http://www.nbr.org - NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Friends in Need...

Andrew Scobell


Andrew Scobell is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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



China's rise to prominence in Asia has been both dramatic and seemingly inexorable. The country has significantly expanded its economic and diplomatic involvement and considerably extended its military reach. However, despite growing hard power and greater global presence, Beijing feels vulnerable and has very few reliable partners. Within this context China's close and enduring friendship with Pakistan stands out. Indeed, as Andrew Small astutely observes in the opening sentence of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia's New Geopolitics , Beijing's ties with Islamabad have "run closer than most formal alliances" (p. 1). In this impressive book, Small outlines in considerable detail the main contours of this fascinating and secretive relationship.

While all states are dysfunctional to some degree, China and Pakistan appear to be defined by the extreme nature of their respective dysfunctionalities. In addition, judging from Small's analysis, their relationship is itself highly dysfunctional. In psychology, codependency is defined as a pathological relationship where two parties are dependent on each other to an unhealthy degree. Each party has feelings of extreme insecurity and fears being alone. This condition appears to have defined the China-Pakistan relationship since the 1960s. Both Beijing and Islamabad suffer from high anxiety and believe they have a dearth of trustworthy friends in other capitals. Accordingly, each side views this partnership as essential to maintaining its own national security. Implicit in The China-Pakistan Axis is the idea that codependency is an apt diagnosis of the partnership's dysfunctionality, or at least that significant elements of this condition apply. Whether the author concurs with this characterization, it does seem consistent with his reference to Chinese and Pakistani "pathologies" in their foreign relationships (p. 7).

China has enjoyed a warm relationship with Pakistan since the 1960s, with the leaders of both countries often referring to the bilateral relationship as an "all-weather friendship." It considers Pakistan a pivotal state that will decisively influence the course of events in surrounding countries, notably Afghanistan. Moreover, Beijing also thinks of Islamabad as a longtime but deeply troubled ally on a geostrategic fault line between South and Central Asia—a region where China has had few friends. Yet Beijing's support has become more restrained than in the past as Pakistan has gradually declined in overall geopolitical significance. Although Pakistan is still an important partner and a major arms market for Chinese defense firms, its value as a conduit to the Islamic world or facilitator on the global stage has been greatly reduced. In the 21st century, China has robust relationships with every country in the Middle East and globally has full diplomatic ties with all but 22 microstates. In particular, India looms ever larger as a major economic partner for China. As a result, China's interests in Pakistan are increasingly regional and aimed at restraining Islamabad. And yet despite these developments, Islamabad continues to be Beijing's key capital in South Asia precisely because it is a counterweight to New Delhi.

Labeling the China-Pakistan relationship an "axis" is controversial. Yet Small's meticulous research suggests the term is appropriate to characterize this rather unique partnership. At least in terms of cooperative relationships, China has maintained few enduring friendships. After all, the country has tended to not play well with others. Formal alliances, such as with the Soviet Union, ended badly, and China's relationship with its sole remaining official treaty ally—North Korea—has been extremely tumultuous across the decades. Beijing's ties to another erstwhile Communist comrade in arms—Vietnam—have also been characterized by considerable turmoil, leading to extended border unpleasantries and outright war in 1979. By contrast, Beijing's ties with Islamabad have been remarkably steady, with high levels of security cooperation in the conventional and nuclear spheres. Pakistan would not likely have become a nuclear state without China's assistance, and today its armed forces rely very heavily on conventional armaments supplied by China. The People's Liberation Army (which includes all of China's military services) has almost certainly conducted more field exercises in the post–Mao Zedong era with Pakistan's armed forces than with those of any other country.

Early in the book, Small poses a key question: "What does Pakistan actually do for China?" The answer he provides—that China has "rarely needed Pakistan to do anything vastly different from what it intends to do anyway"—seems underwhelming (p. 3). So why has China elected to stand by Pakistan? The reason is essentially that it has few friends of long standing, especially ones that Chinese leaders feel able to trust. Beijing has invested a lot of time and effort into its relationship with Islamabad, and the two sides have built up an "unusual level of mutual trust" (p. 44). And trust is an extremely scarce resource both within China and in its relationships with other states.

Over the past two decades, Pakistan has become a key partner in China's struggle with terrorism at home and in the unstable areas to the west. China appears to have a chronic problem within its own borders. The Uighurs, a restive Turkic ethnic minority concentrated in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, have been radicalized as a result of harsh repression and discrimination by Beijing combined with moral and material support from sympathetic Turkic and Muslim brethren in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Pakistan has become a training ground for radicalized Uighurs, and Beijing has sought to enlist better cooperation with Islamabad on counterterrorism. China has also pressed Pakistan to do a better job of protecting Chinese citizens from Islamic radicals inside Pakistan. Beijing, like Washington, is well aware that Islamabad is beset with intricate and chronic "doubling-dealing with militant groups" (p. 156) but sees little alternative but to remain engaged. Although the results of counterterrorism efforts have been far from ideal, Beijing may have benefited more from its relationship with Islamabad than Washington has. The swift and dramatic cooperation China received from Pakistan following the Red Mosque incident in 2007 (which Small outlines in the preface), contrasts sharply with the limited and tortuous cooperation the United States received in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It took almost a decade for the United States to "bring justice" to Osama bin Laden, and this was achieved despite the collusion and ineptitude of Pakistan's military and intelligence services (pp. 155–56).

China's burgeoning economic ties with India have far surpassed those with Pakistan, but Beijing has not distanced itself from Islamabad. Pakistan figures prominently in the ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative officially launched by President Xi Jinping in late 2013. Indeed, China has doubled down on its South Asian ally: during an April 2015 visit to Islamabad, Xi declared that Beijing was prepared to invest $46 billion in Pakistan toward upgrading and expanding infrastructure. Pakistan is a risky place to do business. The security environment in sizeable areas of the country is poor, and Chinese citizens have repeatedly found themselves in danger. However, China is no stranger to operating in unstable countries in the developing world, so perhaps its Pakistan gambit should come as no surprise.

What does come as a surprise is the unanswered question posed by the book's subtitle. It may be that Small is referring to a new Asia where China is the economic, diplomatic, and military center of gravity and has emerged as the dominant power in the region. In this scenario, China may begin to step out of its traditional comfort zone to form de facto alliances and establish spheres of influence. Perhaps it is in this broader geopolitical context that Small perceives a "China-Pakistan Ax...almost ready to slip out of the shadows" (p. 181).