Home Opinion Hutong Cat | The Pak-China all-weather strategic partnership

Hutong Cat | The Pak-China all-weather strategic partnership

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In July 2013, Pakistan Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif told Premier Li Keqiang, “our friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey” at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

That multi-dimensional description of ties has stuck, and has been put to good use, maybe more times than former PM Imran Khan’s tally of runs in test cricket, whenever China-Pakistan ties are to be described in glowing terms.

Add some iron to the sheer breadth of that bond, and there you have it: The “Pakistan-China All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership”. No less.

Khan’s seemingly abrupt ouster is unlikely to put Sino-Pakistan ties to test, tied as the two are in cooperating militarily, coopting Islamic countries — to be silent on Beijing’s hardline policies in Xinjiang including the incarceration of Muslim minorities — and countering India.

News reports from Islamabad said last week new PM Shehbaz Sharif’s first ports of call after taking over will be Saudi Arabia and China, two countries with strategic ties with Islamabad.

Sharif, as chief minister of Punjab, was part of his brother Nawaz Sharif’s team when he came to Beijing in 2013, and is considered a key actor in speeding up projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

As the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, three-time former PM, Sharif struck deals with China directly as Punjab CM, reports say.

Beijing would have closely followed the political turmoil faced by Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) given the billions of dollars it has invested in the country, by some accounts around $60 billion for CPEC itself.

During his visit to Islamabad in March, Chinese state councillor and foreign minister, Wang Yi had met both political and military leadership and assured China’s support to Pakistan come what may — at least one official Chinese readout issued on his visit indicated Beijing was aware of a possible change of government in Islamabad.

Wang told Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, that Beijing and Islamabad need to “firmly support each other” and “no matter how the international circumstances and the situation in both countries change, China will stick to its friendly policy toward Pakistan…”

Wang then drove down to Rawalpindi to meet Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa where he said the Pakistani military plays the “role of a stabiliser and ballast stone in building a closer China-Pakistan community with a shared future in the new era.”

The meeting itself was a rarity as top Chinese diplomats usually only meet their civilian counterparts during overseas trips.

The effort to build a “shared” Sino-Pakistan future is decades old.

Briefly, the strengthening of ties started in the mid-1960s in the wake of the disruption of ties between the US and Pakistan, the Sino-Soviet split and the India-China war of 1962.

“Since then, the relationship has withstood the changes within the two countries (military and political governments in Pakistan, transition in China from Mao Zedong-era to Deng Xiaoping and onwards, changes in the region including improvements in China-India relations especially in the wake of former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit to Beijing in 1988, and changes in global settings, including the Cold War, post-Cold War, and post 9/11. Bilateral ties have witnessed continuity in the relationship,” Ghulam Ali, associate professor at Sichuan University of Science and Engineering’s School of Marxism, said.

The ties were sweetened by Pakistan’s willingness to allow China access to US weaponry left behind on its soil.

In 2011, the Financial Times reported that Pakistan’s ISI gave access to the Chinese military to a modified stealth Blackhawk helicopter downed during the raid to eliminate Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad.

The report said Pakistan allowed Chinese intelligence officials to take pictures of the crashed aircraft as well as take samples of its special “skin” that allowed the American raid to evade Pakistani radar.

Ali argued that to look at India as the centre-piece of Sino-Pakistan ties is a narrow way of defining the bilateral.

“Indian and Western scholars put too much emphasis on the Indian factor. My assessment is that’s the case when the ties are looked at from the south Asian context. In my opinion, since the 1990s, China has decoupled relations with Pakistan from relations with India and deals with each independent of the other,” Ali, author of the 2017 book China-Pakistan Relations: A Historical Analysis, said.

It’s also true, however, that while the Pakistani military provides the “ballast” for ties — democratically elected civilian governments, alas, are transient in Pakistan — the Chinese military provides the bombs.

“China delivered major arms to 48 states in 2017–21, but 47 per cent of its arms exports went to just one state, Pakistan, which is China’s closest ally. Pakistan has become increasingly reliant on Chinese arms exports, partly because of the recent deterioration in its relations with other suppliers, most notably the USA,” the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s March report on Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2021.

In the last year, for example, China has built and supplied Pakistan with top of the line warships with more in the supply line; the two air forces are jointly developing fighter aircraft and, in March, it sent half-a-dozen new fourth-generation fighter jets to Pakistan, a move which was seen as Beijing’s assistance to Islamabad in countering India’s French-built Rafale warplanes.

It’s clear.

“The military-to-military relations, serving as the mainstay of the China-Pakistan friendship, have played an important role in the development of bilateral relations for a long time,” Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s defence ministry said on March 31.

There have been other sweeteners.

In 1968, visiting Pakistani foreign minister Mian Arshad Hussain gifted a case of some four dozen mangoes to Mao Zedong, who passed the fruit to Communist party workers.

That case of exploring mangoes found their way to different parts of China and triggered a frenzy, even a cult of devotion.

“During the following weeks, the mangoes were distributed to several factories, where they were treated as though they were religious relics. The golden mango was thus a powerful emblem of the power and respect accorded to the proletariat under Mao’s rule,” wrote art historian and author, Alfreda Murck.

Mangoes are now mundane in China.

Not Sino-Pakistan ties.

Despite the occasional ebb, the relationship will continue to be determined by “geography”, as the expert Ali said by Pakistan’s strategic position vis-à-vis China’s western region and as an outlet to the Indian Ocean, Pakistan’s role in the Muslim world, deep-rooted strategic cooperation and China’s non-interference in Pakistan’s internal issue.

Beijing continues to have close ties even with the leaders of some religious parties.

It’s useful to remember what former PM Sharif told Premier Li at the Great Hall of the People in July 2013.

Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that

The views expressed are personal

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