by: Aparna Pande
Courtesy: Wichaar.com, August 26th, 2009
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari arrived in China on Friday, August 21, on his fourth visit to the country since taking over as President in September 2008. President Zardari is not the first Pakistani President to visit China so often. Regular visits to China are routine for every Pakistani head of state going back to the 1960s-1970s.
Pakistan and China have had very close ties for the last 50 odd years. Pakistan was the first Muslim country and third non-Communist country to accord recognition to the communist government of China in 1949. China is also one of Pakistan’s oldest trading partners. As early as 1950 trade relations were set up based on barter where Pakistan exported cotton and jute in return for Chinese coal.
Belief in an existential threat from next door neighbour India led Pakistan’s rulers to perceive China as a trustworthy ally: a strong power they could rely on in case of an Indian attack. China’s pro-Pakistani stance during the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict helped consolidate this view at a time when Pakistan’s Western allies stopped aid to both India and Pakistan.
As a country isolated and embargoed during the 1950s-1960s, the Chinese communist government saw immense benefits in increased trade and diplomatic contacts with Pakistan. Friendship with Pakistan also helped China build trade and diplomatic ties with the Muslim Middle East and South East Asia.
Border tensions between India and China and regular India-Pakistan conflicts helped cement Sino-Pakistani ties. Through the 1970s and 1980s China provided economic and military aid to Pakistan. Sino-Pakistani cooperation in the nuclear field too can be traced back to the 1980s.
From the 1990s, however, there was a significant yet subtle shift in Sino-Pakistan relations. On the one hand there was a further consolidation of economic and military, especially nuclear, ties between China and Pakistan and on the other a slow reluctance on the part of China to be embroiled in India-Pakistan disputes. Both domestic and international reasons had a role to play.
By the 1990s China built very close ties with the United States and other western countries. China’s ties with India too improved during the 1990s. The two countries built close economic ties notwithstanding the border dispute which persists.
An indication of this change in China’s foreign policy was seen in the speech delivered to the Pakistani National Assembly in December 1996 by President Jiang Zemin which expounded for the first time China’s policy toward South Asia. Reiterating the close Sino-Pakistani relations President Zemin, however, stated the need for: “Properly handling existing disputes in the spirit of seeking common ground while setting aside differences … We should look at the differences or disputes from a long perspective, seeking a just and reasonable settlement through consultations and negotiations while bearing in mind the larger picture. If certain issues can not be resolved for the time being, they may be shelved temporarily so that they will not affect the normal state-to-state relations.”
What the Chinese President was telling his Pakistani hosts was that like China had started economic and cultural ties with India and “temporarily shelved” the border issues because they “cannot be resolved for the time being”, maybe Pakistan should try the same with India. The importance of this speech in Sino-Pakistan relations can be gauged from the fact that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted this speech as one of the ‘key documents’ which define China’s relations with Pakistan.
From the 1950s China had always supported the Pakistani position on the Kashmir dispute. In the 1999 Kargil conflict, however, China took a stand similar to the United States. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went to China, in the midst of the conflict, looking for support the Chinese asked him to resolve the conflict with India as they were not willing to interfere. China’s policy ever since has been to encourage India and Pakistan to solve their problems through negotiations and dialogue.
During Pakistan’s recent transition to democracy China is once again one of the leading countries providing aid, both military and economic. In April 2008 China came to Pakistan’s rescue with an immediate $ 500 million loan to help Islamabad with the balance of payments. However, the difference between the 1970s and today is that China was reluctant to provide aid unless Pakistan first agreed to an IMF-backed economic recovery program.
China is also concerned about the growing Uyghur problem in Chinese Xinjiang, a province that borders Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Chinese authorities had hoped that close Sino-Pakistan ties over the years would prevent problems in Muslim Xinjiang. However, from the 1980s, starting with the Afghan jihad, the Uyghur insurgency has received succour from local and global jihadi groups based out of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What is troubling for China is the increasing inability of the Pakistani government to dismantle and destroy jihadi groups which were traditionally seen by the Pakistani intelligence as ‘assets’ in the jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan. During President Zardari’s last meeting with President Hu in June 2009 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Yekaterinburg, Russia, China asked Pakistan to use all its resources to uproot the jihadi organization East Turkistan Islamic Movement from Pakistan.
For most Pakistanis, policy makers and the general public, the Chinese relationship has a very strong sentimental value. In speeches and editorials the Sino-Pakistan relationship is referred to as being ‘deeper than the Indian Ocean’ and ‘higher than the Himalayas.’ There is this conviction, even at the level of the common man in Pakistan, that this time round in any India-Pakistan conflict or in any attempt to break up Pakistan by either ‘Hindu’ India or the West or Israel, China will stand by Pakistan and protect its territorial integrity. Majority Pakistanis also view China as a superpower, even if the rest of the world considers China only as a major power.
What Pakistan ignores at its peril is that times have changed and China’s relations with India and the United States reflect these changes. China and the United States share a very close strategic relationship today both on the economic and diplomatic level. Secretary Clinton’s first foreign trip was to China and US-China trade stands at around $ 500 billion.
Sino-Indian relations too have continued to improve despite the border tensions. Bilateral trade between the two countries stands at $51 billion which is over seven times the $7 billion bilateral trade between China and Pakistan. In December 2008, India and China also conducted the “Join Hands-2008,” a joint army training exercise on combating terrorism, in India. The two countries share similar views on climate change and the Doha Round talks, energy and food security, and the international financial crisis.
Though wary of growing ties between India and the United States, especially the India-US nuclear deal, Chinese policy makers realize that India is too large a country to fall completely within the American camp. However, China would like to have good ties with India to make sure there is no band-wagonning against China at a future stage.
The Sino-Pakistani relationship has changed. The Chinese may not say it in the open in so many words because their style of diplomacy is subtle but they have shown it through gestures and speeches by key leaders. It is time Pakistan overcame its illusions about China.