Pakistan-China alliance: less than meets the eye

Reuters recently featured an extensive analysis of the Pakistan-China alliance. With US-Pakistan relations deteriorating, Pakistan has attempted to ‘replace’ the US by improving relations with China, calling it Pakistan’s “all-weather friend.” Lisa Curtis and Derek Scissors, of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, argue that there are in fact significant limits to the Pakistan-China relationship which have implications for US policy makers.

In the past, U.S. officials have worried that pushing Pakistan too hard to crack down on terrorists could drive Islamabad more firmly into Beijing’s embrace. But China’s lukewarm response to Pakistan’s recent overtures demonstrates that there are limits to what Islamabad can expect from its “all-weather friend” — a term often used by Pakistani officials when referring to China. While China has an interest in maintaining strong security ties with Pakistan, the notion that Chinese ties could serve as a replacement for U.S. ties has been overstated by Pakistani officials. The U.S. has provided considerably higher amounts of economic and military aid to Pakistan over the past decade and also serves as a link to the rest of the Western nations, which otherwise would likely be inclined to sanction Pakistan for its nuclear and terrorism activities.

U.S. policymakers must recognise these limits to the benefits that Pakistan will receive from China. China is increasingly concerned about Islamist extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, and there may be room for Washington to seek Beijing’s cooperation in encouraging a more stable and prosperous Pakistan. The U.S. should make clear to China that adopting a more holistic approach to terrorism issues in Pakistan would help mitigate threats to both Washington and Beijing, since Islamabad’s support for some terrorist groups strengthens the ideological base, logistical capabilities, and financial support for all Islamist terrorist groups.

What interests do the Pakistanis and the Chinese share? And how extensive are they?


Pakistan and China both share an interest in India as an adversary. Pakistan has a political interest in featuring India as an adversary. China has an interest in limiting India’s international influence and also in creating a strategic dilemma for India’s military. Nonetheless, it is not in China’s interest to support an actual India-Pakistan war.

Pakistan and China have long-standing strategic ties, dating back five decades. China maintains a robust defence relationship with Pakistan and views a strong partnership with Pakistan as a useful way to contain Indian power in the region and divert Indian military force and strategic attention away from China. The China-Pakistan partnership serves both Chinese and Pakistani interests by presenting India with a potential two-front theater in the event of war with either country. Chinese officials also view a certain degree of India-Pakistan tension as advancing their own strategic interests, as such friction bogs India down in South Asia and interferes with New Delhi’s ability to assert its global ambitions and compete with China at the international level.

Though Pakistan considers China a more reliable defense partner than the U.S., Islamabad should also recognise that China’s support has its limits, especially during times of conflict and tension between New Delhi and Islamabad. When Pakistan sought Chinese assistance during its 1965 war with India, Beijing encouraged Islamabad to withdraw its forces from Indian territory.

During the 1999 Indo-Pakistani border war in Kargil, Beijing privately supported U.S. calls for Pakistan to withdraw its forces from the heights of Kargil on the Indian side of the Line of Control to defuse the crisis, and apparently communicated this stance to Pakistani leaders. The Chinese position during the Kargil episode helped spur a thaw in Indian-Chinese relations. During the 2001-2002 Indo-Pakistani military crisis, China stayed neutral and counseled restraint on both sides, declaring that China was a “neighbor and friend of both countries.


China has more in common with the US in fighting terrorism than with Pakistan’s promotion of terrorism.

Chinese officials are increasingly connecting the level of terrorist activity in Pakistan to instability in western China. One Chinese academic has noted in his writings that China has developed a more neutral position on the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir over the past decade in part because China believes that the dispute could have implications for ethnic-religious unrest in China, especially in Tibet or Xinjiang.

In this context, the ascendance of Taliban forces in either Pakistan or Afghanistan is clearly not in China’s interest. But rather than encouraging Islamabad to adopt a comprehensive approach toward countering terrorism, Chinese leaders have used their relationships with Pakistani military officials, and with the Islamist political parties, to persuade them to discourage attacks on Chinese interests. Before 9/11, for example, the Chinese reached agreements with the Taliban to prevent Uighur separatists from using Afghanistan as a training ground for militant activities.

Economic cooperation

Because of Pakistan’s poor economy, China has little to gain from expanding economic cooperation with its southern neighbor.

China’s concrete economic and political interests in Pakistan itself are not that extensive. China’s economic commitment to Pakistan, for instance, is not especially impressive in size and has shown clear limits. China has shown little interest in propping up Pakistan’s economy and has not provided substantial economic aid, even during times of need.

Pakistan’s portrayal of its relationship with China features exaggeration of the economic dimension of the relationship. Pakistani media routinely report huge numbers for investment and financing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), numbers that cannot be verified by any independent source, including by the Chinese government or the Chinese companies supposedly involved. While Pakistani officials talk of a total of $25 billion in Chinese investment in Pakistan so far, the PRC’s official figure of direct investment through 2010 is $1.83 billion.


Again, due to Pakistan’s poor economy, China has little to gain.

Trade is not exaggerated by Pakistan or rendered unclear by Chinese secrecy. As with investment and (apparently) finance, though, it is relatively insubstantial. On Chinese figures, bilateral trade volume was below $9 billion in 2010 and grew slightly less quickly than the PRC’s overall trade. The Philippines are similar to Pakistan in GDP and not as close politically with China. The Philippines mining sector is underdeveloped. Yet China’s bilateral trade with the Philippines in 2010 was still three times larger than its trade with Pakistan, and grew faster.

Not only is the trade relationship small, it is imbalanced. The PRC’s 2010 surplus was $5.2 billion, tiny by Chinese standards, but huge in comparison to bilateral trade volume. If Beijing wanted to assist Islamabad for political reasons, it could artificially inflate imports from Pakistan, at least on a temporary basis. Cosmetic efforts along these lines are routinely made with the PRC’s major economic partners, but Pakistan clearly does not qualify.

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  • Devin Leonard says:

    This is a good article. Add to this the fact that America will be the world’s foremost superpower both economically and militarally for many years to come, and Pakistan is looking at an inferior choice in partners. America needs to slap the Pakis around via trade and aid and get them to do what needs doing in Afghnistan.

  • Kamaljit Sood says:

    A very useful article and a balanced one too. I have stated on several blog comments in the Pakistan press that Pakistan’s best security is an alliance with India. From partition through Bangladesh and now Abottabad and post Abottabad with china, Pakistan should realise that its prestige lies in being independent. Neither china nor the US can provide the support it needs. But India, as a result of shared history and culture, can provide the sound backing for international trade and growth to Pakistan. The alliance is a far fetched idea. But so was the alliance between France and Germany a far fetched idea. The rekindling of the intimacy between India and Pakistan based on shared history and culture can be achieved as between two sovereign states. This will also provide a sound basis of security from terror to the US and the west. It is a win-win=win scenario.


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