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China-Pakistan relations: A new chapter?

Event Report

Brookings India hosted a private roundtable discussion on China-Pakistan Relations: A New Chapter? featuring Andrew Small, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. The discussion was moderated by Dhruva Jaishankar, Fellow for Foreign Policy at Brookings India. The discussion focused on some of the changes underway in the China-Pakistan relationship.

China’s relationship with Pakistan has been the closest thing that Beijing has had to an alliance, driven primarily by both countries’ relations with India. Over the years, it has involved military sales, support at multilateral entities such as the U.N. Security Council, cooperation on terrorism linked to Xinjiang, and the transfer of nuclear and missile technologies. But the relationship has taken on a different characteristic in recent years, with the economic and commercial aspects gaining greater prominence, and Chinese and Pakistani support for each other intensifying. It is important, however, not to overplay the economic and political aspect of the relationship since security still holds center stage.

The qualitative shift in China’s approach to Pakistan can be explained by several factors. The terrorist threat in China has been on the decline with no major terror attacks for almost a decade. This has allowed China to diversity its relationship with Pakistan away from security considerations and the need to counter terrorism. China’s domestic economic transition (from export-led growth to a model driven by consumption and services) has made it necessary to re-orient its foreign relations to suit this transition mainly through foreign investments aimed at reviving industrial sectors hit by this transition.  Also, the threat level in Pakistan from the point of view of Chinese workers’ security has declined considerably. Chinese workers have not been targeted on a large scale since 2008 and have generally been safe in Pakistan. This has created a domestic climate in Pakistan that is more conducive to Chinese investment in large projects. In the last few years, China has been committing more and more political energy to its relations with Pakistan partly because Chinese projects in Pakistan are viewed as a credibility test to execute similar projects with other OBOR partners. Given its increasing competition with the U.S., China needs friends, and Pakistan is one of the few countries known to be receptive to large-scale Chinese investments. Pakistan would therefore be an ideal case for China’s new allies-centric foreign policy. Chinese investments in Pakistan are also meant to entice other countries to side with China in the international arena through similar investments.

China’s flagship project in Pakistan is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $46bn plan for a transport and energy corridor between China and Pakistan. CPEC will have a number of ramifications for the two counties as well as the region. CPEC could lead to political infighting in Pakistan as to who will supervise and implement projects under CPEC. Civil-military relations in Pakistan might suffer further as both struggle to gain control over Chinese-funded projects. The military and its allied companies as well as the civilian government stand to gain substantial financial benefits through these projects. However, China is wary of Pakistani military meddling as this would destabilise civil-military relations and would ultimately affect China’s reputation and support base in the Pakistani establishment. A military takeover would also tarnish China’s reputation in countries with similar interests. These investments could spur economic growth in Pakistan, eventually generating stability and reducing security threats within Pakistan and the region.

China has stepped up its security, political and economic presence in South Asia as well as Central Asia in the recent years. China recently passed a law that would allow Chinese forces to conduct counterterrorism operations outside China. There has been speculation about where these forces might be used, with some suggesting ISIS targets in Syria while others suggesting counterterrorism operations in the Badakshan province of Afghanistan, where the leadership of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is based. With increasing political, economic and security interests in Afghanistan, the Chinese are keen to ensure a stable Afghanistan. Given the disconnect between outcomes that China and Pakistan seek in Afghanistan, China is stepping up its contacts with Afghanistan bilaterally in an attempt to reduce its dependence on Pakistan. The Chinese leadership is also establishing close political and military ties with Central Asian countries, besides pledging significant investments. It has also managed to obtain Russia’s acquiescence for its ambitious Silk Road initiative which promises large scale economic gains to the region. However, a Chinese military step up in the region might raise red flags for Russia given the Russian military’s historical distrust of China.

In conclusion, the China-Pakistan relationship has witnessed significant shifts over the last few years under the leadership of Xi Jinping. The largely security-centric relationship now extends to the economic and political realms as well.

Sara Perlangeli, a Research Intern at Brooking India, contributed to this report. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this report is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are of the discussant(s), contributor(s) or author(s). Brookings India does not have any institutional views.

Event Announcement

China’s relationship with Pakistan has been the closest thing that Beijing has had to an alliance, driven primarily by both countries’ relations with India. Over the years, it has involved military sales, support at multilateral entities such as the U.N. Security Council, cooperation on terrorism linked to Xinjiang, and the transfer of nuclear and missile technologies. But the relationship has taken on a different characteristic in recent years, with the economic and commercial aspects gaining greater prominence, and Chinese and Pakistani support for each other intensifying.

Brookings India hosted a private and off-the-record discussion with Mr. Small on some of the changes underway in the China-Pakistan relationship. Andrew Small is a senior transatlantic fellow with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund, and author of the 2015 book The China-Pakistan Axis.

Speaker
Andrew Small
Senior Transatlantic Fellow
German Marshall Fund

Moderator
Dhruva Jaishankar
Fellow, Foreign Policy
Brookings India

All views held during discussions are those of the participants. Brookings India does not hold an institutional view.

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