DRAWING a broad picture and bringing local narratives into context, Andrew Small has provided a lucid account of how the rather unequal friendship between Pakistan and China has developed over the last decades in his book, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.
Barely a month after the deadly riots on July 5, 2009, rocked Urumqi which left nearly 200 people dead, I got off a plane in China’s western-most provincial capital. In recent decades the Muslim Uighurs, who previously were a majority in Xinjiang province, have become less of one as more and more Han Chinese have moved west to the province. Ethnic conflict has now and again become violent, and the clashes in July 2009 were by far the most bloody.
Apart from the very few Chinese and some Punjabi businessmen, the plane was full of men from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, many in shalwar kameezes and topis with long beards. When the men sitting around me asked me to fill in the entry forms for them since they could hardly write, I discovered that they were actually from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). Most were ‘born’ on Jan 1 of some year. In a plane heading to Europe or the US it would be easy to imagine who would be put under special scrutiny on arrival. After the heightened tension in the city, which the Chinese state blamed on Uighur Muslim extremist groups and which they claim are largely trained in Pakistan, I was expecting a nervous welcome.
However, at customs, the men passed through without attracting a second glance. Being the only Westerner on the plane, I was the one who was singled out and I left the passport area more than half an hour later. After I made it sufficiently clear that I was not a journalist who was going to poke around in internal matters, they were satisfied — indeed I had only come for 10 days to look at the increasingly challenging water problem in the province.
While being increasingly frustrated with the Pakistani state’s inability to tackle extremism in the country, which threatens Chinese projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the alleged support of terrorist outfits in China by organisations based in Pakistan, Beijing retains a high interest in amicable Sino-Pak relations. The non-discriminatory welcome of Pakhtun traders who would have faced more hassle anywhere else exemplified this major pillar of the countries’ relations.
On my return flight, I was seated next to a young Han Chinese who was studying business administration in Pakistan. He said he was motivated to learn Arabic and about the culture of Muslim countries. This, he believed, was an important part of the world to invest into in the future. To me, these observations represent an important aspect of why China is interested in amicable and close relations with Pakistan in the first place. There is heightened interested in securing, in the long term, a large market for its export products. One major part of the trade, however, still is military equipment and the Chinese state is struggling to walk the fine line between successful business and getting sucked into an even more violent conflict.
Large investments, most notably the construction of Gwadar port, rumours about the presence of large numbers of Chinese soldiers in the country’s north, and numerous meetings between the heads of state and the army have resulted in a plethora of articles in journals and newspapers in recent years. They happily make use of the metaphors that are used by Islamabad and Beijing to de-scribe their relations — “deeper than the ocean”, “higher than the Himalaya” and “sweeter than honey”. Not really understanding the motivations of both parties, however, and with a lack of data and solid research, these accounts are often largely speculative.
Recent work, conducted as part of a PhD thesis by Alessandro Rippa, has provided one extremely rare insight into the lives and histories of the Muslim Chinese minorities living in Pakistan in his paper From Uyghurs to Kashgaris (and back?): Migration and Cross-Border Interactions Between Xinjiang and Pakistan. He shows how this group is not at all homogeneous; some are pro-China and others have a rather critical stance. This split along political lines as well a redefinition of their identity has been emphasised since the larger geo-political rifts caused by the events of 9/11, when China showed increased interest and suspicion towards this expat community and any exchange between the two countries was immediately seen in the larger context of the ‘war on terror’ and the region’s instability.
In a broader perspective in The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics Small has brought together a large number of sources and conducted interviews with many of the actors involved in the countries’ geopolitics. He argues that while the “pathologies of China and Pakistan’s most difficult relationships have been exhaustively explored, and do much to shape our understanding of the two countries — […] a very different perspective is opened up when we look at how they deal with their friends.”
Where the complexity arises is probably in a sometimes very different understanding of what this friendship entails. This is described well by one of the numerous anecdotes Small provides, that make the book not just an impressive scholarly effort with a trove of references but a diverting read over just less than 300 pages. In 1968 the Pakistani foreign minister, Mian Arshad Hussain, gifted Mao Zedong a basket full of mangoes. Mao was not fond of the fruit but turned it into a successful propaganda tool. Numerous posters from the Cultural Revolution with the golden mango in the centre still bear witness to this story. For Pakistan, however, there was little benefit from this episode — till today the export of mangoes to China, which proved to be popular with the Chinese public, has not taken off for logistical reasons.
Pakistan evokes the ‘all-weather friendship’ regularly in the hope of assistance in dire situations. China, on the other hand, does not share this ‘friendship’ unequivocally. While they provide arms and infrastructure regularly, Small writes that “China would not pull Pakistan out of the holes it insisted on digging for itself”.
When Pakistan saw its defeat looming in 1971 in Bangladesh, the Chinese were begged for assistance. They politely assured Pakistan that they would “continue to support Pakistan morally, eco-nomically, and politically” but refrained from physical involvement. Nearly 40 years later, after the Mumbai attacks, China made clear to Pakistan that it would not keep supporting it in an unquestioned manner. And Small writes that “Pakistan is well aware... [that] its leash is a short one”.
Nevertheless, “Sino-Pakistani ties have proved remarkably resilient since their early, tentative day”. While it is clear why Pakistan needs China — continuous supplies of arms seldom with questions asked, and large-scale investments in mega projects like the Karakoram Highway (KKH) or Gwadar — the benefits in the other direction are less obvious. Although trade may be an important pillar of the relation as such, comparing imports and exports of China to other Asian neighbours, Pakistan’s share is dwarfed. Small argues that China uses Pakistan as a balance against India, its main adversary in Asia. Although unhappy with the security situation in Pakistan and how the country deals with its militants as well as with its unsatisfying economy, Small argues that for Beijing, “an India that is forced to look nervously over its shoulder at its western neighbour is easier […] to manage”.
Pakistan is also a valuable connecting bridge to Afghanistan, which China sees as an important future asset to invest in. Here, however, they seem to have run into a conflict of interests in recent years. Pakistan is repeatedly accused of not persecuting extremists vigilantly and only focusing on those that are directing their attacks against Pakistan itself. Chinese negotiators repeatedly voice doubts about Pakistan’s commitment in going after elements that are perceived as threats to Chinese interests. “We see it in their eyes when we’re sitting in the meetings. They’re not comfortable with what we’re asking,” a Chinese expert tells Small. In their assessment, they observe Pakistan’s setting in the region and connections to its other allies. “We’re not worried about the generals, we’re worried about the brigadiers. […They earlier] sent their children to study in the United States or Great Britain. The younger ones are sending their children to study in the Gulf,” the same expert is quoted as saying. That Pakistan may not always do all it can in making Afghanistan and its own territory a safer place for Chinese investments keeps Beijing worried.
Small concludes that “dealing with a country that is both the greatest source of China’s terrorist threat and the crucial partner in combating it, is challenging to navigate ... But friendship, the one commodity that Pakistan can offer China more convincingly than any other country, matters far more to Beijing than it used to. As a result, the China-Pakistan axis is almost ready to step out of the shadows.”
Perhaps the recent visit by China’s president Xi Jinping — and many other important Chinese decision-makers in his entourage — was one more step out of that shadow. When riding down Mall Road in Lahore just a day before the official visit, all the trees were seen plastered with supersized posters of the guests (as well as the Sharif brothers and some panda bears). The state was preparing for a glorious welcome. Although it will still take some time to evaluate its impact, from what has surfaced, the visit was amicable and successful, resulting in large numbers of bilateral agreements signed. As in the decades before, while it may have been Pakistan that got the lion’s share of investments, it was China that called the shots. Most prominently they managed to convince Pakistan to provide a separate army regiment solely deployed for the safety of Chinese citizens in the country, a concern that was very important to China — as Small shows throughout his book.
It also look like the KKH is about to get heightened attention again, after the debates on its extension — the corridor transecting the whole country from north to south, financed by China — have become more intense especially after Xi’s visit. Gwadar is a project out of sight for a large part of the population, and some claim may even remain somewhat of a pipe dream. However, the economic corridor — even just the debate on it — will bring some additional visibility to the Sino-Pakistan link.
Visiting Pakistani friends who study at the main University in Urumqi, I was surprised how international the campus was. Students from Korea to the Central Asian states, as well as from all South Asian countries, come here for their education. My friends felt comfortable enough to regularly switch between speaking Chinese with the taxi driver, Uighur with the proprietor of a tea stall, English with other international students and their mother tongue, Seraiki, amongst themselves.
For China and its neighbours, such an exchange holds a lot of potential. Language and culture barriers, which can result in the failure of economic cooperation, can be overcome this way. As the relation between these two countries has seen numerous twists and turns during the last decades, it is still difficult to foresee how it will develop in the near future. Journalists and experts on the politics of Asia will fill many more pages trying to grapple with this globally relevant issue. Small’s book, however, finally provides a sound footing for future endeavours to explain new developments and will be a benchmark against which the often speculative writing on these two countries can be measured.
The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics
By Andrew Small
Hurst Publishers, UK