 2008 earthquake. China was the first to send relief and rescue missions to Pakistan in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 floods. The members of the Chinese rescue squad came back hugely moved by the love and friendship demonstrated by the Pakistanis during their stay.

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Wonderful tales of special affection for China. Indeed, that is where the true strength of this rock-solid friendship is derived: from the people. To be called an ‘old friend of the Chinese people’ is a huge compliment. It is a rare honor to fit this description. The long-standing friendship must grow from strength to strength and scale new heights.

It is not limited to CPEC and material support alone. Its new dimensions must be revealed in the realm of thoughts, values, morals, culture, traditions and the full spectrum merger — and distilling of the virtues of two ancient civilizations for the benefit of mankind, as a whole.

Salman Bashir is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, High Commissioner of Pakistan to India, and Pakistan’s ambassador to China. He tweets @Salman_B_PK.

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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