Nothing Comes Without Conditions: China’s Relationship with Pakistan


Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics (C. Hurst & Co, 2015)


In one of the many revealing anecdotes in Andrew Small’s new book on the relationship between China and Pakistan, a Chinese expert describes worries about the Islamization of the Pakistan Army. “We’re not worried about the generals, we’re worried the brigadiers,” the Chinese expert says. The generals were old enough to have established their habits by the time military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977 and promoted a militant strain of Islam in the country and its army. “They drink, they send their children to study in the United States or Great Britain. The younger ones are sending their children to study in the Gulf.”

The comments highlight an often-overlooked ambivalence in China’s attitude to Pakistan. Though Beijing has always been willing to use Pakistan to counter India, its support is conditional. Like the United States and India, China worries about the threat posed by the rise of violent Islamism to the outside world and to Pakistan itself. That makes it a potential ally in helping to stabilize Pakistan. As Washington and New Delhi forge ever closer ties—highlighted by President Barack Obama’s visit to India—they will need careful diplomacy to avoid alienating China with talk of containing it and instead seek to enlist its help.

In The China-Pakistan Axis, Small recounts China’s role in helping Pakistan obtain nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles by supplying technology and expertise—going as far as flying in supplies of highly enriched uranium—to help it keep pace with India’s nuclear weapons program. But China has never committed troops on Pakistan’s behalf, even during its many conflicts with India, and has often been more inclined to work with the United States to try to defuse a crisis than provide Pakistan with support.

As Small writes, “China would like to see the India-Pakistan relationship exist in a state of managed mistrust,” one which keeps India tied down in its own neighborhood rather than challenging China across their long land border or competing with it in the rest of Asia. But, particularly since India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, China has also fretted about the possibility of an all-out war between the two. Thus when Pakistan began a border conflict with India in the Kargil region of Jammu and Kashmir in 1999, China refused to provide military or diplomatic support. Significantly, Chinese officials were in regular contact with their U.S. counterparts during the Kargil crisis to ensure both Beijing and Washington delivered the same message to Pakistan about the need to pull back its troops. Those contacts would come as a surprise to many in Pakistan, which has tried to use its “all-weather friendship” with China to balance its often-antagonistic relationship with the United States, little realizing the two could also work together behind its back. Similarly, after the attack on Mumbai by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in 2008, China refused to use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to block sanctions against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the front organization for the LeT. It would, as Small notes, be ready to help Pakistan in the event of an unexpected Indian invasion. But there would be no blank check to underwrite Pakistani adventurism. “As with its enduring assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear program, the most significant backing that China provides does not come in the midst of the latest crisis, but from the steady, long-term commitment to ensure that Pakistan has the capabilities it needs to play the role China wants it to,” writes Small.

There is, of course, a level of trust and intimacy between China and Pakistan that comes from the sharing of military and nuclear secrets. China also worked closely with Pakistan to supply weapons, paid for by the United States and Saudi Arabia, to militants fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Until relatively recently, moreover, it was able to rely on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to gain access to the Afghan Taliban and other Islamist militants to ensure Chinese interests were left alone and Uighur militants from its Xinjiang region kept in check. But as Pakistan began to lose its grip on Islamist militants, China also lost some of its confidence in Pakistan. At home, China has faced increased attacks from Uighur militants; while in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chinese workers have been killed. Hence its worries about the Pakistan Army: it is one thing to support a national military against India and quite another to supply one being eaten away from within by a virulent strain of violent Islamism.

China’s concerns mean that while it had feared an outright U.S. victory in the Afghan war that would allow it to set up permanent military bases in the region, it also has common cause with Washington in its desire for regional stability. Indeed it was U.S. drone strikes rather than Pakistani troops that killed Uighur militant leaders wanted by China in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.

The coincidence of interests between China and the United States is perhaps best illustrated by their views of the potential threat posed by Islamist militants to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Their views are not the same—Small writes that efforts by Washington to draw Beijing into discussions about contingency planning to secure nuclear weapons in the event of a crisis have been routinely rebuffed. But they do overlap. “Would we accept a U.S. intervention to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? No. Are we as worried as [the United States] about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? No,” Small quotes a Chinese expert as saying. “But China is willing to help Pakistan defend a Pakistani bomb. We won’t help them protect an Islamic bomb. If it’s under the control of a mullah, then everything changes. It’s not unconditional.”

China, like the United States and India, is obviously hoping it won’t come to that. It is still making plans for an economic corridor through Pakistan that would link western China with the Gulf. Those plans could anchor Pakistan into a more stable framework of rising economic growth if security is improved enough to permit it. Small’s book, however, is an important reminder that if Pakistan continues to slide into instability, China’s help will be sorely needed. It should be compulsory reading for anyone too carried away by the euphoria of warming U.S.-India ties and tempted to believe China can be nudged out of the picture.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has reported on Pakistan and India since 2000. She is the author of “Heights of Madness”, a book on the Siachen war fought in the mountains beyond Kashmir on the world’s highest battlefield. She is now working on a book about how the relationship between India and Pakistan was changed by their nuclear tests in 1998. She lives in Scotland and can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.


Photo credit: Anthony Maw