China-Pakistan: Emerging Strains in the Entente Cordiale

By Isaac B. Kardon

Recent reports alleging Chinese military activity in Pakistani-controlledareas of Kashmir call renewed attention to the extraordinaryrelationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and theIslamic Republic of Pakistan.1Such activities fuel concerns – especially inWashington and New Delhi – that China enjoys unique privileges andexercises inordinate influence in Pakistan. Despite this perception,however, instances of direct Chinese involvement in Pakistani politicaland security affairs are rare. Even as Chinese economic interests inPakistan multiply, Beijing has shown little inclination to actively involveitself in shaping Pakistani behavior, taking cautious and minimal steps toprotect its narrowly defined interests and repeatedly snubbing thedemocratically-elected civilian regime of Asif Ali Zardari. This hands-offapproach thus also supports a different conclusion, namely that China’sprivileged relationship with Pakistan may be “more apparent than real,”2better characterized as periodic episodes of converging interests than aconsistent pattern of real cooperation. Pakistan’s serial provocations ofIndia, hot-and-cold relationship with the United States and seeminginability to “keep the Korans out of Xinjiang”3– that is, to preventIslamist militants and madrassas from supporting Muslim separatists inChina’s troubled western region – are all headline indications thatPakistani behavior does not always conform to Chinese preferences.

Pakistan’s pivotal role in U.S. strategy in South Asia calls for a more precise judgment about howChina can and will behave vis-à-vis Pakistan. What is the present nature and scope of that SinoPakistani relationship? How did it arise? Is it likely to endure in this form? Unpacking the diversecomponents of this “all-weather partnership” will offer insight into its present utility for Beijing.This paper aims to synthesize some existing judgments of the situation, while focusing on threeactual and potential sources of change in Chinese policy towards Pakistan: 1) a dramatically alteredgeopolitical context for the post-cold war Sino-Pakistani entente, 2) evolving priorities in Beijingover the past decade, and 3) Pakistan’s unreliability as a partner. This inquiry reveals that whilecertain long-standing interests binding the two together remain robust, changing circumstanceswill complicate – and sometimes undermine – the entente. Although shared animosity towardsIndia provides the foundation for the special Sino-Pakistani relationship, it alone is not sufficient tosustain the relationship in the face of mounting adversity and wider Chinese ambitions. China’scalculus on Pakistan is informed by the new opportunity costs entailed in sustaining thepartnership, a fuller understanding of which will help explain Beijing’s willingness to recalibrate itsties to Islamabad in pursuing more advantageous alternative goals and partnerships.China and Pakistan, spanning across the Asiancontinent.|

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