In early 1960s, the regional and international environment played an important role in bringing about an upswing in Pakistan-China relations. China, which was under the strong pressure of the West led by the US in those days of the Cold War as shown by the establishment of SEATO and had fought a war with India because of their territorial dispute, needed friends to end its international isolation and counter India in South Asia. Pakistan because of its strained relations with India was in search of friends in its neighbourhood to neutralise, to some extent, India’s power superiority. China met the demands of Pakistan’s strategic compulsions.
Pakistan’s realisation of the strategic importance of its friendship with China increased as it became acutely aware of the unreliability of the Western support in any conflict with India. The 1965 Pakistan-India war confirmed these apprehensions. The global strategic environment underwent a dramatic change in the 1970s with the rapprochement between the US and China, in which Pakistan had played an important role, to counter the perceived security threat posed by the Soviet Union to both Washington and Beijing. Thus, the Western impediment to the strengthening of Pakistan-China relations was removed.
In fact, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both Pakistan and the US needed and secured China’s support to defeat the Soviet occupation through the Afghan jihad. The end of the Cold War in 1991 brought about another dramatic transformation of the global strategic scenario. For about a decade after the end of the Cold War, the US loomed large on the global scene like a colossus. No other country matched its enormous military power and economic strength. There were signs of concern in the 1990s on the part of China about the emergence of the US as the global hegemon and the unipolarity of the international political system.
This period also witnessed the commencement of the process of the strengthening of US-India relations to contain China and the imposition of the US economic and military sanctions against Pakistan because of its nuclear programme. These developments brought Pakistan and China closer together. The result was increased Pakistan-China cooperation in various fields, including the field of nuclear technology. Pakistan’s need for China’s support and cooperation increased also because of the intensification of the freedom movement in the Indian Occupied Kashmir and
the resultant tensions in Pakistan-India relations. The US “unipolar moment” soon passed. The first decade of the 21st century witnessed the commencement of a radical reconfiguration of the global strategic scenario driven by China’s phenomenal economic progress and rise as a leading global power. The initiation of policies of economic reforms and opening to the outside world in 1979, under China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, unleashed powerful forces that accelerated China’s economic growth to dizzying heights.
Consequently, its GDP grew five times between 1979 and 1998 as against the target of fourfold increase. Since 1998, China has recorded growth rates averaging about nine percent per annum, propelling it to the position of the second biggest economy in the world. China’s GDP during the current year is expected to reach the figure of $9. 2 trillion as against the US gross domestic product of $16. 3 trillion. In purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, its GDP would reach the figure of $13. 9 trillion during the current year.
According to latest projections, China will overtake the US economy in PPP terms within the next few years and in nominal terms some time in the next decade. In 2012, it overtook the US as the world’s biggest trading nation
However, its military expenditure is still a very small proportion of the US annual military expenditure. Such a massive shift in the global balance of power cannot but have far-reaching implications for international politics. The US ability to impose its will on the rest of the world in the economic field is fast eroding. Correspondingly, the effectiveness of its economic sanctions against foreign countries will also decline. It has forced the US to pivot its naval forces to the Asia-Pacific region where it will deploy 60 percent of its naval assets by 2020.
It is strengthening its alliances in Asia with Australia, Japan and South Korea. It is trying to checkmate China’s territorial claims in South China Sea by extending political support particularly to Vietnam and the Philippines. Above all, from the point of view of both Pakistan and China, the US is engaged in close cooperation with India in economic, military and nuclear fields to help build it up as a major world power of the 21st century with a view to containing the expansion of China’s influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
The growing rivalry between the US and China, and the US efforts to build up India as a bulwark against China, have important strategic implications for Pakistan. The growth in the depth, and the extent of US-India cooperation, is likely to push Pakistan closer to China as a counterweight to India’s possible hegemony in South Asia. US threats of sanctions against Pakistan because of its decision to proceed with the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project will further hasten this process. On the other hand, these developments will deepen China’s inclination to develop closer relations with Pakistan.
Thus, from purely a strategic point of view, the future prospects of Pakistan-China relations are quite bright. It was against this background that during the fifth round of the Pakistan-China Strategic Dialogue held in Beijing in November 2012, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary and the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister agreed that Pakistan and China needed to close ranks to face the extraordinary global and regional challenges. However, there is no room for complacency.
Pakistan’s bilateral trade with China, which was estimated to be $10.6 billion in 2011, was far behind the Indo-China trade of $80 billion. We must, therefore, pay special attention to the building up of Pakistan-China relations in economic, commercial and cultural fields, while maintaining close cooperation in political and military fields. Future possibilities of economic and commercial cooperation include a rail link between Pakistan and China, oil and gas pipelines through Pakistan to connect Xinjiang and the rest of China with the Strait of Hormuz and West Asia via the land route, and a rapid increase in bilateral trade.
However, Pakistan would have to put its own house in order, reorder its domestic priorities, energise its private sector, and streamline its procedures to take full advantage of the opportunities that beckon us. On the political side, we should be sensitive to China’s concerns about the activities of the Taliban and other religious extremists in so far as the situation in Xinjiang province of China is concerned. Religious moderation is good not only for our internal political health, but also for our relations with China.