- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Sino-Pakistani Relations: Axis or Entente Cordiale?

Feroz Hassan Khan

Feroz Hassan Khan is a Lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He was formerly a Brigadier General in the Pakistan Army, where he served for 32 years.

This is one of six essays in the book review roundtable on Andrew Small's The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia's New Geopolitics.

Andrew Small's book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia's New Geopolitics traces the perplexing relationship between Beijing and Islamabad. Small's geopolitical assessment is familiar, but his dubbing of relations between two important Asian states as an "axis" is somewhat mystifying. The notion of axis in international politics harkens back to World War II between the Allies and Axis powers. More recently, President George W. Bush famously described three countries—Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—as an "axis of evil." Given the negative historical connotation of the term, the book's title suggests a sinister intent behind Sino-Pakistani relations; in fact, the partnership is no more than a classic manifestation of neorealism in international relations. Small's crisp and descriptive work follows the research of John Garver, whose seminal book Protracted Conflict: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century accurately describes the Sino-Pakistani relationship as an "entente cordiale." [1]

China's friendship with Pakistan was not preordained at the time of India's and Pakistan's independence. India-China relations initially blossomed before the India-Pakistan regional rivalry and Cold War dynamics resulted in the current South Asian geopolitical alignment. Small describes the "all-weather friendship" between Beijing and Islamabad as if it were simply "forged by war" (with India) and later cemented through "nuclear fusion" (see chapters 1 and 2). However, the dependability of the partnership during times of isolation and need, more so than shared animosity toward India, is what deepened the relationship. As it became disillusioned by Western policies, Islamabad saw the fracturing of "brotherly relations" between China and India as an opportunity to mend its relationship with Beijing. The Sino-Indian crisis came after China had suffered humiliation at the hands of the United States in the Taiwan Strait in the mid-1950s and had been abandoned by the Soviet Union. By the mid-1960s, China could only depend on Pakistan during its worst moments of isolation. Pakistan's China policy, spearheaded by the ambitious young leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, capitalized on the strategic opportunity presented by India's faltering forward policy and the Sino-Indian border war in 1962. As a result, Beijing received vital access in Xinjiang through the Karakoram Highway, and Islamabad found a trustworthy ally.

China's geopolitical fortunes changed with the great strategic somersault of the Cold War. Islamabad was the conduit to the Sino-U.S. détente in a time of acute tension between China and the Soviet Union and China's internal crisis (the Lin Biao incident). [2] China could not support Pakistan in the 1971 war with India because it was concerned that the South Asian crisis could escalate into a broader conflict given the Soviet Union's support of India (especially after Washington fed Beijing details of Brezhnev's intentions to strike China with nuclear weapons at the height of the Sino-Soviet border crisis in 1969). [3] More poignantly, Small observes that despite President Richard Nixon's directive to "tilt" toward Pakistan, Washington still neglected to prevent the dismemberment of its formal ally (p. 11). Beijing took notice and used this opportunity to set the tone of its relations with Islamabad.

India's 1974 nuclear test again dramatically changed South Asia's geopolitical landscape. Pakistan, reeling from conventional defeat and India's primacy, feared nuclear coercion. Facing a Western arms embargo and emerging barriers in the nascent nonproliferation regime, the once-proud Muslim nation-state was struggling to survive in a system seemingly stacked against it. Beijing empathized with Islamabad's strategic anxieties, recalling its own "never again" moment two decades earlier, when the sudden cutoff of scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union forced China onto the path of self-reliance. [4] Small adroitly explains the "nuclear fusion," though the term is somewhat exaggerated. He draws substantially from my book Eating Grass but also provides insights from sources that were beyond my reach during my research. [5] However, as I maintain, and as Small notes, China only supplemented Pakistan's scientific prowess in nuclear weapons development. Pakistani scientists were determined to develop a nuclear capability, and Chinese assistance helped Pakistan reach its force goals much earlier than if it were working alone (p. 39). Small is also spot on in observing that China's greatest contribution was in helping Islamabad with delivery methods (p. 39–40). He rightly notes that Pakistan's nuclear capability "remains considerably less vital to Chinese interests than it is to Pakistan's, whose autonomy and even survival as a state have been preserved" (p. 44). Absent, however, are details—both in my own book and in The China-Pakistan Axis—on China's agreement with Pakistan on civil nuclear energy cooperation in 1986. This agreement grandfathers China's ongoing civil nuclear cooperation, which has wider implications after the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal.

Like most Western authors, Small dismisses Pakistan's anxieties over India's Cold Start doctrine. For over fifteen years, India's military has flaunted its doctrine of "limited war." Authorizing punitive strikes in response to purported Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacks in India, the concept entails rapid mobilization and shallow, cross-border maneuvers to inflict maximum possible damage to Pakistan's forces, infrastructure, and economy in a short war that is limited in scope, geography, and time. This concept dangerously flirts with crossing Pakistan's declared nuclear red lines. [6] In response, Pakistan has introduced short-range, low-yield nuclear weapons (tactical nuclear weapons), dubbing this strategy as "full-spectrum deterrence." [7] Small recounts a famous assertion from the former longtime director of Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division that the introduction of tactical weapons has "pour[ed] cold water on Cold Start" (p. 46). My own conclusion—having spearheaded several studies and tabletop simulation exercises involving regional experts—is that India's limited war would not remain limited nor would Pakistan's tactical nuclear weapons deter India from attacking. Small quite aptly concludes that "China is uncomfortable" with the game of chicken that India and Pakistan are playing (p. 46). The implications for strategic stability in South Asia are disturbing. More disconcerting, neither China nor the United States appears to have fully grasped its role in a subcontinental nuclear crisis.

Small goes beyond the familiar stories and explains the shifting nature of the relationship from the 20th into the 21st century. Beneath the veneer of common assertions of Pakistan being "China's Israel" and Pakistani rhetoric of the country's relations with China being "higher than the Himalayas" are some mythologized stories that Small succinctly exposes thanks to the access and interviews he obtained over the years. Beijing dismisses India's fear of a China threat and is equally unresponsive to fears of Sino-Pakistani collaboration to prevent the rise of a democratic and supposedly secular India as a great power. India's worst-case hypothesis is a two-front war in which China intervenes militarily in an Indian war with Pakistan. This may well be Pakistan's pipe dream, but, as many historians point out, China's sophisticated realpolitik would preclude involvement in the amateurish statecraft that at times hijacks South Asian diplomacy. China has no interest in embroiling itself in South Asian crises, much less in opening a second front against India.

According to Small's analysis, China's investment in Pakistan is motivated by both mutual security interests and shared economic interests that include, but also go beyond, common animosity toward India. The Karakorum Highway constructed in the 1960s has turned out to be visionary. China's landlocked Xinjiang region is now provided with seaward access to its far-flung areas and is critical to China's "look west" policy. As Beijing invests up to $46 billion to link China to Pakistan's coastline, it benefits from heightened energy security and access to a strategic South Asian corridor. In return, Pakistan gains infrastructure development at a time when it faces tremendous internal security threats, including the separatist insurgency that persists in the province of Baluchistan. [8] With China's investment assured, Pakistan is preparing ten thousand troops to secure the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Currently, the Baluch insurgency is subsiding, partly due to this promised investment.

From China's perspective, investment in Pakistan and Xinjiang promises stability; from Pakistan's perspective, this initiative makes best use of its geostrategic significance. Pakistan has a long history of being utilized by outside powers to wage wars—for example, during the Cold War in the 1980s and the war against terrorism from 2001 onward. Islamabad has suffered the blowback of these policies. China's One Belt, One Road initiative could dramatically change Pakistan's economic significance, but this outcome is contingent on the country's stability and security. For regional stakeholders, this policy is a manifestation of the three core objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation—combatting terrorism, extremism, and separatism—to which both India and Pakistan are in the process of acceding. [9]

Given these and other developments, the canard of a China-Pakistan axis as a nefarious plot against India is dated. Beijing hopes that Pakistan's possession of a robust nuclear deterrent will make India cautious while ensuring Pakistan's security enough to prioritize investment in economic interests. [10] In fairness to Small, some of the developments described in this essay occurred after the publication of The China-Pakistan Axis. Despite these concerns, however, Small's very well-researched book is a distinct contribution on this important subject.


[1] John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).

[2] Qiu Jin, "Distorting History: Lessons from the Lin Biao Incident," Quest 3, no. 2 (2002).

[3] Jian Chen, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 240.

[4] John Wilson Lewis and Litai Xue, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

[5] Feroz Hassan Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[6] Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson, eds., Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia (Washington, D.C.: Henry L. Stimson Center, 2013).

[7] Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[8] Ziad Haider, "Sino-Pakistan Relations and Xinjiang’s Uighurs: Politics, Trade, and Islam along the Karakorum Highway," Asian Survey 45, no. 4 (2005): 522–45.

[9] Charles Clover and Lucy Hornby, "China’s Great Game: Road to a New Empire," Financial Times, October 12, 2015,

[10] See Andrew Cooley, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).