China-Pakistan-Iran: Trilateral Relations
in the Changing World
By Raza Ali Khan
Paramount Books (Pvt) Ltd.
As a former ambassador of Pakistan to Iran, Raza Ali Khan is eminently qualified to write about his country’s relations not only with Iran but also with China, the third pillar of what he calls “a triangle of peace and prosperity.” Well annotated, China, Pakistan, Iran: Trilateral Relations in the Changing World is an in-depth study of the factors that have shaped the three countries’ policies, not only towards each other but towards the world.
The book’s focus, as the author repeatedly emphasises, is not on a bilateral relationship between any two of the three countries, but on the trilateral relationship, since the three countries are situated in a way that the impact of their unity and strategic cooperation goes beyond the region.
The relations between Pakistan and Iran couldn’t have been worse when the author took up his position as Islamabad’s ambassador in Tehran in December 2014. The immediate cause was a terrorist attack on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards at a mosque in Zahedan, killing 20 people and wounding more than 100.
However, the book gives a commendable background to Pakistan’s relations with its western neighbour and points out it had a close relationship with Iran when it was a monarchy, with both countries being members of the US-led military alliance the Baghdad Pact, later renamed the Central Treaty Organisation (Cento). Pakistan also used its ties with China to help Iran establish diplomatic relations with China.
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, was the first head of state to visit Pakistan and supported this country in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, but was so shocked by the 1971 tragedy that he made it known to the Indian government that if it tried to harm this country again he would intervene on Pakistan’s behalf.
In spite of the monarchy’s fall, Pakistan’s relations with Iran remained friendly. For instance, Islamabad played a major part in removing the initial misunderstanding between Tehran and Beijing, when Agha Shahi, adviser to the President of Pakistan, carried a message from the Chinese government to Imam Khomeini. This changed the relationship between Beijing and Tehran, with Chinese-supplied tanks, artillery and aircraft helping Iran in the war with Iraq.
The book dwells at length on Pakistan-India relations, but refers to Kashmir from China’s point of view also. The Hindutva government, led by a fanatic like Narendra Modi, annoyed not only Pakistan but also China by its decision in August 2019 to abolish the Indian constitution’s clause 370 that guaranteed Kashmir’s special status. This constituted a practical renunciation of UN resolutions which regard Kashmir as a disputed territory and call for a reference to determining the will of the people of Kashmir.
It evoked Chinese anger, especially over Indian intrusions in Ladakh, because Beijing views it as more than a territorial dispute over a region where Chinese, Pakistani and Indian interests clash in a strategically located area having a harsh climate. What New
Delhi failed to realise was that Indian activity in Ladakh threatened China’s vital interests, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
In 2020-21, Chinese and Indian troops had skirmishes without firearms. Once, using sticks and clubs covered with steel barbs in the Galwan valley in western Ladakh, both sides clashed and suffered fatalities. While Chinese casualties are not known, India lost a minimum of 20 men.
The book gives a background to Pakistan-China relations and removes the misunderstanding that the two countries came closer only after India and China had engaged in military clashes. Instead, it points out that Pakistan and China signed a border agreement in 1962, much before the China-India war in the winter of 1962-63.
These were the years when Pakistan’s membership of Western military pacts had come in the way of its relations with Beijing. Nevertheless, the two showed a commendable degree of understanding of each other’s position. China, for instance, would criticise the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato) but not Pakistan, even though this country was its member.
Similarly, Pakistan refrained from joining America’s anti-communist campaign worldwide and continued to forge closer relations with the People’s Republic. For instance, Pakistan International Airlines became the first airline from the ‘free world’ to begin service to China. Most importantly, Pakistan resisted the American pressure to support India in its war with China.
Because of the Indian threat, the author says Islamabad had to develop military ties with its north-eastern neighbour. Thus, “a defence-oriented relationship with China has been the face of Pakistan-China relationship for decades.”
Following the 1965 India-Pakistan war, when the Johnson administration cut off all aid to this country, Pakistan and China began to develop a strategic relationship, which included, besides Chinese military aid, the decision to build what is today the Karakoram Highway, a marvel of engineering.
The development of the Gwadar port and the road network have further facilitated the movement of Chinese cargo quickly from Xinjiang to Gwadar. Today, much to the annoyance of many countries, the CPEC is a major factor in their bilateral relationship.
The author foresees American hostility to the tripartite relationship and warns that America will never be “a wise alternative to be prioritised over China.” In fact, America’s hostility could compel Pakistan “to tightly embrace China, and forge close relations with other countries hostile to the US,” he warns.
The author minces no words when he says the three countries should be ready to face American anger. Both Tehran and Beijing are under sanctions from Washington, and would prefer to come together because of “shared common threats.” The author wonders whether the US will avoid this crisis “by striking a balance in its relations with India and Pakistan.”
Today, China is Pakistan’s most reliable friend and ally, and the utility of CPEC is visible from the highway network that has enabled an easy movement of Chinese cargo from Xinjiang to the strategically located Gwadar port.
The author notes that Pakistan’s close relationship with Iran and China may evoke American anger, but makes it clear that Pakistan and its two neighbours should stay firm on their unity.
The reviewer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 3rd, 2022