PIA: First non-Communist airline into China

In its relatively short history, Pakistan has had to face many challenges. However, its national airline has always acted as a hand in glove to advance its national interests in foreign lands. From becoming the first non-communist airline to fly into China to facilitating Henry Kissinger’s secret trip, PIA’s role in establishing the foundations for Pak-China ties has been paramount and should not be forgotten.


PIA or Pakistan’s International Airlines has always been the extension of the state itself and has always worked hand glove in advancing the country’s national interests in foreign lands. It is often maintained that to consolidate the relationship between any two countries; the key is to establish a travel connection between its people.

This is primarily attributed to opening borders, facilitating visas, and establishing less expensive road and train connections. By-Air connections, being more costly to manage and operate, often require considerable traffic movement to or through countries to be feasible.

PIA, throughout its history, as per the mandate given by its enactment Act, PIA Act of 1955, has been operating in the national interest rather than the commercial interest. Despite being one of the oldest civilizations in the world, China remained a closed country for the better part of two decades, after its Independence, as it was governed under communist ideology.

It was kept isolated by the West and its affiliated countries and alliances during that time. So when the state of Pakistan, a country in SEATO and CENTO treaties set up to stop socialist and communist influence on member states, extended its hand of friendship to China, it was enthusiastically accepted and resulted in a solid strategic alliance and deep routed bond that exists till today and now defines the new world order.

Read More: Kissinger appreciates Pakistan’s key-role in establishing China-US ties

A historical day for PIA

Hence it was not surprising that PIA, then being Asia’s most rapidly expanding airline with an extensive network, was tasked to open China to the world. April 29, 1964, marked the
day when the national flag carrier of Pakistan, with its brand new and first jet in Asia – the Boeing 707, became the first non-communist commercial airliner to touch down first in Canton (now Guangzhou) and then in Shanghai in China.

It was a big day in the history of both countries and was exhibited by a state welcome of the PIA plane, which carried the then Managing Director PIA Air Commodore Nur Khan. Thousands of school children adorning the flags of both countries along with officials received the aircraft.

The PIA delegation was declared as the state’s guests and was hosted by the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. During a toast, leader of the largest nation in the world declared the friendship between Pakistan and China as higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the seas, and sweeter than honey.

PIA Boeing 720-040B commanders Capt. Trevor Gotting (left) and Capt. Taimur Baig given warm welcome in China after flight from Pakistan in 1964.

Discovering the path into China

Despite the fanfare at the reception, not many people can recall the biggest challenge faced by the flight operations and flyers of PIA; the route into China. As the country was unexplored (at least through air corridors), not many knew the air approach, especially from the west of the country.

It posed the biggest and quite literally highest obstacles, crossing over narrow passageways of the mighty Himalayas and the Karakoram Mountains. The vast expanse of land with no commercial airfields or air passage markers posed another challenge.

Read More: Celebrating 70 Years of Pakistan-China Friendship

So for the inaugural flight, the route from Karachi to Shanghai was chosen via Dacca and Canton. However, after that, PAF pilots, who had familiarized themselves by flying military missions over present-day Gilgit-Baltistan and China, were consulted, and a route was charted out that is still used today.

The secret Kissinger trip

In July 1971, PIA again found itself as part of world-defining history when confirmed in the international press that PIA facilitated Henry Kissinger’s famous yet secret trip to China.

Interestingly as most parts of that trip and its logistics were kept a closely guarded secret, the confirmation came from the fact that his official visit was to Rawalpindi and a small well-timed ‘retreat’ to an adjacent hill station and that his plane, a Boeing 707 was parked at a visible area on the Chaklala airbase which was also serving as an international airport.

However, at the same time, his merely hours-long trip to China was also on a ‘friendly’ Boeing 707, the same kind that PIA used for its operations to China, with four secret service guards instead of the Diplomatic Security Service – DSS, the agency responsible for the protection of US Secretary of State, was widely viewed as an operation by the Pakistani carrier facilitated by the Pakistani state.

The significance of this trip can easily be clarified by the fact that Henry Kissinger has termed the coming up of China as the greatest singular event of the 20th century. Right after this trip, in October of 1971, China was made a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Pakistan’s dependable friend

The PIA operations to China continue with the route operated by state-of-the-art Boeing 777s on Beijing routes. PIA has plans to expand into Shanghai and Guangzhou routes, especially considering the freight potential.

Read More: China Pakistan Free Trade Agreement Opening bigger and brighter opportunities

Even during COVID, PIA has extensively operated flights to Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Xian, and Chengdu for repatriation or relief operations. With the commissioning of CPEC projects in power generation and infrastructure development sectors, the need for a much wider operation is already being felt.

Air Marshal Arshad Malik, the current CEO of PIA, has often reiterated the significance of establishing long-term sustainable commercial ties between the leading organizations of the two countries, parallel to the ever-expanding political connection between the two governments.

Having served in China, first as the design team leader of the JF-17 project and later as the Project Director of JF-17 Thunder and Chairman of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, he has seen firsthand the natural harmony and bonds both people have for each other that can be instrumental in leading a more progressive future.

This is the reason that PIA, as part of its strategic vision, enjoys very cordial ties with the Chinese mission in Pakistan and has signed Memorandum of Understandings with companies such as China Ports Overseas Holding Company in Gwadar, MCC Resource Development Limited (MRDL) – Saindak Mining Company and has been declared as the official airline by the CPEC Authority.

The airline (PIA) also plans to initiate direct flights between Gwadar and China after the commissioning of a new airport in Gwadar. China is Pakistan’s dependable friend and more. China’s support and assistance have been groundbreaking for regional development and security, and Pakistan always responds in the same coin. The Pak-China friendship is time-tested and can only be expected to grow much stronger.

Abdullah H. Khan is the head of corporate communications for PIA and is a freelance writer for several leading periodicals. He has extensive experience in the field of Communications, PR, Brand & Marketing & Logistics. He tweets at @AbdullahHKhan2.

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