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“China’s ties with Pakistan, which were established during Mao’s rule and are based on shared hostility towards India, thrive on many common interests,” argues Andrew Small in his forthcoming book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.

In an exclusive chat with Dawn, Mr Small talks about the myth of a friendship that is higher than the highest mountains and describes how the balance of power in Asia is shifting after the recent Modi-Obama meeting.

Q: An oft-heard cliché in Pakistan is that the Pakistan-China friendship is an “all-weather” relationship. Is that still true or is it a myth?

A: The clichés around China-Pakistan friendship can sound overdone but that one is fairly accurate. It’s a relationship that has been remarkably resilient over the decades, given the dramatic internal changes in both countries, and the shifts in the geostrategic context.

China may have very different needs now but it really has no other friends that it has been able to count on so consistently to look out for its interests.

And the original logic for the relationship persists – Beijing wants to see a strong, capable Pakistan that can function as a counterbalance to India.

That doesn’t mean that China will provide unequivocal backing to Pakistan during every crisis, or vast sums of financial support, but there’s a deep-rooted strategic alignment between the two sides that has never gone away.

The picture on other issues is more complex – the economic relationship, even though it has left some large legacy projects behind, has underperformed for some time, largely due to political and security problems on the Pakistani side. And the counter-terrorism picture is very mixed.

China relies on Pakistan to navigate the world of Islamic militancy on its behalf, help fix meetings and deals with various outfits to ensure that China isn’t targeted, and crack down on Uighur militants.

But it has had doubts about whether Pakistan is handling this portfolio entirely effectively, and there have been some real tensions over these issues in recent years.

Q: Both China and Pakistan aren’t the most popular countries in the world right now, in terms of human rights violations et al. Do you think that the Chinese leadership will, at any point in time, ask the government of Pakistan to do some serious soul-searching, or vice versa?

A: The two sides not only steer clear of that sort of thing but actively squash voices that try to raise these issues in public – such as China’s policy towards its Muslim population in Xinjiang. At times in the history of relations between the two sides, China has raised political concerns, but nowadays it’s more likely to demand more forceful crackdowns than raise concerns.

We saw that with Lal Masjid and, a little more discreetly, in the run-up to the North Waziristan campaign.

That remains very rare though – ordinarily China is extremely careful about weighing in on domestic issues, unless they’re tied to very direct Chinese interests, and it is still concerned not to alienate any political constituencies in Pakistan.

Q: Some say Pakistan is testing the limits of China’s patience by dragging its feet on key projects, such as the Economic Corridor to the Gwadar seaport. Would you agree?

A: The original impetus for the economic corridor came far more from the Pakistani side than from China. Although Beijing values Pakistan’s strategic economic geography to an extent, it is in no hurry, and it has other options.

In any case, even if Gwadar doesn’t succeed as a serious commercial port, it still has potential utility to China as a naval facility in the long-term. In that respect Beijing has fewer options in terms of quasi-bases in countries that its military and intelligence services can invest trust in over time – a point brought home by the recent elections in Sri Lanka – but that could as readily be Karachi as Gwadar.

China does have its frustrations about the progress of many of the economic initiatives between the two sides, and would already have committed substantially more investment if there hadn’t been such an array of problems executing projects after they were nominally agreed.

Beijing is now moving ahead with many of them despite its security concerns, and despite some political and commercial anxieties.

That’s partly because it thinks that these investments – especially in the energy sector – are important to Pakistan’s long-term stability; they’re certainly not purely economically motivated. But the new leadership’s commitment to its various Silk Road plans – the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road – are also an opportunity to give some new life to projects that might otherwise have continued to lag.

And the PML-N government has actually done a decent job of converting these Chinese grand strategic economic initiatives into action on the ground.

There are still big questions about how many of them will really take off, especially the most ambitious of the infrastructure connectivity plans, about which China still has many reservations.

But the two sides have also worked out a number of less grandiose projects that should still be realised even if railway lines to Kashgar are never built.

Q: Do you think recent Obama-Modi meeting will have any effect on China’s relationship with Pakistan?

A: In the past, China has certainly used its relationship with Pakistan to send signals to India and the US, and receiving a visit from the Pakistani chief of army staff on the day of Obama’s trip to India was another example of that.

Beijing is willing to make symbolic counter-plays when it thinks the US-India relationship is growing too close – the last two Chashma nuclear plants, for instance, only got the green light from China after the US-India nuclear deal finally moved ahead.

Modi has been more forward-leaning on the US relationship than Beijing had anticipated, and Pakistan is always the place to turn when China wants to demonstrate that New Delhi still faces strategic constraints in its own region. We should see a little of that on show when Xi Jinping finally makes his trip to Pakistan.

Having said that, the momentum behind Sino-Pakistani security relations is there regardless of India’s relationship with the United States – the two militaries already collaborate extremely closely, and China has grown less defensive about how these ties are perceived.

With India and the United States alike, China expects that strategic competition can coexist with cooperation on economic matters and various global issues.

China would continue to deepen elements of its military cooperation with Pakistan even if US-India ties were to worsen – or if Sino-Indian ties were to improve, as they actually have on trade and investment issues since Modi and Xi took office.

But there are also some natural limits – there are formal defense commitments, for instance, that China is still cautious about making to Pakistan, and it would require a more dramatic set of developments for that calculus to change. For now, the China-Pakistan relationship is as close as Beijing wants it to be.

Published in Dawn January 31st, 2015

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