Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Ask any Pakistani about Pak-China relations and it is likely that they would respond by saying that the Pak-China friendship has been a reality from the moment the Chinese communists defeated the nationalists and set up a communist state in 1949. 

Indeed, in 1951, Pakistan became the first Muslim country to recognise communist China (People’s Republic of China or PRC). But before that, Pakistan had also set up diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) which was formed by the defeated Chinese nationalists and would be known as Taiwan. 

It was the ROC that was recognised by the US, and a majority of Western governments kept the PRC out of the United Nations for over a decade. Yet, it was India which had recognised communist China almost a year before Pakistan did so. What’s more, India was also one of the first countries to snap ties with the ROC, something Pakistan would do a year later. 

A history of early Pak-China relations shows that India and the US were key players and catalysts in forming ties that exist today

According to Professor of Modern Chinese History Arunabah Ghosh, in his article for Harvard University’s Centre of History & Economics, relations between communist China and India remained cordial throughout the 1950s. And despite the fact that, in 1956, Pakistan’s then prime minister Huseyn Suhrawardy signed a friendship treaty with the PRC, communist China remained neutral in the cold war between India and Pakistan.

But it is the period between 1958 and 1962 which is not only the most intriguing in the context of Pak-China relations, it is also one which has been completely forgotten, or maybe even systematically erased. 

Farhat Mahmud in his 1991 book, A History of US-Pakistan Relations, writes that after taking over power in 1958 through a military coup, Field Marshal Ayub Khan was quick to consolidate the country’s relations with the US. According to Mahmud, Ayub signed a bilateral security agreement with the US in March 1959 allowing the US to set up military bases in Pakistan. 

The PRC launched a protest against Pakistan because it believed the bases were to be used against communist China and in support of the ROC. Mahmud writes that Pakistan “was following the US plot to create two Chinas.” He then adds that, in April 1959, Ayub offered India a defence agreement for the joint defence of India and Pakistan against external threats. This further heightened the concerns of PRC, he says, which feared that the US was planning to surround China with the help of Pakistan and India. 

Anwar H. Syed, in his 1974 book Diplomacy of an Entente Cordiale writes that, in July 1959, a group of Chinese Muslims who had stopped over in Karachi on their way to perform umrah, were encouraged by the Pakistan government to make statements against the communist regime in China. China again launched a strong protest with the Pakistani government. 

Unmoved by Chinese protests, the Ayub regime went a step further. According to a report in the October 24, 1959 edition of daily Dawn, Ayub is quoted as saying that the Pakistan Foreign Office had received a map showing some areas of Pakistan as part of the PRC.

In the same report, Ayub was cited as saying that Pakistan was willing to peacefully resolve territorial issues with China, but was also ready to defend its territory through other less friendly means. It is thus interesting to note that even though China would fight its first war in this region against India in 1962, it was the Pakistan government, buoyed by its growing military and economic ties with the US, which was willing to go to war with China almost three years before the Indo-China conflict.  

According to Syed, the Chinese clarified that the map was not officially sanctioned. But Pakistan insisted that it was. Relations between the two countries remained tense till January 1961. A report published in the January 16, 1961 edition of Dawn, quotes Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Manzoor Qadir announcing that China had finally agreed to “demarcate the Pak-China border.”

Qadir was a respected intellectual and judge who had been inducted by Ayub in his cabinet as an additional foreign minister to aid the minister of foreign affairs, Muhammad Ali Bogra. 

Bogra was overshadowed by the more polished and articulate Qadir. Qadir shared Ayub’s enthusiasm for his pro-US policies and his model of rapid economic and social modernisation. However, hot on Qadir’s heels was the young, ambitious and intellectually robust Z.A. Bhutto, who was brought into Ayub’s first cabinet in 1958 at the age of 30. Even though Qadir had worked closely with Bhutto in authoring Ayub’s 1962 constitution, relations between the two were not cordial. 

Feroz Khan, in his 2012 book Eating Grass, writes that Bhutto had nothing to do with the foreign ministry but would not hold back in giving advice to Qadir. He writes that this greatly bothered Qadir, but Bhutto at the time was a favourite of Ayub.

Phillip E. Jones, in his 2003 book Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power, writes that Qadir and Bhutto often clashed over the issue of China, with Bhutto advocating a rapid review of Pakistan’s relationship with communist China, and the much older Qadir advising a cautious approach to avoid straining relations with the US. 

When Qadir left to become a High Court judge in 1962, Ayub immediately replaced him with Bhutto.

M. Iqbal and Sargodha University’s Falak Sher in their essay, “Political, Economic and Cultural Relations between Pakistan and China during the Ayub Era”, write that as tensions increased between Pakistan and China, in 1961 Ayub received a visit from the Chinese ambassador, who wanted Pakistan to facilitate communist China’s entry into the UN. 

Ayub said that Pakistan was willing to do that as long as China agreed to demarcate borders between the two countries. In his 1967 autobiography Friends, Not Masters, Ayub wrote that after some hesitation, the Chinese ambassador agreed. 

During the 1962 armed conflict between India and China — ironically due to border disputes — the Ayub regime issued a rather subdued diplomatic statement, hoping for the conflict’s peaceful resolution. The Indian troops were decimated. 

Later that year, as reported in the December 23, 1962 edition of daily Dawn, both Pakistan and China claimed that they had finally reached an agreement on their border issues.

In March 1963, Bhutto visited China and signed a ‘boundary agreement’. According to Iqbal and Sher, the agreement gave Pakistan 750 square miles of disputed land, while 2,050 square miles of the same area was given to China. This further deteriorated relations between India and China, and Pakistan and India. The US too wasn’t happy.

But Pakistan had finally found an ally to counterbalance Indian influence in the area. Even though its relations with the US began to deteriorate, these saw a reinstatement of sorts when, during the China-Soviet split in the communist world, the US approached China through the Pakistan government in 1971. Not surprisingly, the ROC was eased out of the UN and the PRC was given a permanent seat.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 30th, 2018