Growing ties between Pakistan and China raise concern in Washington and New Delhi

China’s engagement in South Asia has increased significantly in recent years, going beyond economic and development projects to encompass geostrategic and security interests.

And perhaps in no other country in the region has Beijing expanded its footprint more than in Pakistan, raising concerns in Washington and New Delhi about the geostrategic implications of this deepening partnership.

The latest example of this was the Pakistan Day Parade in Islamabad in late March, which saw the country’s military display several recently acquired, Chinese-made platforms such as J-10CE multirole fighter aircraft, battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers and air-defense equipment.

China’s supply of advanced military equipment to Pakistan – also including warships and submarines – is part of an intensifying military and intelligence cooperation that reflects the growing level of trust between the two sides.

The burgeoning military ties, which also include joint defense-industrial projects such as the JF-17 fighter aircraft, can largely be seen as an attempt by both sides to counter capability advancements by their common regional rival India, particularly as they both remain in territorial disputes with New Delhi.

“For Beijing, Pakistan serves as a buffer against India. And for Islamabad, China is a key source of arms and other support to strengthen Pakistani capacities to counter India,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director at the Asia program of the Washington-based Wilson Center.

Geopolitical developments in recent years have made this dynamic even stronger, as New Delhi has gradually drawn closer to Washington and its allies under “the Quad” grouping of countries, which also includes Japan and Australia. Kugelman argues that China lacks the capacity to contain the defense-industrial development of a regional giant such as India, which is why Beijing’s strategy is instead focused on countering India – as seen in the Himalayan border standoff in recent years – and outperforming it economically.

Concerns in New Delhi and Washington

The growing Sino-Pakistani cooperation has set off alarm bells in New Delhi, especially as Chinese arms and money continue to flow into Pakistan. Moreover, the Indian military, which is preparing for a potential two-front war with China and Pakistan, is also concerned about the possibility of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) establishing a more robust logistics and basing infrastructure in the region.

Beijing is pursuing additional military facilities in foreign countries — beyond its base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa — to support naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection, according to the Pentagon’s 2021 China Military Power report. And one of the locations likely considered by China is Pakistan, along with Cambodia, Myanmar and other nations.

A Pakistani Army soldier salutes aboard an air defense missile system during the Pakistan Day Parade in Islamabad March 23. | REUTERS
A Pakistani Army soldier salutes aboard an air defense missile system during the Pakistan Day Parade in Islamabad March 23. | REUTERS

Such a move would not only redraw the regional security map, but potentially also challenge U.S. military interests, with the Pentagon arguing in its report that a global network of Chinese military and logistics facilities could “both interfere with U.S. military operations and support offensive operations against the United States as (China’s) global military objectives evolve.”

Just how close Sino-Pakistani ties have become can be seen in a 33-point document issued by the two countries in early February, following a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The two sides emphasized their support for each other’s core interests, with Beijing saying that the Kashmir issue “was a dispute left from history, and should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the U.N. Charter,” and Islamabad reiterating its commitment to the “One China” policy. It also confirmed its support for China on issues related to Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.

The ‘central pillar’ of the relationship

Also of significance is the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which the statement calls a “central pillar” of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — a series of long-term infrastructure, transportation, and energy projects valued at $62 billion as of 2020.

One of the proposed projects of the CPEC, which is seen as the flagship element of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, is an oil pipeline stretching from Gwadar to Kashgar in Xinjiang.

While the project may seem economically unsustainable because of the challenging topography in the Himalayas and the high transit costs, the reasoning behind it is geostrategic.

As China’s ties with India and the United States deteriorate, Beijing is looking for ways to help cushion the impact of a possible blockade of oil tankers and cargo vessels at the Malacca Strait — the world’s second-largest oil trade chokepoint after the Strait of Hormuz. Such a naval blockade could be used by an adversary force to deprive China of vital energy resources, possibly in the event of a PLA invasion of Taiwan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives to attend the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23. | REUTERS
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives to attend the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23. | REUTERS

China’s increased investments in Pakistan mean that Beijing is already gaining access to the Indian Ocean as well as easier entry into Middle Eastern and African markets, says Harsh V. Pant, Professor of International Relations at King’s College in London.

“As Islamabad moves closer to China, the more it distances itself from the West. This also leaves the U.S. with no allies and military bases in a region that is being dominated by the revisionist powers — Iran, China, and Russia,” he says.

Another advantage of the CPEC is less talked about: China’s close ties with Islamabad ensure that Pakistan’s criticism of alleged human-rights abuses of the largely Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang are muted or non-existent, says Katharine Adeney, a professor at the University of Nottingham.

The Afghanistan dilemma

In their joint statement, Xi and Khan also said they were ready to engage the Taliban-led government in Kabul in discussions about extending the CPEC into Afghanistan: a move made following the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from the battleground of the “forever war.”

Both Pakistan and China could potentially benefit from this, although Beijing will likely be cautious about Afghanistan until it receives security assurances, especially in terms of counterterrorism.

For Pakistan, says Kugelman, the Taliban takeover means India will have less influence in Afghanistan, which would enable Islamabad to strengthen ties with Kabul, with the hopes of bringing Chinese investments into the equation. This, in turn, could help China deepen its influence in Central Asia — but only if it succeeds in bolstering trade and connectivity in Afghanistan.

A looming debt trap?

However, the Sino-Pakistani “all weather friendship” has not been immune to setbacks, as China’s economic incentives come at a cost.

For instance, the CPEC has recently run into obstacles given Pakistan’s unwillingness to commit to new projects due to financial woes and China’s unease about security threats in Pakistan.

This has led some analysts to warn of a potential debt trap.

“The CPEC is placing Pakistan’s economy in a difficult situation. This will have severe security and sovereignty repercussions for Pakistan. China’s pressure to expedite projects in Pakistan and assure its security has already created internal unrest in the fragile regions of Baluchistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir,” Pant says.

A Pakistani military vehicle carries a long-range ballistic missile during the Pakistan Day Parade in Islamabad on March 23. | AFP-JIJI
A Pakistani military vehicle carries a long-range ballistic missile during the Pakistan Day Parade in Islamabad on March 23. | AFP-JIJI

In this regard, Adeney points out that the investments were due to be repaid through an increase in exports and an increase in gross domestic product. However, this has not materialized — since 2018, GDP per capita in Pakistan has declined. Moreover, Pakistan has not managed to export effectively into China and receives less favorable terms than ASEAN countries.

Beijing is also Islamabad’s largest creditor, with Pakistan owing 27.4% (or $24.7 billion) of its total external debt to China.

Nonetheless, the dynamics of the relationship are such that Pakistan is the junior partner, and this gives Beijing substantial leverage over Islamabad. This means that Beijing can sometimes deny aid to Pakistan and demand special arrangements — such as special security protection and a level of impunity for Chinese nationals operating in Pakistan — that Islamabad would not normally grant to other countries.

Additionally, such a degree of economic dependence has created perceptions among many international investors that there is no level playing field for non-Chinese investors in Pakistan. This is a problem for Islamabad, which wants to diversify its sources of investment, Kugelman notes.

Limited options

Despite this, the nature of this Sino-Pakistani relationship is unlikely to change considerably over the coming years, especially if the CPEC gets back on track.

The main reason for this is that both countries have limited options, Kugelman says.

“China is one of Pakistan’s biggest sources of military and economic support. This type of backing from such a major power is no small matter for Islamabad, which does not have too many powerful friends, especially as its relationship with the U.S. has lost momentum in recent years,” he says.

While Pakistan has important commercial relations with several Western countries, assistance is often tied to stricter conditions and there is also not as much military support. Moreover, Pakistan is hoping Chinese projects will help it transform and modernize its economy while also keeping India in check.

For China, Islamabad is likely to remain a key strategic partner, as the geopolitical competition with the U.S. intensifies and alliances form to counter China’s growing assertiveness both in the region and beyond.

At the same time, the strength of this partnership will be put to the test over the coming years amid security concerns in Pakistan.

The relationship hinges on what the Chinese describe as a secular-strategic rationale – with India as its continued focal point – but many of the economic plans and projects still depend on the security situation in various parts of the country, says Andrew Small, transatlantic fellow at the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“Pakistan should be one of the biggest winners from China’s rise as a global power,” Small says. “But if its internal security deteriorates or if Chinese anxieties about the country’s political direction worsen, it will be a great lost opportunity for the country.”

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