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China’s ‘all-weather friendship’ with Pakistan: Implications for India

Dr. R. N. Das is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 04, 2011

    China’s balancing act in its diplomatic posturing in the sub-continent was evident when Premier Wen Jiabao flew to Pakistan for a three-day visit after concluding his three-day India visit in December 2010. While there are discernable changes in China’s foreign policy, friendship with Pakistan has remained a constant. The only other exception is with respect to Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang. So deep is the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan that the visit of Premier Wen to India and Pakistan was declared almost simultaneously in Beijing, in deference to Pakistan’s sensitivities. It was Wen’s second visit to both countries in the last five years, though there was a difference this time around. During his previous visit in 2005, New Delhi was Wen’s last port of call out of the four nations that he visited, while this time New Delhi preceded Islamabad. This simply cannot be a mere coincidence, but planned and consciously scheduled.

    In view of the importance of Premier Wen’s visit to Pakistan, it is imperative to analyse its achievements and significance. The high point of the visit was the honour extended to the Chinese Premier to address Pakistan’s Parliament, an honour that India had offered to President Barack Obama during the latter’s visit to India in November. In a country where the military wields considerable clout, the Pakistani offer was more of a symbolic gesture than a substantive one. In his address entitled ‘Shaping the future together through thick and thin,’ Premier Wen used the phrase “brothers forever” to describe the relationship between the two countries. He went on to note that “China-Pakistan friendship is full of vigour and vitality, like a lush tree, with deep roots and thick foliage.” And he added that “China-Pakistan relationship is strong and solid, like a rock standing firm despite the pressure of time.”1 Besides reinforcing the strategic commitment to Pakistan, a number of important announcements were made during this address. Premier Wen also recalled Pakistan’s consistent and full support to China in the past at some crucial junctures on various issues, including Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

    It is worthwhile to recall in this context India’s role and contributions at a very critical time when China was seeking admission to the United Nations. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, India voted in favour of the United Nations action against the North, but when China entered the Korean war India resisted the condemnation of China as an aggressor by the General Assembly of the United Nations in order not to enlarge the area of hostility. In its efforts to bring about a settlement, India served as a channel of communication of Chinese intentions and requirements to the outside world, and consistently pressed for the recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the rightful representative in the United Nations. Further, in September 1951, India declined to attend the Conference at San Francisco for the conclusion of a peace treaty with Japan because, among other reasons, China was not a party to it.2 Beijing should not forget these Indian efforts.

    If the achievements of Premier Wen’s visit to India were more pronounced in terms of economic content, his visit to Pakistan was more characterised by political and strategic significance. Although China has been helping Pakistan in all fields, particularly in its defence modernization and development including the nuclear programme, its recent help in mitigating the flurry of floods in Pakistan was unprecedented in its volume and magnitude, and suggests the depth of the strategic relationship between the two countries. China had offered about $ 250 million worth of aid to Pakistan. As part of the aid, China sent a team of experts to the PoK region in November last year, as claimed by China, to help Pakistan expedite its reconstruction work. An article in China Daily claimed that the aid to Pakistan has created many records in the history of China’s aid and relief work in other countries.3 The Chinese claim of humanitarian assistance to Pakistan has, however, been taken with a pinch of salt by the western media.4

    One more important announcement came when Premier Wen declared that China had decided to provide 500 government scholarships to Pakistan in the next three years, and that 100 Pakistani high-school students will be invited to participate in the Chinese Bridge Summer-Camp in China. Wen also said that China may explore the possibility of a currency-swap agreement with Pakistan. During his visit the two sides also signed 35 new pacts, expected to bring $30 billion of investment into Pakistan over the next five years.

    China’s adversarial relationship with India has been one of the important factors in its all-weather friendship with Pakistan. Such an intimate relationship between the two had developed at a time when China’s global profile had not developed to the extent that is discernable now. Over the years, Sino-Indian relationship has also matured to a greater degree of engagement. China is now projecting itself as a responsible global power, beyond the sub-continent and the region. One can fathom China’s primordial commitment to Pakistan and China’s imperative need for Pakistan’s support to rein in Muslim separatists operating in China-Pakistan border in the Uygur region, but China needs to calibrate its relationship with Pakistan in the context of these changes and in such a manner so as not to arouse any misgivings in New Delhi. Although India has expressed concerns about China’s engagement in infrastructural projects in PoK and about Beijing’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, the Sino-Indian relationship has acquired an independent dynamism and is not hamstrung by the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan. Neither should Beijing have any anxiety about India’s strategic relationship with the United States with which China itself has a deeper all-round engagement and cooperation. An important issue which needs to be noted is that while the Pakistani foreign minister was quoted as saying that China’s position is ‘clear about Kashmir’, the Chinese Premier seems to have maintained a studied silence on the Kashmir issue. This prompted an editorial in an important English daily which commented that “Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani may have been fishing for a Chinese role in facilitating dialogue with India on Kashmir but it is apparent that Beijing is keen to reiterate its neutrality on the issue.” If the lofty goals of the Asian century are to be realized in full measure, the giants - China and India – need to correct the trust deficit between them and forge better understanding and cooperation.

    • 1. Xinhua, 19 December 2010.
    • 2. Background to the Invasion (Publications Division, Government of India, November 1962), p. 6.
    • 3. China Daily, 18 December 2010.
    • 4. Selig S. Harison, “China's Discreet Hold on Pakistan's Northern Borderlands,” New York Times, 26 August 2010.