Written by Ehsan M. Ahrari.

One characterization of China-Pakistan ties is to label the relationship an “all weather alliance.” A more realistic depiction of it is to portray it as kaleidoscopic in nature. In such a relationship, China remains the dominant partner. However, even in that capacity, it seems to have concluded that the significance of Pakistan as an ally is worth maintaining and pursuing because of the permanent nature of competitive, and even antagonistic, ties between Beijing and Washington on the one hand, and between Beijing and New Delhi, on the other. Another motivating factor for China is the strategic location of Pakistan—its proximity to the oil resources of West Asia and its potential to serve as an overland route to Central Asia and even to Xinjiang. In the constantly antagonistic ties between India and Pakistan, the latter remains an important player, in terms of China’s proclivities to force India to diversify its military preparedness aimed at both Pakistan and China as opposed to just against China.

China and Pakistan relations are currently facing an ongoing crisis because of the mounting protest movements against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Even though Sharif’s party, the Muslim League Nawaz (MLN), was given an overwhelming mandate for governance by the Pakistani electorates in May 2013, both former cricket superstar, Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI or Pakistan Justice Movement), and Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, leader of the moderate Islamist party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT, Pakistan’s People’s Movement), are demanding Sharif’s resignation. Their list of accusations against the Prime Minister includes a slew of charges from alleged election rigging to sustenance of a highly corrupt old elite-based power structure.

While leaders in Beijing prefer to see a politically stable Pakistan as a prerequisite for that country’s role as China’s important strategic ally in Southern Asia, even the potential ouster of Sharif is not likely to have any deleterious effect on Sino-Pak ties. In the past 66 years, the Pakistan Army has ruled the country for more than half of the time and has been in firm control of the country’s security policy throughout its existence. Even when the Army generals allowed civilian governance in their country, their grip on national security policy has invariably remained firm. Thus, China can always rely on the commitment of Pakistan’s Army to both safeguard and promote the strategic interests affecting their two countries.

In this context, Pakistan’s entire national security preparedness has been legendary for its acute suspicion and antipathy toward, India, with which it has fought four wars, including three wars involving the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir. Consequently, the brunt of Pakistan’s military preparedness has been to forestall a conventional invasion from India either in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir regions or across the international borders dividing them. The India-centric proclivity of the Pakistan Army has remained unchanged, even during the post-9/11 era, when the United States has militarily occupied Afghanistan and insisted that the Pakistan Army needs to shift the focus of its warfighting strategy against al-Qaida and for “sealing” the highly porous borders with Afghanistan. From 2001 on, Al-Qaida and other Islamist terrorists have been travelling between those two countries to escape from the military operations of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Pakistan’s India-centric strategic preparedness complements China’s own intricate strategic ties with India, which has long been regarded as its major competitor and even a potential antagonist. Thus, the major thrust of China’s security assistance to Pakistan, which also includes transfer of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology and other military platforms, has been to keep Pakistan a constant source of worry and concern to India’s national security establishment. In this long-standing and complex relationship, it is hard to conclude which actor (China or Pakistan) is using the other, since India also looms large in the rising China’s own vibrant and multifaceted strategic competition with the United States.

As the US-China global rivalry intensifies, China has adopted a variety of assertive policies in order to “level the playing field.” The one which includes Pakistan and affects India is the PRC’s “String of Pearl strategy.” In pursuit of this strategy, China has signed naval agreements for the long-term presence of its Navy in a number of crucial naval facilities in Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Somalia, and the Port of Gwadar. The latter base is proximate to the mouth of the strategic Gulf of Oman and has the potential of serving as a starting point of the Gwadar-Khunjerab-Kashgar rail network connecting with the Chinese city of Kashgar. Gwadar, along with the aforementioned bases that Beijing has acquired are aimed at providing its navy a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, and also at enhancing the capabilities of the PRC to use its naval forces to protect its supply of oil from West Asia and the Persian Gulf regions and through the Strait of Mallaca.

As a rising power, China is also making huge investments aimed at the creation of a blue-water navy to escalate its global presence, to conduct naval exercises with friendly nations, and to deter piracy in the Red Sea. For the fulfillment of those objectives, Pakistan’s Gwadar port has the potential of becoming a crucial naval base. However, the chief problem associated with it is Pakistan’s growing internal turbulence, which is forcing the PRC to rethink the significance of that port. Secondly, in terms of serving as a significant “listening post” for naval maneuvers of the Indian and US navies, Gwadar produces mixed results. India has numerous listening posts and naval ports of its own along the very long Indian shorelines. In addition, the US naval facility on the strategic island of Diego Garcia continues to provide ample advantage to Washington. Finally, even though Pakistan is willing to play a crucial role in the building of the Gwadar-Khunjerab-Kashgar, it does not have the technological capability or economic resources to serve as a reliable partner. Despite these complications, China will prudently continue to develop naval facilities in Gwadar, in light of future up- and downswings in its strategic ties with the United States and India.

The most worrisome part of China-Pakistan kaleidoscopic relations is the Islamist factor. In the post-9/11 era, when the United States dismantled the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, a large number of Central Asian Islamist groups (which included Uyghur groups that wanted an independent Xinjiang) took refuge in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, including northern Waziristan. China has always put pressure on Pakistan to eliminate those fighters, especially those belonging to the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). However, in the Byzantine foreign policy of Pakistan, most foreign fighters were considered as a potential tool of destabilizing Afghanistan. It was only after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) massacre of 2007 in Pakistan that its Army started to lean toward eliminating the presence of foreign fighters, especially when they started to serve as proxies of anti-government operations of Pakistan’s own Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In the aftermath of the Islamist attacks on the Jinnah International Airport in June 2014—in which Uzbek fighters were reported to play a leading role—the Pakistani Army unleashed its own fury on the foreign fighters in the form of its operation called Zarb-e-Azb. As expected, China not only applauded that operation, but also insisted for its persistence. Since the Pakistan Army fully comprehends the seriousness underlying China’s insistence, it is likely to oblige.

Viewing the problem from the strategic perspectives of the PRC, China has much to worry about because the Islamists of Pakistan have been gathering strength, while there is no national consensus inside that country about eradicating them through military action. China also remains wary of the fact that, despite the initiation of the Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistan Army has not yet categorically rejected the future use of the Islamist card against either India or Afghanistan. Unless such a rejection is declared and acted upon earnestly, China has no reason to believe that the Pakistan Army is serious about eradicating Islamist terrorists.

The continuation of the internal turbulence in Pakistan is an important cause for concern for China, especially as it relates to the escalation of terrorism. As the United States gets ready to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, China is likely to be open for some sort of a “condominium of power” among itself, India, and Pakistan, whose purpose it would be to promote economic development and political stability inside that country. As rational as that proposition sounds, its actual materialization does not appear to be happening in the present security environment of Southern Asia. In the meantime, China would insist upon a stronger and more proactive role of the Pakistani military to eradicate the presence of foreign fighters from their borders.

Ehsan M. Ahrari, Ph.D., is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, a Defense and Foreign Affairs Consultancy