China-Pakistan Relations : In The Twenty-First Century

April 24, 2024


Ayesha Siddique

The year 2021 marked seventy years of China-Pakistan diplomatic relations. In fact, both societies have had civilizational links dating back to the seventh century, owing to their close geographic proximity. Both have maintained close ties, even though they vary ideologically, culturally and politically. Over the past years, the socio-economic gap has also widened. Today, China is the world’s largest economy. In the past seventy years, it has made improvements in almost all economic, social and development indicators, despite long periods of civil war, domestic unrest and foreign interventions. Pakistan, on the other hand, has lagged behind in almost all indicators, even though it was initially among the “top ten performing developing countries” and even ahead of China.

However, even while “a great deal has changed within the two countries, in the region and in the world at large, but their relationship has remained unaffected.”4 In fact, China-Pakistan relationship has only strengthened with time, and many scholars have explored into the reasons for this exceptional case. Two early scholarly studies, one by John Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, and the other by Anwar Hussain Syed, China and Pakistan: Diplomacy of an Entente Cordiale, explained that China-Pakistan relationship is based on common interest, describing it as an “entente cordiale.”5 Later, the scholarly narrative changed as Andrew Small described China-Pakistan relationship as an “axis,” based on a common enmity towards India, the “strategic glue” binding The China-Pakistan Axis.6 Until recently, weaving these diverging views together, Ghulam Ali, in his book, China-Pakistan Relations: A Historical Analysis draws on the key “factors of durability,” which may provide an explanation for the continuity of, and burgeoning China-Pakistan relations. These include geographic proximity, regular visits by the top leadership of the two countries, the supportive role of media of the two countries, and both sides strictly adhering to the policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.7 In any case, scholars across the board cannot help but accept that both countries irrefutably share a unique bond, which is, in the words of John Garver, “of a truly special character.”8 Both countries have demonstrated, through and through, that they are indeed, “Iron Brothers,” and their relation is “higher than the mountains,” “deeper than the oceans,” “sweeter than honey,” and “an all-weather” friendship. Since its origin, the nature of China-Pakistan relationship has been predominantly geostrategic, with strong defence, geopolitical and military cooperation at a state-to-state level.9 In the twenty-first century, however, these “major factors upon which the Sino-Pakistan entente was originally based are gradually fading away.”10 Of course, they continue to provide stability to the China-Pakistan relationship, but are no longer as significant as they used to be earlier. China-Pakistan relations have now “reached a point where these traditional characteristics are being replaced by new realities.”11 China’s economic rise in the twenty-first century has changed the global dynamics and, for China, economic relations have become “increasingly important in its foreign relations.”12 In what ways has the rise of China affected China-Pakistan relations? What is the scope and nature of China-Pakistan relations in the twenty-first century? This study is geared towards addressing these two primary questions. The central argument is that China-Pakistan relations in the twenty-first century have expanded, horizontally, in four key areas: economic, technological, educational and cultural, as well as vertically, from a state-to-state level down to people-to-people level. The study highlights the transformative role of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), both of which have helped China-Pakistan bilateral cooperation become multifaceted, multi-dimensional and multilateral.