Jason Lee / Reuters A staff member raises Pakistan's flag in front of the Great Hall of the People ahead of a welcome ceremony for Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Beijing, July 5, 2013.

Thank You for Being a Friend

Pakistan and China's Almost Alliance

“Sweeter than the sweetest honey in this world, deeper than the deepest sea in the world . . . ,” the suitor crooned, “higher than the highest peak . . .” Soul singer Barry White?  No, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, remarking on Pakistan's relationship with China in 2014, using words that had been repeated many times before over the past 40 years. Leaders of each nation routinely describe the other as its closest partner on earth, as its “all-weather friend.” But does the substance match the rhetoric? The two nations have virtually no shared culture, history, or economic ties. The glue sticking them together would appear to be military ties and an interest in keeping their common rival, India, off balance. But there is a great deal more to the Sino-Pakistani relationship than this. Policymakers in the United States and throughout Asia should take note of why this odd couple has endured for so long, what each partner gets from the other (particularly in the arena of airpower), and what inherent limitations prevent the union from developing into a true alliance.

What Pakistan gets out of its engagement with China is relatively easy to see. China has provided Pakistan with much of its nuclear weapons program, an even greater portion of its ballistic missile program, a steady stream of conventional arms, and steadfast diplomatic support that has spanned over half a century. This support justifies a lot of Pakistan’s flowery rhetoric. In the nuclear realm, the substance of China’s involvement has lived up to the hype: without China’s assistance, Pakistan’s nuclear capability would certainly have been developed much later (if ever), and its missile delivery system for nuclear weapons might not have been developed at all. In all other spheres, however, the support Pakistan gets from China is less than comprehensive. 

In diplomatic terms, China has provided almost unwavering support for Pakistan at the United Nations and within other international forums. What this has meant for Pakistan in concrete terms, however, is difficult to quantify. Asia’s predominant power serves to draw some of India’s limited military resources toward the north and northeast, away from its western border with Pakistan. But here, too, the specific impact that China’s support has on Pakistani security is hazy: after all, during each of its wars with Pakistan, India has been able to deploy all the forces it has considered necessary, without keeping significant assets in reserve to counter a potential Chinese mobilization. In economic terms, China has never provided Pakistan with truly significant aid or trade. This past April, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised a whopping $46 billion in investment in Pakistani infrastructure, but the latest proclamation is far from the first high-profile economic initiative that has been proposed; many, perhaps most, of these have never panned out. The Karakoram Highway and Gwadar Port, for example, were both touted as linchpins of Chinese-Pakistani economic development and security cooperation, yet neither project has remotely lived up to its billing. As the German Marshall Fund’s Andrew Small notes in his book, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, the Karakoram Highway “would have been killed off quickly if its economic value had been the only thing going for it [and] . . . its direct military utility is questionable.” Gwadar was purchased by Pakistan from Oman in 1958 and has yet to become a source of profit or security.

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