China’s solid relationship with Pakistan is often taken as a given, particularly in 2011 the China-Pakistan Friendship Year. During a four-day visit to Beijing in May, Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, proclaimed that the two “are like one nation and two countries.” In the sixth installment of the “China and South Asia Dialogues” series, Dan Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations joined a panel of Chinese experts for a roundtable discussion of the Sino-Pakistan relationship and the broader security framework in South Asia. Carnegie’s Paul Haenle gave the introduction and Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Strategic Quadrangle

Markey explored the concept of a “strategic quadrangle” that links the United States, China, India, and Pakistan. Within this dynamic, he said, Pakistan represents the weakest player.

  • India and the United States: India has sought to meet its own asymmetric concerns by filling the gap left by the disappearance of the Soviet Union following the Cold War, argued Markey. In part, it has done this through increased openness with the United States.
  • China and Pakistan: At the same time that the U.S.-Indian bilateral relationship has grown, the United States and Pakistan are beginning to back away from one another. This has left the relationship between China and Pakistan as one of the few remaining viable arms of the quadrangle.
  • Formation of Two Poles: Markey expressed concern that this quadrangle could stretch towards two poles, with the United States and India gravitating towards one end and China and Pakistan towards the other, leaving these two sets of players diametrically opposed.
  • Chinese Perspective: Chinese participants argued that they do not share the same level of pessimism and instead regard these relations as more complex and stable. In terms of stability, one Chinese participant noted that only the end of war in Afghanistan will bring stability to South Asia. Because of Pakistan’s preoccupation with U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Islamabad is unable to concentrate on improving relations with New Delhi.

September 11, Mumbai Attacks, and Pakistan’s Hedging

  • After September 11: Markey noted the relationship between these four powers had not always been so tense. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, China, Pakistan, India, and the United States entered into one of the most stable periods in the history of their relations, in part because of U.S. efforts to enhance anti-terrorism cooperation with all parties. This trend continued through 2007, with Pakistan and India reaching one of their greatest levels of rapprochement.
  • 2008 Mumbai Attacks: After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, however, regional stability began to unravel, Markey said. U.S. concerns over Pakistan’s alleged support of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba—combined with Pakistani anger over Raymond Davis (the U.S. contractor who killed two Pakistani men that he said were trying to rob him), U.S. drone attacks, and U.S. long-term plans in Afghanistan—have further damaged U.S.-Pakistan relations. Finally, U.S.-India and Sino-Pakistan civil nuclear cooperation has further drawn the four parties into a polarized relationship.
  • Pakistan’s Hedging: One Chinese panelist argued that terrorists within Afghanistan have made it clear that they will not leave, compelling Pakistan to partner with others in the region that will “fight for them, not against them.” He emphasized that Pakistan wants to regain its influence with its neighbors in case the United States abandons it. If the United States stays regionally engaged, then Pakistan would be more likely to change its stance and to become more cautious, according to this expert. Markey agreed that the United States might be giving a mixed message to Pakistan and the region about its future level of engagement and argued this ambiguity potentially could have dangerous repercussions vis-à-vis Pakistan’s hedging strategy.

U.S. Operations in Afghanistan

  • India and Pakistan: Another Chinese participant argued that U.S. operations in Afghanistan have adversely affected relations between India and Pakistan. In particular, the U.S. presence has made things difficult for Pakistan, forcing it to take a more interventionist stance on Afghanistan. Markey responded with the view that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is not responsible for regional instability, noting that the current renaissance of militant groups can be traced back to the 1980s. He argued that U.S. intervention may have actually stymied the growth of such groups.
  • U.S. Policy and China: One Chinese expert commented that Afghanistan remains extremely important for Pakistan, while China’s chief concern is thwarting destabilization in Xinjiang. He asked Markey whether or not U.S. interest in Pakistan would shift towards India as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan. Markey responded that due to Pakistan’s growing young population and nuclear capability, it would continue to receive U.S. attention. Nonetheless, India will continue to have strong appeal for the United States, which it views as a natural partner.

Sino-Pakistan Cooperation

  • Sino-Pakistan Nuclear Cooperation: One of the Chinese panelists noted that, given the disparity between U.S. treatment of India and Pakistan’s civil nuclear programs, China has felt compelled to move forward on civil nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. China is not worried about the security of Pakistani nuclear facilities, since it is in the interest in the Pakistani military to assure their safety, argued one Chinese expert. Markey suggested that China might be overly confident in the ability of Pakistan’s military to protect these nuclear assets, particularly from terrorists.
  • Importance for China: One Chinese expert argued that China has to rely on its relationship with Pakistan in mitigating relations with the Muslim world. China also sees Pakistan as a conduit for energy security and as a country of strategic importance in maintaining a regional balance with India. He noted that Pakistan is more important for China than it is for the United States.
  • Investment and Stabilization: Markey agreed with several Chinese panelists that a possible area for cooperation between China and the United States is capital investment in Pakistan, particularly in infrastructure. One expert argued that China and the United States should be more transparent about the type of aid both countries send to Pakistan. China continues to maintain strong military, political, and economic relations with Pakistan, argued one participant. Chinese panelists viewed such investments, including in the nuclear arena, as integral to stabilizing Pakistan from the outside.

Discussants: Cheng Ruisheng, Ma Jiali, Han Hua, Ye Hailin, Su Hao, Wang Haibin, Du Bing, Long Xingchun, Song Haixiao