Like a broken record on repeat, the border police at each checkpoint would peer into our van and, seeing a set of Chinese faces, would always say: “Pakistan China dos.” Dos means friends in the local language. If they wanted to vary the tune a little bit, some would venture to say “Pakistan China brothers.”
The continued goodwill and longevity of China-Pakistan relations—the last foreign dignitary that Chairman Mao received was Prime Minister Ali Bhutto of Pakistan—have often been compared to the rapport and perennial fidelity of U.S.-Israel relations. At varying points in its history, the People’s Republic of China has both directly and indirectly sponsored nations within its sphere of interest. Most of these nations vacillated between greedily profiting from their relationship with China and biting the hand that fed it. In the 1960s, Albania sought China as a friend in order to pull away from the orbit of Soviet influence. However, by the 1980s, Albanian leadership no longer wanted to associate with the Chinese brand of communism, straining relations between the two countries. Thereafter, China no longer mentioned Albania in its brotherhood of Communist nations. Myanmar presents another interesting case, as Myanmar has long benefitted from China’s aid in resisting domestic liberalizing forces. China may not be pleased with the country’s recent moves to reduce its diplomatic isolation, as new leadership under Aung San Suu Kyi has made overtures towards the West. Chinese dissatisfaction with Myanmar was reflected in the initial delay of joint mining and oil pipeline projects between the two nations in 2005. For the first time, the military junta of Myanmar dared to negotiate and leverage its other relations against China. The worst episode involved Vietnam, whose relations with China have deteriorated rapidly, from the days of its alliance with China against the United States to a brief border war in 1979.
China’s constant partner amidst the vacillations of other nations has been Pakistan.
China has seen border disputes with many of its large neighbors, but Pakistan has been an exception to the rule. For example, China and India’s border disputes have origins in colonial British India’s Partition, which was not fully recognized by the Chinese. However, any residual border confusion between China and Pakistan was settled in a 1963 agreement. In the absence of territorial conflict, Pakistan has supported almost all of China’s territorial claims, ranging from Tibet to Taiwan.
In the words of a local Pakistani bus driver, Pakistan’s two most formidable enemies were India and Russia. The United States and other Western countries were more difficult to assess in his opinion: “They’re bad to us 95 percent of the time, and they help us 5 percent of the time, but Pakistan China dos.” He continued that most locals feel as though China is a much more loyal and long lasting ally in the vicissitudes of global politics than the United States.
Pakistan also serves as one of China’s only stable allies in the surrounding region. Since the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, the relationship between Russia and China has been very tumultuous. Additionally, China is wary of India’s growing economic and political clout, issues exacerbated by unresolved border disputes. Amidst these conflicts, Pakistan serves as a buffer zone and an ally in checking the ambitions of surrounding powers.
In this game of tit for tat, Pakistan has been of strategic use to China in relation to the United States and the West. Before detente between China and the United States, Pakistan was the conduit for communications between the two nations. Today, Pakistan regularly supports China in the U.N. when China and the United States disagree. It was the only country, apart from Cuba, to continue to openly support China during the Tiananmen Incident of 1989.
In return, China has been Pakistan’s main source of military and nuclear expertise. Two sisters I met in a Pakistani mosque remarked that their brother in the army was currently in China training to fly jets. In 2016, the two nations held a joint military anti-terrorism training exercise at a Pakistani Air Force Base. Historically, the two have coordinated on a variety of military projects, including the development of the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet. Students in the top university in Peshawar, the major Pakistan city on its border with Afghanistan, noted that the top engineers in the class frequently draw from Chinese textbooks and are recommended to the military, which then stations these engineers in China for further development.
Given China’s grand plans in Pakistan, it makes sense that most of the Chinese currently there are involved in infrastructural work. China’s vision of “One Belt, One Road” is a project aimed at increasing China’s role in developing countries, such as Pakistan, and grooming its image as a leader of the Third World. Aside from being ideologically consistent with its past foreign policy, China also has an economic reason for reaching out to developing countries—to find markets that could absorb the oversupply of certain Chinese manufactured goods. The scores of secondhand Chinese cars that crowd the streets of Pakistan are one such good.
China is pursuing its vision of stronger relations with Pakistan through a combination of educational exchanges such as the China Scholarship Council, trade negotiations, and, most notably, infrastructure construction to connect the countries along the historical Silk Road. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will connect Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province. Many of the countries involved in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative also participate in the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a financial institution which funds t infrastructure investment in Asia. China is expanding its influence on multiple fronts, beyond just economic and political ties. China not only constructs infrastructure projects in Pakistan, but also funds them with investment secured through the AIIB. The Chinese hold the largest voting share within the AIIB, allowing the country a much stronger influence than it has within other international development institutions. This benefits many Asian countries that still remember how harsh austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund hurt the Indonesian economic recovery during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998.
In terms of telecommunications, China Mobile has declared it will invest 1 billion dollars in Pakistan in the next three years. However, from driving extensively in the country for two weeks and talking to locals, I found that telecommunications seem to have taken a backseat to building roads. Despite significant investment, vast swathes of the country simply have no cell reception. Building up telecommunication infrastructure will be a difficult task in the rugged terrain of the country. .However, China still considers such an investment worthwhile, especially given Pakistan’s current security situation.
In Pakistan, most security issues revolve around domestic terrorism. Much of the terrorism stems from a minority of Sunni and Shiite extremists, not from the general populace, which resents such disturbances. China is wary of Pakistan’s inability to fully stanch domestic terrorism, especially considering China’s own difficulty containing minority Uighur separatist movements in Xinjiang. A stronger central government and military in Pakistan has improved the security situation in certain regions of the country, but there are still many areas in which Chinese firms must work carefully to avoid incidents.
In the past, China has invested in countries that are less secure by conventional metrics. For example, in 2009, China was Venezuela’s second largest trading partner. However, there may be an upper limit on how much risk Chinese companies are willing to bear, with China’s largest private coal mining company China Kingho Group backing out of a deal with Pakistan in 2011 due to security issues. This is a company that is willing to invest in coal mining Mozambique, but not in Pakistan.
As the self-proclaimed leader of the Third World, China has steadily invested in and aided Pakistan’s development over the past several decades. However, security threats and difficult conditions may test this historical friendship in coming years. Ultimately, China must decide whether or not its desire for natural resources and geopolitical influence is worth the risks associated with the partnership.
Aspen Wang is a senior at Princeton University. Contact her at email@example.com