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China-Pakistan Relations: Why it matters for Pakistan


This article is part of a series Quwa will publish under Quwa Premium through 2018. For this week, we are broadly overviewing the key aspects of Pakistan’s relations with China, which – in some respects, such as defence procurement – are its most important. However, in the coming year subsequent articles will seek to examine, in-depth, China-Pakistani relations in terms of trade, industry and economy, foreign relations, third-party states (e.g. Russia and the United States) and other aspects. Whatever one’s views might be of China or Pakistan, it is evident that the two require each other to fulfill their respective interests, be it national security, economic or geo-strategic. China appears to have developed its approach to interacting with Pakistan, having committed to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative. However, have Pakistan’s foreign policymakers developed a concrete and fully articulated strategy towards Beijing?


Since the 1960s, China grew in prominence as one of Pakistan’s leading suppliers of big-ticket armaments, especially as an alternate supplier to the U.S. and Western Europe. This relationship solidified itself in the 1990s when Pakistan was struck by the Pressler Amendment, which had effectively blocked the sale and transfer of U.S.-built weapons to Pakistan in response to Pakistan’s push for nuclear weapons.

The marquee programs to have emerged in this decade include the al-Khalid main battle tank (MBT) and the JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighter. With Pakistan finding it difficult to access and/or afford top-of-the-line Western equipment since 2000, Beijing has only solidified its position as a big-ticket arms supplier to Islamabad. In 2015, the Pakistan Navy pivoted to China away from Western Europe by selecting an air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarine from the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), while the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has – building upon the JF-17 – tapped into the Chinese aerospace base for support in Project Azm, which is slated to provide a fifth-generation fighter (FGF) for the PAF.

However, in 2015, Beijing executed a significant step in its relations with Pakistan – CPEC. With CPEC, the Chinese broke-out of their status as simply Pakistan’s leading arms supplier to being described as an ‘all-weather ally’, ‘strategic partner’, ‘backer’ and many other loaded terms by politicians, observers, analysts, journalists, academics and pundits within and outside of Pakistan. The credibility of these claims and, above all, fully understanding CPEC will require many separate inquiries. However, CPEC has certainly changed the nature of China’s ties with Pakistan – but how well has Pakistan adapted?

Determining the Foundation

Quwa will use this question as its guide when it explores the various aspects of Pakistan’s ties with China in 2018. However, for this week the emphasis is on building a primer and understanding ‘why’ this bilateral relationship matters for both countries and their respective geo-political regions. One might be tempted to start with Pakistan’s decision to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the legitimate body governing the territorial domain of China in 1951. It is a valid starting-point, but one must accept that the inherent size of mainland China, its population (thus, its market and scale) and the CPC’s competency (especially from the 1980s) in the area of economic management will have enabled the PRC to establish its strong position on the international relations stage anyways.

The basis of China-Pakistan relations is the reality that the two countries need each other to fulfill their respective national interests. This is a far more significant cause for relations than recognition of the PRC’s sovereignty over mainland China (while important in its own right). For Pakistan, the need is evident in its tenuous and contentious (domestically and abroad) relations with the U.S., which pushes Pakistan to rely on China for unyielding diplomatic support and a reliable supply of affordable and relatively credible arms. One might feel that China wields the leverage and influence in this relationship – after all, Pakistan is the party in actual need of support that is increasingly scarce in availability.

However, China has its own geo-strategic interests in the Pacific Ocean, specifically the South China Seas and, to a lesser extent, Central Asia (due to its connectivity with Xinjiang/East Turkestan and Russia). But the U.S. has traditionally viewed the Pacific Ocean with concern, specifically of strong East Asian powers – the experience of the Second World War was foundational to Washington’s concerns. Beijing, by virtue of its economic stature, its absolute weight (in population and territorial size), proactivity and detachment from Washington (in contrast to Tokyo and Seoul’s closeness) is an issue of strategic concern to the U.S.

The Indian Factor

For the U.S., the concern is that as China continues growing in economic and military capacity, it will seek to utilize those tools to weaken other East Asian and Southeast Asian powers in order to accumulate the resources and space it requires to sustain itself.[1] Although it has economically engaged with China, the U.S. has reserved the balance of its political engagement by strengthening defence relations with China’s East Asian neighbours and Southeast Asian contacts. It is in this context that India has also emerged as a major partner – i.e. “Major Defence Partner” – of the U.S., and in turn, Pakistan is of relevance to China.

Simply put, Pakistan’s growth as an economic – and by consequence, a military – power could force India to dilute its resource concentration and a force it split its focus between China and Pakistan. By necessity, this means that Pakistan cannot be a rival of China, as that would basically mean adding another corner of isolation for China. Beijing cannot afford to let Pakistan become such an entity, but it will have also recognized that in East Asia and Southeast Asia, Pakistan is a non-factor. In other words, a cordial relationship between Islamabad and Tokyo or Seoul is of no concern to Beijing (evident in the fact that Pakistan has maintained these relations for decades) – the objective is diluting India’s focus.

One might argue that India could thwart this by leveraging its larger market as a means to secure political favour with China. In fact, India does have a trade deficit with China of $46.56 billion U.S.,[2] indicating that Chinese sellers need Indian buyers more than vice-versa. New Delhi might argue that it already has some leverage in Beijing, and that by consequence, China should be mindful lest its sellers lose market-share. However, such a narrow view ignores the reality that in geo-political and security, India has explicitly sided itself with the U.S. Moreover, the exponentially greater depth of U.S.-Chinese economic relations does nothing to decisively shift either Beijing or Washington’s perception of the other as a geo-strategic threat.

In the foreseeable future, India is not in a position to pivot from the U.S. or to become a non-factor in the U.S.’ interests in the Pacific Ocean. Becoming one of Washington’s ‘Major Defence Partners’ does not at all indicate a short-term engagement. Likewise, India’s membership in the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) mean nothing to China if the U.S. is in place to veto Chinese membership in either or both entities. Finally, New Delhi would have to be cognizant of the expectations the Washington has for earning its support in India’s entry into the MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement and, if not for China, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) while also not being a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In effect, India cannot have it both ways, and the way of being sufficiently amenable to China for China to distance itself from Pakistan is not in place.

A Change in Pakistan’s Orientation?

One might be tempted to see the U.S. as a factor in China-Pakistani relations, specifically in terms of China entering to fill a void left by the U.S. This is true in terms of supplying big-ticket defence items and being a source of economic support, namely in terms of loans and foreign direct investment (FDI) through CPEC. However, it would be premature to suggest that this is an all-encompassing relationship analogous to the ties Pakistan had with the U.S. through the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s.[3] Those relations had both voiced and vividly demonstrated an alignment of Pakistan’s foreign policy and national security interests to those of the U.S. Rather, in-spite of the ongoing tension and exchange of words, Islamabad has continually made it clear that it is supporting the U.S. with regards to Afghanistan – it simply asks the U.S. to acknowledge it. While conditioning it, the Trump administration signed-off on releasing up to $700 million U.S. under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to Pakistan.[4] Likewise, in the lead-up to James Mattis’ visit to Islamabad on December 04, the U.S. and Pakistan held a series of bilateral diplomatic meetings, with the Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary expressing hope that bilateral ties would be amended.[5]

While aligning with China on India, it does not appear that Pakistan has detached itself from the U.S. to the extent where China can see a genuine confrontation of conflicting interests in Afghanistan – but that would certainly add another dimension to Beijing’s ties with Islamabad, should it occur. Such a change is upon Pakistan, which has yet to earnestly make such a move, despite repeatedly (for decades) expressing discontent with U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan on various issues, once the nuclear weapons program and today, Pakistan’s supposed role in the U.S. not achieving its objectives in Afghanistan.

That said, it is an area worth watching as the U.S.’ support for India, now fully apparent, comes to fruition in the way of new armaments for the Indian military and New Delhi’s growth of influence in Kabul. Recently, National Security Advisor Lt. General (retired) Nasser Khan Janjua stated, “India is being given priority over Pakistan in Afghanistan, something that will shape the political and strategic dynamics of the war-torn country,” adding that Washington “ignored [Pakistan’s] enormous sacrifices in the fight against terrorism”.[6] Certainly, there is concern on Pakistan’s part regarding India’s status, but this shift had been apparent from the day President George W. Bush signed onto enabling nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and India in 2006. Pakistan had voiced its consternation back then just as it does today, but whether that translates into substantive policy action is an open question.

Nonetheless, Pakistan-China relations will develop in accordance with CPEC and India’s entry as a factor in China’s security calculus. From a defence standpoint, this relationship could yield significant results for Pakistan in terms of procurement as well as its efforts to develop solutions and indigenize its supply-chain. The economic dimension requires additional investigation, not only in terms of CPEC, but also in terms of bilateral trade and investment and the impact of both on Pakistan’s growth and ability to deepen its fiscal capacity (a necessity for its long-term stature in geo-political terms).


[1] Sigfrido Burgos Caceres. “Power Projection.” China’s Strategic Interests in the South China Seas. Routledge. 2015

[2] “Why India must take China’s warning of a trade war seriously.” Economic Times. 17 August 2017. URL:

[3] Note: in regards to the 2000, it was in reference to the War on Terror. The Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) stated, “”Whatever we are doing, and we will do, is solely for the people of Pakistan. The aid we received (from the US) was reimbursement for the support we gave to the coalition for its fight against Al Qaeda. Had we not supported the US and Afghanistan, they would never have been able to defeat Al Qaeda.” Quote from “Time for Afghanistan and US to do more for Pakistan: DG ISPR.” Dawn News. 28 December 2017. URL:

[4] “Trump allocates $700m for Pakistan under CSF.” Pakistan Today. 13 December 2017. URL:

[5] Anwar Iqbal. “US, Pakistan engage in quiet diplomacy to improve ties.” Dawn News. 11 December 2017. URL:

[6] Kamran Yousaf. “US sided with India and ignored Pakistan’s sacrifices: NSA.” The Express Tribune. 18 December 2017. URL:

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