By Lisa Curtis and Derek Scissors, Ph.D.
Posted by- Neelam Mathews
Jan 20, 2012
China’s concerns over Pakistan’s future stability will likely limit the extent to which it will help Pakistan out of its economic difficulties. While China has an interest in maintaining strong security ties with Pakistan, the economic relationship is not very extensive and the notion that Chinese ties could serve as a replacement for U.S. ties is far-fetched. Instead of wringing hands over Chinese influence on Pakistan, the U.S. should seek cooperation from Beijing in encouraging a more stable and prosperous Pakistan—which will benefit all parties involved.
In the wake of the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last May and deteriorating relations between Islamabad and Washington, Pakistani leaders have sought to play up their country’s relations with China, touting Beijing as an alternative partner to Washington. However, China’s concerns about the future stability and development of Pakistan will limit the extent to which China will bail Pakistan out of its current economic difficulties, and the degree to which China will seek to drive a wedge between Islamabad and Washington.
Chinese security interests in Pakistan are driven primarily by China’s desire to contain India. Beijing has built up Pakistan’s conventional military as well as nuclear and missile capabilities over the years to help keep India off balance and focused on threats emanating from Pakistan. China has shown little interest in propping up Pakistan’s economy and has not provided substantial economic aid, even during times of need.
In the past, U.S. officials have worried that pushing Pakistan too hard to crack down on terrorists could drive Islamabad more firmly into Beijing’s embrace. But China’s lukewarm response to Pakistan’s recent overtures demonstrates that there are limits to what Islamabad can expect from its “all-weather friend”—a term often used by Pakistani officials when referring to China.
U.S. policymakers must recognize these limits to the benefits that Pakistan will receive from China. China is increasingly concerned about Islamist extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, and there may be room for Washington to seek Beijing’s cooperation in encouraging a more stable and prosperous Pakistan.
Long-Standing Security TiesPakistan and China have long-standing strategic ties, dating back five decades. China maintains a robust defense relationship with Pakistan and views a strong partnership with Pakistan as a useful way to contain Indian power in the region and divert Indian military force and strategic attention away from China. The China–Pakistan partnership serves both Chinese and Pakistani interests by presenting India with a potential two-front theater in the event of war with either country. Chinese officials also view a certain degree of India–Pakistan tension as advancing their own strategic interests, as such friction bogs India down in South Asia and interferes with New Delhi’s ability to assert its global ambitions and compete with China at the international level.
China is Pakistan’s largest defense supplier. The Chinese JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft is currently under serial production at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, and an initial batch of 250 to 300 planes is scheduled. China also plans to provide Pakistan with J-10 medium-role combat aircraft, with an initial delivery of 30 to 35 planes. Other recent sales of conventional weapons include F-22P frigates with helicopters, K-8 jet trainers, T-85 tanks, F-7 aircraft, small arms, and ammunition. China also helped Pakistan build its Heavy Mechanical Complex, Aeronautical Complex, and several defense production units. While the U.S. has sanctioned Pakistan in the past—in 1965 and again in 1990—China has consistently supported Pakistan’s military modernization.
There are signs that Pakistan–China defense cooperation received a boost following the United States’ May 2 raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Two weeks after the raid, Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, traveled to Beijing in an attempt to showcase the China–Pakistan relationship as the pillar of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The U.S. decision to pursue the bin Laden raid unilaterally without prior notification of Pakistani officials incensed the Pakistani military leadership.
To demonstrate its displeasure over the operation, Pakistan kicked out 90 U.S. military trainers from the country and turned its attention to its “all-weather” friend. In response to Pakistan’s overtures, China called on the U.S. to respect the “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Pakistan and announced it would expedite the delivery of 50 JF-17 aircraft equipped with upgraded avionics to Pakistan. However, when Pakistan’s defense minister claimed that Pakistan had invited China to start building a naval base at Gwadar Port, Chinese officials publicly dismissed the notion. Despite Pakistani assurances that they did not provide Chinese officials with access to wreckage from the stealth helicopter used by U.S. Special Forces in the bin Laden raid, U.S.
intelligence officials reportedly believe the Pakistanis did allow Chinese engineers to inspect the helicopter parts before they were returned to the U.S.
Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Cooperation
It is widely acknowledged that China transferred equipment and technology and provided scientific expertise to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs throughout the 1980s and 1990s, enhancing Pakistan’s strength in the South Asian strategic balance. The most significant development in Chinese–Pakistani military cooperation occurred in 1992, when China supplied Pakistan with 34 short-range ballistic M-11 missiles. Beijing also built a turn-key ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi, and helped Pakistan develop the 750-km-range solid-fueled Shaheen-1 ballistic missile.
In a recently released letter from 2003, Abdul Qadeer (A. Q.) Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who was instrumental in developing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and who confessed in 2004 to running a nuclear black market from Pakistan, suggests that China had supplied Pakistan with significant quantities of low-enriched uranium, allowing Pakistan to accelerate the production of weapons-grade uranium in the early 1980s.
China helped Pakistan build two civilian nuclear reactors at the Chasma site in the Punjab province under agreements made before it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2004. More recently, China has been planning to build two additional new nuclear reactors for Pakistan (Chasma III and Chasma IV), but the U.S. has indicated that Beijing must first seek an exemption from the NSG for any future nuclear technology transfers. When China joined the NSG, it subjected itself to rules that forbid the sale and export of nuclear technology to countries that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Though Pakistan considers China a more reliable defense partner than the U.S., Islamabad should also recognize that China’s support has its limits, especially during times of conflict and tension between New Delhi and Islamabad. When Pakistan sought Chinese assistance during its 1965 war with India, Beijing encouraged Islamabad to withdraw its forces from Indian territory. During the 1999 Indo–Pakistani border war in Kargil, Beijing privately supported U.S. calls for Pakistan to withdraw its forces from the heights of Kargil on the Indian side of the Line of Control to defuse the crisis, and apparently communicated this stance to Pakistani leaders.
Rising Concerns about TerrorismOne source of tension between Beijing and Islamabad that has surfaced over the last few years is Chinese concern over some Chinese Uighur separatists receiving sanctuary and terrorist training on Pakistani territory. The Chinese province of Xinjiang is home to eight million Muslim Uighurs, many of whom resent the growing presence and economic grip of the Han Chinese on the region. Some Uighurs have agitated for an independent “East Turkestan.” To mollify China’s concerns, Pakistan has begun to clamp down on Uighur settlements and on religious schools purportedly used as training grounds for militants. Media reports indicate that Pakistan may have extradited as many as nine Uighurs to China in April 2009 after accusing them of involvement in terrorist activities.
While it is unclear which percentage of Uighur separatists are affiliated with al-Qaeda, terrorism expert Walid Phares testified before the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2009 that jihadists make up about 5 percent to 10 percent of the Uighur movement.] He has also noted the presence of a “jihadi web” in Pakistan that includes Uighur extremists.
In July 2009, ethnic violence broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, in which at least 197 people were killed and 1,700 injured—mostly Han Chinese. The rioting began when roughly 1,000 Uighur protesters were confronted by riot police. The Chinese government blamed the violence primarily on Uighur exiles, but Pakistani radical influence was also cited as contributing to the violence.
More recent attacks in Xinjiang in late July 2011 that killed 20 people prompted Chinese criticisms of Pakistan for failing to crack down on the training of Uighur separatists in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The Chinese rebuke mirrored U.S. calls for the Pakistani government to do more to rein in Afghan insurgents who also find sanctuary in Pakistan. Local Chinese authorities in Xinjiang charged that the person who conducted the July attacks in Kashgar had received training in Pakistan. The accusations were repeated in the China Daily newspaper. Pakistani political leader Mushahid Hussain acknowledged in an op-ed that another attack similar to the one in Kashgar over the summer would have serious implications for China–Pakistan ties.
Chinese officials are increasingly connecting the level of terrorist activity in Pakistan to instability in western China. One Chinese academic has noted in his writings that China has developed a more neutral position on the Indo–Pakistani dispute over Kashmir over the past decade in part because China believes that the dispute could have implications for ethnic-religious unrest in China, especially in Tibet or Xinjiang.
Tension has also surfaced between Islamabad and Beijing in recent years over attacks by Islamist extremists on Chinese workers, which number about 10,000 in Pakistan. This tension came to a head in summer 2007 when Islamist militants kidnapped several Chinese citizens whom they accused of running a brothel in Islamabad. China was incensed by this incident, and its complaints to Pakistani authorities likely contributed to Pakistan’s decision to finally launch a military operation at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where the militants had holed up for seven months. Around the same time, three Chinese officials were killed in Peshawar. Several days later, a suicide bomber attacked a group of Chinese engineers in Baluchistan. Senior Chinese leaders, such as President Hu Jintao, have called on Pakistani leaders to increase protection of Chinese workers in the country and threatened to pull funding from projects where Chinese workers have come under threat.
Another sign that China was feeling increasingly compelled to pressure Pakistan to adopt stricter counterterrorism policies was when, in December 2008, Beijing dropped its resistance to banning the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD—a front organization for the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks) in the United Nations Security Council. Before then, China had vetoed Security Council resolutions seeking to ban the JuD.
The Economic Relationship: Surprisingly LimitedPakistan’s portrayal of its relationship with China features exaggeration of the economic dimension of the relationship. Pakistani media routinely report huge numbers for investment and financing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), numbers that cannot be verified by any independent source, including by the Chinese government or the Chinese companies supposedly involved. While Pakistani officials talk of a total of $25 billion in Chinese investment in Pakistan so far, the PRC’s official figure of direct investment through 2010 is $1.83 billion.
The Heritage Foundation’s China Global Tracker documents investments as well as engineering and construction contracts of $100 million or more since the beginning of 2005, as reported by the companies. The China Tracker shows only $1.2 billion in such investment and contracts combined through 2010. These are dominated by telecommunications, with China Mobile acquiring Paktel and investing in improvements in Pakistan’s telecommunications system, such as paying the Chinese engineering company Great Wall to launch a satellite.
In sum, Chinese investment activity in Pakistan is quite modest. It is a negligible fraction of total Chinese outward investment of more than $250 billion since 2005 and dwarfed by Chinese activity in Indonesia, for example. This should not be a surprise. Chinese outward investment is motivated more by domestic economic needs than by foreign policy goals. What the PRC deems to be strategic sectors—iron, copper, oil, coal, and gas—are materials needed to keep domestic industry humming and hundreds of millions of people employed. Farmland is similar, though it has proven more difficult to acquire. Pakistan has comparatively little in the way of any of these resources.