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China-Pakistan Relations: Difference between ‘Allies’ and ‘Partners’


China is a marquee element in Pakistan’s foreign relations landscape since the 1960s, having resulted in a spate of big-ticket defence procurement and, since 2015, significant economic interaction via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, with an apparent – but ultimately, unlikely – contraction of US-Pakistani political and defence ties, there is an overt sense on the part of some pundits that Pakistan could ‘pivot’ to China or that China would enter to fill the void. China certainly has an incentive – CPEC amounts to over $50 billion US in Chinese expenditure (through investments and loans) that needs to be protected. In 2013, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had described Chinese-Pakistani relations as being “higher than the Himalayas … and sweeter than honey.”[1]

There is no doubt that the bilateral relationship is important to both Pakistan and China, however, it would be wrong to extend that to the notion of an alliance, pact or a relationship akin to the one the US and Pakistan currently maintain. In reality, ‘allies’ and ‘partners’ are different, and at this stage Pakistan might realize that ‘partnerships’ through strong bilateral relations are better than ‘alliances’.

Understanding ‘Alliances’

The term ‘ally’ is used loosely and, occasionally, is used synonymously to describe countries with strong bilateral relations. However, alliances are not necessarily strong bilateral or multi-lateral ties between states, though they can emerge from such times. However, an alliance is fundamentally different in that at its core it is a sharing of resources: specifically, it is the transfer of funding, military services and other benefits (e.g. intelligence) from one country to another country.

The US is the leading example of a state that has fostered strong alliances, most notably the Treater of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the Japanese, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with Europe and the Mutual Defence Treaty with South Korea. The outcome of these alliances sees the US raise bases and station important military assets in other countries, which – in the prospect of a conflict – could see those assets protect and support US allies from a shared threat. In alliances, countries put themselves at-risk of an attack and, in turn, the loss of human and material losses. This ‘trade’ can be reciprocal (i.e. providing gains for comparable powers), supplementary (e.g. countries bridging each other’s deficiencies) or one-sided (e.g. the US providing cover to a lesser power against a larger threat).

Alliances between states do not necessitate partnerships (and vice-versa). For example, by way of its NATO membership, Germany is allies with many countries, such as Greece, Romania and others. However, Germany does not maintain particularly strong bilateral ties with any of those countries. Rather, Berlin was quite strict with Athens during the European debt crisis, requiring the latter to implement strong fiscal austerity measures. Likewise, relations between Germany and Turkey have alternated between tenuous and productive, despite the two also being NATO allies. However, the US’ alliances with Canada, Australia, South Korea and Japan are also augmented by strong bilateral relations between the US and those states.

Pakistan and the US are ‘allies.’ This is obvious if one refers to the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s during which the US had provided Pakistan with military aid in a bid to strengthen its position to counteract the Soviet Union. However, the two re-engaged as active allies following 9/11. Yes, bilateral relations are relatively weak, but since 2002, Pakistan has provided military and intelligence services to the US. In-exchange for its services and support, such as providing air and land-access for US/NATO supplies moving into Afghanistan, the US has provided Pakistan with military aid. However, as a reaction to its support for the US entry and presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan sustained heavy repercussions in the way of domestic terrorism. An op-ed in The Express Tribune in September 2017 aptly summarized the overarching reality: “Before 9/11, there was only a single recorded suicide attack in Pakistan’s history. But post 9/11, hundreds of such attacks took place. The US might have had one 9/11 but Pakistan had dozens.”[2]

Despite US aid, there are few Pakistani political leaders – especially today – who would suggest that allying with the US was ‘good’ for Pakistan. In response to President Trump’s tweets and the subsequent freeze in military aid assistance to Pakistan, the Pakistan Foreign Office’s messaging asserted that Pakistan had incurred net-losses from a cost of $120 billion US since 2002-2003.[3] Likewise, the US is certain to consider Pakistan a relatively untrustworthy partner, especially in the fall-out of Operation Neptune Spear in May 2011 (i.e. the Abbottabad or Osama bin Laden Raid). The US has used the matter as a reference point for harping on Pakistan to “do more” against apparent Taliban or so-called ‘Haqqani-network’ sanctuaries in Pakistan.[4] However, despite the contentiousness and claims (by both sides) of being the cost-bearer, this relationship had been an alliance built upon the transfer of military services and support.

The material outcomes of Pakistan’s policymaking vis-à-vis the US are jarring when compared to Pakistan’s policy statements regarding China. In a recent interview, former Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told CNN that China “is [Pakistan’s] regional strategic partner, perhaps the only real strategic partner Pakistan has had … for the last four decades. With them, we have had a complete alignment of interests.”[5] Certainly, there is a strong sense that Pakistan’s bilateral relations with China are of vital importance to Pakistani interests, but despite the continuity – and growth – of these ties, an alliance involving the non-commercial transfer of military services and carriage of active shared enmity is unlikely to emerge.

China’s Sole Alliance

In 1961, China and North Korea signed the ‘Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance.’ This is China’s only formalized alliance wherein it is obliged to “adopt all measures to prevent aggression” for another country. In other words, despite its growth as an economic, political and military power, and despite the pressure it is facing from US-Japanese and US-South Korean alliances, China has not formed a new alliance since 1961.[6] Granted, China has limited options considering the extent of US relationships in the South China Seas or Southeast Asia. Furthermore, China has the option of pairing its global economic activities with military footprints, as evident with its humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief (HADR) base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.[7] However, it is premature to view that base as an indicator of China seeking to build alliances (resulting in overseas bases for non-HADR and non-peacekeeping systems and activities). In effect, China’s immediate security doctrine rests upon strengthening the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is evident in its procurement and development efforts.

That said, it would be disingenuous to argue that China is isolated. While China has not formed alliances like the US, it has leveraged its economic growth and tandem rise in political stature to strengthen bilateral relations with other countries. Intuitively, some view China’s struggles in the South China Seas as one of China against ‘the West’, but in reality, it is an issue between China, its neighbours and the US. Europe – especially Germany and France – are openly collaborating with China in industrial development, such as the joint-development of turboprop engines for helicopters and joint-manufacturing of diesel engines.[8] [9] These are not token programs considering the potential (albeit, largely downplayed) dual-use value.

For China, these relationships are signs of credibility and legitimacy, while for the UK, Germany and France China is a home to vested economic and industrial interests for these countries. While the US has the lead on military alliances, China has done markedly well in breaking any containment in terms of economic and foreign relations. This suits China. It is not reliant on others for military support nor is it burdened with a country in need of its military support (besides North Korea). Bilateral relations with Pakistan adds to that credibility (in fact, Pakistan helped form it in the early 1960s) and, in terms of current geo-politics, frees China from having to worry about its Central Asia flank and enables it to access the Arabian Sea.

Pakistan: Weary of Alliances

For Pakistan, alliances have not been kind. The ongoing engagement with the US is ridden with exchanges of duplicity and ambivalence, and in Pakistan’s view, it is co-paying the cost of the US’ military presence in Afghanistan (i.e. the deficit Pakistan points to by adding US aid to its losses of $120 billion). However, this distrust towards alliances is even older, spanning to the 1965 War with India. Discussing the issue in relation to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, retired Pakistan Army Brigadier General Feroz Hassan Khan wrote: “As time passed, however, Pakistan found international institutions capricious and alliances unreliable.” [10] In fact, when Pakistan tried relying on a formal alliance for its security interests regarding India – i.e. the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) – the US rebuffed Pakistan by plainly adding that SEATO was meant to check against the spread of Communism.[11]

Thus, distrust of alliances is – or at least should be – ingrained within Pakistan’s national security doctrine. In light of current dynamics with the US, especially the reality of the US facilitating India’s advancement as a military power, such as supporting its entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) and resultant ability to affect Pakistan’s national security interests, such as in Afghanistan, this distrust is likely to grow. Granted, there is an odd disconnect between the national security interest – which had driven Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons – and its policy actions regarding the U.S., but the U.S. is uniquely the world’s sole superpower. That exception aside, an alliance with China is unlikely to figure in Pakistan’s national security doctrine. Rather, Pakistan is likely to take a page from China’s playbook and work for strong bilateral relations as a means to accrue foreign relations, economic and technology gains.

Fundamentally, Chinese-Pakistani ties improved on the back of China and Pakistan’s mutual tensions with India. Following the conclusion of the 1962 Indo-China War, Pakistan inked an agreement with China on 02 March 1963 cementing the border of the two states, which involved – from India’s perspective – the unilateral ceding of Kashmir territory captured by Pakistan in 1948.[12] In one sense, there was the desire to counteract India, but in another, China and Pakistan likely believed it was best not to have animosity between each other as well. This enabled Beijing and Islamabad to secure their respective frontiers of any conventional military threat from one another and, instead, focus on active threats (e.g. India). However, this must not be construed as an alliance. Neither China or Pakistan is expected to commit military assets or to provide military services for the interests of the other. In fact, no such exchange of services occurred in the respective conflicts of either country. For Pakistan specifically, the actual guarantor of its national security is, ultimately, its nuclear weapons (i.e. not an alliance).

Ultimately, both countries will likely prefer strengthening bilateral relations, but avoiding an alliance. First, a key reason for maintaining bilateral ties with Pakistan in the first place was to avoid having Pakistan as another hostile front. Instead of precluding that, an alliance – which necessitates a pact to militarily fight in concert with Pakistan – would result in re-opening that front, albeit differently but a front all the same. Supporting Pakistan in the way of making big-ticket defence items accessible is one thing, but becoming a belligerent in any of Pakistan’s fights is another matter entirely. Such a move would oblige China to put its own citizens, sovereignty and materiel at risk of loss (and vice-versa) for another country. Pakistan has no formal enmity with Japan, South Korea and, despite the political rhetoric, the US. An alliance with the Chinese would require an assumption in Tokyo, Seoul and Washington that Pakistan agrees – and could support – Chinese actions in the South China Seas. Pakistan would prefer to be free of such burdens.

Strong bilateral relationships can serve to fulfill the interests of those involved while absolving them from the cost of unconditional support. Neither China or Pakistan can afford the latter nor are they necessarily interested in pursuing it. However, while preserving self-agency and independence in one’s own decision-making (which might not be the case in an alliance, which could result in the erosion of agency in order to secure military assistance), strong bilateral relations can facilitate the achievement of national interests.

For China, a stronger Pakistan can dilute New Delhi’s focus, requiring it to split its military capability across two potential fronts instead of having the flexibility to just focus on China. For Pakistan, its relations with China have been essential to sustaining a respectable conventional posture vis-à-vis India. In the long-term, this could materialize through Chinese research and development support for Project Azm, under which Pakistan is pursuing a next-generation fighter that it can domestically build and support. In turn, the Chinese can further scale their R&D overhead. The sale of Type 054A frigates in identical configuration to ships in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could also, in theory, enable Pakistan to wet-lease PLAN ships on short-notice and with limited lead-time during a spike in tension with India.

While an end to US-Pakistani defence ties – and the ongoing alliance in place today – is unlikely to occur, a contraction on that front is also unlikely to result in a Pakistani ‘embrace’ of China. Rather, having felt the precariousness of buying into and fighting for the interests of another country (again, from Pakistan’s perspective), it is unlikely that there is any appetite to repeat the same with another country. For Pakistan, the goal should be to expand its portfolio of strong partners, so that it can accrue more in the way of trade or economic gains, foreign relations credibility and technology. Pakistan could have a stronger handshake with China, but to increase its stature and reduce its reliance on a larger power (or at least the perception), it needs more strong partners.

[1] “China-Pakistan friendship ‘sweeter than honey’, says Nawaz Sharif.” The Telegraph. 05 July 2013. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 January 2018).

[2] Kamran Yousaf. “How 9/11 changed Pakistan. The Express Tribune. 12 September 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 16 January 2018).

[3] “Pakistan spent over $120bn in anti-terror war from own resources, says FO.” Pakistan Today. 05 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 15 January 2018).

[4] Michael Kugelman. “US-Pakistan relations: A broken record.” CNN. 05 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 15 January 2018).

[5] Hina Rabbani Khar. Interview with Cristiane Amanpour via CNN January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 17 January 2018).

[6] Tongfi Kim. “The Supply Side of Security: A Market Theory of Military Alliances.” Stanford University Press. 2016. p.14

[7] “Chinese military expands into Africa with first base, rivaling U.S.” Reuters via Newsweek. 01 August 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 15 January 2018).

[8] “Safran and Avic team up on turboprops.” Safran Group. 19 January 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 15 January 2018)

[9] “Rolls-Royce and China Yuchai to Jointly Produce MTU Engines.” China Yuchai International Limited 19 February 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 15 January 2018).

[10] Feroz Hassan Khan. “Eating Grass.” Stanford University Press. 2012. p.24

[11] Ibid. p.22

[12] Ibid. 40-41.

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