China-Pakistan Strategic Cooperation: An Indian Perspective

Written by Sangit Sarita Dwivedi.

The pursuit of the national interest and the maximisation of vantage points are legitimate goals of a country’s foreign policy. Sino-Pakistani relations, a kind of condominium, with different social, cultural, economic and political institutions and different ideological interests, fascinates the attention of many scholars and analysts. The partnership between China and Pakistan falls under the category of an integrative relationship where both parties display understanding and friendship. The Sino-Pakistani relationship, which is often described as ‘time-tested’ and an ‘all-weather friendship,’ has seen many twists and turns over recent years. However, the importance of the relationship, both regionally and internationally cannot be understated.

China was not guided by ideological considerations in developing special ties with Pakistan. Furthermore, Pakistan was hardly fascinated by China’s brand of Marxist-Maoism. India, of course, was the common denominator. China’s attitude towards Pakistan compelled the country to study its domestic situation i.e., political instability and the regional nuclear arms race. Of key concern was the proliferation of the bomb in other developing countries who may have followed Pakistan’s lead. Subsequently, China decided to engage with the region. The alliance between China and Pakistan was consequently designed to preserve a balance of power in South Asia in an effort to block the growth of Indian influence in the region. Pakistan, surrounded by a number of neighbours – friendly as well as unfriendly – had always remained flexible depending upon regional and global situations. The development of the Sino-Pakistani relationship is, as a result, based on politico-strategic considerations and guided by the maxim, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’.

The geographical locations of both China and Pakistan have been helpful from a strategic and security point of view. Pragmatic questions regarding statecraft and national interests have dominated China’s relationship with Pakistan. An evaluation of China’s foreign policy reveals that it is largely concerned with short-term problems and is consequently reactive. Overall, security is the dominant factor in China’s foreign policy. Pakistan has defended its collaboration with China on two grounds. Firstly, from a defensive standpoint, the possession of nuclear weapons offers a deterrence against other nuclear-armed states.  Secondly, from an offensive perspective, nuclear weapons could be utilised as a back up for conventional military forces. China has, to some extent, succeeded in neutralizing the pressure on other countries to isolate Pakistan. However, neither social nor economic reasons have prompted China and Pakistan to forge closer links. Instead, political intimacy has developed partly spontaneously but also consciously in an effort to counter the growth of India. This single reason has encouraged massive transfers of defence equipment, economic aid and technology from the ‘land of Confucius’ to the ‘followers of the Quran’. Indeed, as the Sino-Indian relationship deteriorates, the Sino-Pakistani relationship strengthens.

In the international arena where super powers, as well as other nations, possess nuclear weapons, China has adopted a strategic approach with regard to the supply of nuclear materials and technologies to developing countries. Sino-Pakistani nuclear collaboration has caused great concern not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in other parts of the world. It violates the norms and rules of international treaties and the safeguards established by the International Atomic Energy Association and contributes to nuclear proliferation. China’s qualitative contribution to Pakistan’s programme of ballistic missile development helped Pakistan to reach a similar level as other nuclear powers. Western media has given wide coverage to the export of Chinese missile and nuclear technology to Pakistan. From time to time, the United States threatened China that it would impose economic sanctions, but not to harm the economic and commercial interests of the United States. Even in the face of Western criticism – overt or covert – China has not stopped the enhancement of Pakistan’s defence capabilities, including those that are nuclear.

The evolution of the Sino-Indian relationship has not taken place in a geopolitical and economic vacuum. Indeed, Sino-Indian relations oscillate between policies of containment and engagement. Both countries share a largely reactive relationship despite a long history of growing interdependence and brief occasional encounters. Neither of the two emerging economies has developed a grand strategy towards the other. Acknowledging the fact that nuclear weapons are instruments of deterrence and not to be used even in the face of a threat from China, India has still had to develop a matching capability. Therefore, India’s nuclear programme cannot be solely and exclusively attributed to competition with Pakistan.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 spelt the end of the Cold War. The dominance of politics in command shifted to economics in command. An important post-1989 effect was the shift from the primacy of military power to a greater role for economic power in shaping global geopolitics. Both India and China have a strategy for increasing their presence in the global economy. Geo-economics emphasizes the importance of integrating both countries economic diplomacy in its multi-faceted relations with different nations and regions in the context of a rapidly changing world order. Neither of the two emerging economies has developed a grand strategy towards the other, however, China’s foreign policy is changing, and not entirely by choice.

China expects to find itself pitted against India’s national interests, possibly even in concert with the US. India achieved a major diplomatic victory over Pakistan—and China—when the association of BRICS nations condemned terror by naming several Pakistani-sponsored terror networks. India’s surgical strike inside the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2016 and Chinese efforts to build a global network of roads, ports and railways which it calls ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) are noticeable developments in the region. India boycotted the grand launch of OBOR because a part of it, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The US backs India’s opposition to the One Belt, One Road plan. As per US Defense Secretary James Mattis, “No one nation should put itself into a position of dictating such a project. In a globalised world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating `One belt one road`. Perceiving threats from nuclear rivals China & Pakistan, the Indian Air Force is engaged in giving the final shape to air bases for the French fighter jet ‘Rafale,’ to be inducted into service by 2019.

For India, it is critically important to balance China’s rising power. Without doing so, India’s dominance as a regional power would be reduced. This would have serious ramifications for India’s interests in not only South Asia but also in other parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia where there is increasing rivalry and competition between Delhi and Beijing. Sino-Pakistani relations are strongest in diplomatic and defence collaboration, rooted in overlapping geo-strategic interests and threat perceptions. The two sides understand, trust and support each other. It is now essential that Beijing should move from the traditional balance of power approach assisting Pakistan towards a substantive and clear-cut nuclear policy in the South Asian region.

Dr Sangit Sarita Dwivedi. is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Faculty in Bharati College, University of Delhi.  She can be reached at sangitsarita@gmail.comImage credit: CC by My Past/Flickr.