Revisiting the early years of China-Pakistan Relations

On 11 August 2011, China launched Pakistan’s first communication satellite, PAKSAT-1R on board China’s Satellite Launch Vehicle from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan province. This marked a stronger technological cooperation between the two all weather friends. This is yet another important development for the two countries celebrating 2011 as the year of their friendship. The two countries commenced their formal diplomatic relations in May 1951, therefore completing 60 years of diplomatic relations in 2011.

Despite minor frictions over the Islamic insurgency in Xinjiang province the two continue to grow strong, especially in terms of their military and strategic cooperation. The essence of their “all weather” and “higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey” relationship is deeply embedded in the history of their relationship. The continuity of their relations despite the changing international and domestic environment is considered a pivotal aspect of their equation. While many assert that it was the 1962 Sino-India war, which sowed the seeds of Sino-Pakistan friendship, this reflects an incomplete picture. The relationship between the two nations started taking shape in the 1950s itself. The historical aspect continues to be a characteristic feature of China and Pakistan’s assertions about their all-weather friendship, which is why it is imperative to deliberate upon the same.

Ever since its birth as an independent nation, Pakistan’s foreign policy and its relationship with other countries have been dictated by its security concerns. Pakistan’s history reflects a deep sense of insecurity, which seems embedded in their choice of forming alliances with other countries of the world. Pakistan was the third non-communist country and the first Muslim country to recognise PRC on 4 January 1950 after breaking its relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan). However, owing to Pakistan’s dire need for sophisticated arms and economic assistance, there could have been no better ally than the United States which infused money for Pakistan’s economic survival and helped enhance its military capabilities. Pakistan joined the American sponsored SEATO and the Baghdad Pact or CENTO. Despite this, Chinese remarks about the decisions seemed subdued. The Asian members of SEATO were not regarded as foes but rather “foolish” for unsuspectingly joining the US arrangements without genuinely subscribing to the sinister intents of the Americans.

It was the Bandung Conference in 1955 which paved way for a strengthened Sino-Pakistan friendship. The conference was an assembly of Asian and African countries in Bandung, Indonesia from 18 to 24 April 1955. This conference was representative of the growing Third World non-aligned movement in the face of international Cold War politics. During the Bandung Conference, two friendly talks were held between Premier Zhou Enlai and Pakistani Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra where they discussed about cooperation in various spheres that could strengthen their relations further. Pakistan utilised this opportunity to alleviate any possible Chinese fears about its agreements with the United States and assured them that the alliance was, in no way, against China and in case the US waged a war against China, Pakistan would not be a partner to it.

One can infer that Pakistan would have expressed its fear about the Indian threat and its helplessness to deal with it in the absence of any Western support, providing a valid justification for its dealings with the West. According to Pervez Cheema, China was far more realistic in assessing Pakistan’s rationale for participation in the Cold War defence alliances. It comprehended Pakistan’s security compulsions vis-à-vis India and continued to pursue a policy of friendship with Pakistan. The bond between China and Pakistan that was nourished at Bandung was subsequently fostered through continued cultural and high-level exchanges. Though with low political quotient, these exchanges enhanced the general tone of Sino-Pakistan relations. With months passing by, the economic and cultural ties were growing.

The degree of realistic assessment by the Chinese became a characteristic of China-Pakistan long term relations. As noted by Air Marshal Asghar Khan, during President Ayub’s visit to Beijing, when he seemed apologetic about Pakistan’s continued membership of SEATO and CENTO, Zhou Enlai assured him that China did not mind it and stated that it ensured Pakistan got hardware and armaments that China was unable to provide.

However, Sino-Pak relations which seemed to be on an upward trajectory, were marked by a period of scepticism starting in 1957. The general optimism was slowly fading because of several factors, notably due to China’s adoption of a neutral stand on the Kashmir issue. Also, as Islamabad’s military and economic reliance on Washington increased, a shift was seen in its attitude towards China. The period from 1957 to 1960 was marked by a severe blow to Sino-Pak relations.

The Sino-Pak entente post-1960 resulted from the changing geopolitical scenarios. These include deteriorating Sino-India and India-Pakistan ties. This was coupled with Pakistan’s sense of frustration due to its Western allies, which provided India with arms against China. Other reasons include Pakistan’s move to diversify its connections and the emerging Sino-Soviet split. Such developments prompted both, China and Pakistan to review their present alliances and re-ally in order to suit the changing geopolitical environment. A major move by Pakistan that renewed the fading Sino-Pak relations was Pakistan’s support of China in the fourteenth session of the United Nations General Assembly. In December 1961, Pakistan abandoned its previous stand and supported China’s legitimate claim to a seat in the UN. Also, during the hey days of 1950s and 60s, Pakistan opened an air corridor for China, connecting it to the world, at a time when it suffered due to Western blockades.

The 1962 Sino-India War created a rift between the US and Pakistan, primarily because Pakistan considered India a bigger threat than China, which was viewed by the US as the primary threat. After the 1962 War, China acquired supremacy on the world stage and was viewed as a rising power and could no longer be ignored or undermined.

Taking the new dynamism into consideration, President Ayub Khan restructured his foreign policy and the choice was to lean towards China. Sino-Pakistan relations flourished swiftly from 1961 and reached a new high. The period 1961-63, can be considered a transitionary phase when the countries were eliminating the retardation factors in their relations and nurturing it further. The Sino-India War fortified the bond further illustrating the phrase, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, but the war should not be considered the only influence at work in the new phase of Sino-Pak equation. Subsequently, China and Pakistan signed two major deals, namely, border agreement and air travel deal, which irked the US, marking the commencement of an official strategic cooperation.

The Pakistan-China alliance has withstood the international vagaries of India-China rapprochement, changes after 9/11, and Pakistan’s alliance with the US etc. The Sino-Pak relationship is likely to remain strong in terms of strategic and military cooperation and would continue to be a defining factor in India’s geo-strategic calculations.

Source: Revisiting the early years of China-Pakistan Relations, CLAWS

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