Pakistan’s China Syndrome

September 28, 2011

At the height of Pakistan’s crisis in relations with the United States, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani reminded his Chinese guest of the words he had used to describe its relationship with China. “Pak-China friendship is higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey.”  In a press release issued by the prime minister’s office during a visit to Islamabad by Chinese Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu, Gilani also promised China that “‘your friends are our friends, your enemies are our enemies and your security is our security.”

It was language designed to show that even after Admiral Mike Mullen’s assertion that the Afghan militant Haqqani network was effectively a   proxy of the Pakistan army, China – Pakistan’s “all weather friend” – stood at its side. The Pakistan media enthusiastically played up Meng’s visit, jumping on a relatively small offer of financial help and a dreamed-of defence pact with China to build up hopes of Chinese support.

Faced with such hyperbole, I flipped across to the website of the People’s Daily to see what it had to say about Pakistan.  At the time I looked, there was no mention of Pakistan. It did however give prominence to a story about China and India holding a strategic dialogue to build economic ties.

The comparison is instructive in so many ways.

First of all Pakistan is not the centre of the world even though those of us who cover it tend to think it is. And China is a big country, setting itself on a trajectory to outstrip the United States. It pays far less attention to India than India does to China, let alone becoming as obsessed with Pakistan’s problems as Pakistan is with casting China in the role of saviour.

Secondly, Pakistan has consistently over-estimated the support it is likely to get from China for decades.  As far back as its 1965 war with India – launched in a failed bid to wrest control of Kashmir – it misjudged China’s willingness to intervene on its behalf.  At the time, Pakistan-China relations were riding high. China had just inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in a 1962 border war. Pakistan had then – in Indian eyes – added insult to injury by reaching a provisional border agreement with China and agreeing to build the strategic Karakoram Highway to link it properly to India’s enemy. Yet during the 1965 war, Pakistan’s expectations of Chinese help were proved disastrously wrong.

At the time of the 1971 war with India – a crisis bigger than the one faced by Pakistan today – China gave no military support when Pakistan was split in two with Indian backing to carve out the new country of Bangladesh. The United States gave little  real help, either, beyond deploying the 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal – something that is bitterly remembered by Pakistan – but somehow China’s own record was forgotten.

Indeed history is so stacked up in favour of the argument that Pakistan has consistently over-estimated its likely support from China that it is hard to believe the Pakistan government does not know this already. If it had any doubts it would have cleared these up when the government first sought Chinese financial help in 2008 only to be rebuffed and sent packing to the IMF  – a decision which left Pakistan more vulnerable to U.S. influence.

And even without the historical evidence, it would be clear that China’s concerns about Pakistan-based Islamist militants focused on its own Xinjiang province would mean that Beijing would be unlikely to come out all guns blazing in defence of Pakistan’s right to tolerate or support groups like the Haqqani network. China is also steadily building economic relations with India – which if anything is even more sensitive than the United States to any hint of tolerance for militant groups by Pakistan or its allies.

In other words, it is reasonable to assume the Pakistan government knows full well that there are limits to Chinese support in its confrontation with the United States. And that by extension its “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans” talk is designed for a domestic audience.

And this is where it gets even more interesting. What does the government’s public language about China tell us about Pakistan and particularly its civilian-military relations?

Step back for a moment and consider that Mullen’s comments have created a huge nationalistic backlash in Pakistan. Whether by design or default, the biggest beneficiary of this backlash is the Pakistan army as the one institution which can defend the country against any American military attack. (Watch this “war video” clip from Pakistan television celebrating the prowess of Pakistan’s armed forces to see how the American threats are being played domestically.)

The civilian government has never been able to wrest control over foreign and security policy from the Pakistan army. It had an opportunity after the raid by U.S. forces who found and killed Osama bin Laden on May 2 – a raid which deeply embarrassed the Pakistan army – but did not do so. 

With the latest crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations, English-language newspapers have suggested that the civilian government again seize the opportunity to assert its authority – taking advantage of a multi-party conference called by Prime Minister Gilani for Sept. 29 to discuss the situation. 

 “If the events of May 2 did not result in attempts to increase civilian oversight, surely elected representatives should seize Pakistan’ s current embarrassment — and the economic and security risk it presents — as an opportunity to try to correct the balance of power,” Dawn newspaper wrote in an editorial.

 The Express Tribune suggested the civilian government was trying to find “a more sensible and pragmatic approach” than the military, showing the existence of “two centres of power at work in the country”. While the Pakistan army stands accused by the Americans of running the Haqqani network as a proxy – an allegation it denies – “when the all-party conference is held, hopefully the participants will realise that it is not in Pakistan’s interest to allow terrorists safe havens on its soil or allow such elements to launch attacks on other countries from inside Pakistan,” it said.

So what would a civilian government seeking to assert its influence over foreign policy and adopt a more pragmatic approach do?

1)  Encourage the hawks, the populists and jingoists,  and the anti-American right by insisting that Pakistan has a superpower ally of its own which will defend it down to the deepest ocean and up to the highest mountain?  2) Avoid hyperbole in the interests of convincing the people of Pakistan of the limits of Chinese support and the need to work – somehow – with the United States?

The visit by China’s Meng probably told us more than we realise. It did not tell us very much about what China will do – if past history is anything to go by it will do very little and try to keep itself out of the fray. But it did tell us rather a lot about Pakistan – and the likelihood of the country’s civilian and military leaders closing ranks in the face of American pressure.


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Posted by punjabiyaar | Report as abusive

Pakistan is creating is over hype for Chinese Minister’s visit

Meng Jianzhu is also the minister of Public security (May be head or at very high rank officer of Chinese intelligence)

He was there on previously scheduled visit to discuss terrorism originated from Pakistan, in Xinjiang province.

Posted by punjabiyaar | Report as abusive

Ms Macdonald.. just some first hand comments:
1) Historically 1971 is more appropriate point of reference than 1965. Chou En Lai tried and asked Kissinger to intervene because Indira G cleverly played the Brezhnev card and nuclear subs were already near the Bay of Bengal. Nixon wanted to, but did not think Pakistan was worth a USSR-US confrontation
2) Meng is public security minister. This was a high profile visit but he has covertly visited before to warn against providing safe haven to Xijiang militants
3) Gilani takes his instructions from Kayani and Pasha, not Zardari, under a pact that allows Z to reside in the Palace.
4) Far from becoming stronger, with the onion peeled by Mullen, even ordinary people question what was once beyond Question. The militants, who successfully “invaded” a supposedly secure Naval base in Karachi, soon after Seals took out UBL, already know that Rawalpindi is ripe for a fall.
5) I wonder if Mullen and Panetta know which is which. Is the Haqqani group a proxy for the ISI or.. is the ISI increasingly under the sway of the Haqqani’s. Very soon, perhaps in six months or so, the answer to this Q should become apparent to all..

Posted by Bludde | Report as abusive

6) I wonder if you are aware that the Chinese Ambassador posted in Islamabad is an expert on India and spent 6 years in Beijing on the India desk, and 8 years in the Embassy in New Delhi. He is fluent in Hindi but not Urdu. He is a tall man, over 6 foot 6 inch, unusual for a Chinese. His wife, a foot or so shorter, is also an India expert, and also spent time at the Embassy in New Delhi. Their marriage was arranged she told me, deemed appropriate to further State interests. I had dinner with both at the Palace in April 2009, just two days after Mullen/Patterson/Holbrooke unveiled their Af-Pak strategy.. perfectly charming couple.. Z thought very highly of them, inviting them often..

Posted by Bludde | Report as abusive

pak’s china dreams arent all fantasy but are premature
china will expand its role and allies according to its timeframe and not pakistans
china is interested and does see pakistan as ripe for the plucking
but china is well aware of paks history of duplicity, playing off countries vs each other and hedging and even threatening violence vs allies if they dont accept all pak demands and thus it will only sign a defence agreement once pak had no exit options
also china believes that empires fail because of high costs and over extension and thus as in manufacture prefers low cost options in empire building- it has pak where it wants it today at virtually no cost and costs can only rise from here with commensurately fewer benefits for china – yet nonetheless a few important ones
china also knows that it has so far only produced 70s/80s albania/kampuchea, present north korea n myanmar as its showcase allies (india’s bhutan certainly doesnt suffer by comparison); china will certainly try to improve on this record in pakistan but would be uncertain if it can match either paks unrealistic expectations or even what the us has done since chinese aid n trade n infrastructure is traditionally about chinese jobs n connecting the empire n not about host country economy/jobs/ cashflow
just now it will give pak just enough support for pak to live in hope n feel grateful
and it will force pak to offer some minor insignificant concession to usa for which it will seek its pound of flesh from the usa too
this would likely do enough to avoid war or incursion now from usa but ensure that us pak relations continue to lurch from crisis to crisis
china also wishes to control its allies in a manner that the usa has so far failed to do; in case of pakistan total control by china of pak behaviour would be necessary to have leverage with india.
so like many other chinese stories a long journey is made up of small, gradual steps
china will formally ally with pak but only when pak has burnt its bridges irrevocably with the usa/west and has no exit options or hedging opportunities qua china; this is increasingly likely but still perhaps a few more crises down the road.
the bigger question- is the usa going to be persuaded by its ‘allies’ (who usually expect usa assistance but rarely provide theirs)and any minor concessions by pak to not intervene in nwa n thus sign its own death warrant/suicide note as a superpower (in view of its candid statements last week) and let the world know if you’ve got nukes you can get away with anything unlike libya or iraq, this will ensure another 20 pak inspired nuclear rogue states within 15 years.

Posted by buntyj | Report as abusive

but yes the visit tells us more about pak than about china

Posted by buntyj | Report as abusive

and yet its likely the usa will blink first and not pak

Posted by buntyj | Report as abusive

pak should also remember that while china may appreciate pak’s ‘your enemy is our enemy’ words, it will not have forgotten that the usa pak alliance was built on ayub khans similarly unilateral and unsolicited offer of ‘pakistan’s army is your army’ to the usa (which pak army appears to have forgotten today when asked to go after HN)as it (pa) is similarly not living upto its ‘your enemy is r enemy standard’ in its dealings with the usa.

Posted by buntyj | Report as abusive

Valid points. M just worried what Pakistan trying to prove by showcasing china’s support. China proved time and again that they don’t have DNA of friendship and one should understand that. By using such words you are showing your desperation to get along with them and remember any relationship is fruitful only when feelings are mutual.

Posted by sachinbahad | Report as abusive

Article failed to realize historical facts that China helped Pakistan through a lot of stuff over the years despite no direct military assistance.

Pakistan stood by China many times including ones in UN and Chinese remember this. It assisted Pakistan’s technology drive and always had kept its word which is why Pakistan is grateful for all the years of relationship with China.

The author failed to mention why these two sides really like each other. The world-wide strategic goals of China and Pakistan are different but regional wise, they are very similar. The difference is that China plays a bigger field than Pakistan current does so difference in military importance thus exist but does not hinder their relationship

Posted by prastagus | Report as abusive

The China Pak relationship gives one the impression of when the chips are down both sides are high on talk and low on walk.

Right now the play acting is all about showing the US that we have friends, all this hither thither with China and Saudi Arabia is simply that. Pakistan is riding a tiger at the moment. The question is how far is this going to get Pakistan?

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

Here are some facts about China-Pakistan relations, which Pakistanis would rather not talk about:

China-Pakistan economic relation, is a one way street which greatly benefits the Chinese. China exports & Pakistan imports. If China really wants to help out Pakistan, it can open up it’s enormous markets for Pakistani products, in a New York minute but it is least interested in doing so.

For every country (& more so for China), economic interests are above everything else. China knows too well that in the new world order, India could be it’s largest trading partner down the road. As time goes by & India rises, China would be more interested in mending fences with India rather than antagonizing it.

Diplomatically, China’s help, is limited to blocking some resolutions which are unfavorable to Pakistan & militarily, China’s help is limited to selling Pakistan, it’s obsolete weaponry & equipment.

Despite Pakistan’s (current) crush on China, a vast majority of Chinese still have an unfavorable opinion of Pakistan.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive

The Chinese are like that friend you have that keeps saying he’ll show up at your party and then calls you the next day with an excuse on how he couldn’t make it. Then you go on Facebook and find out he hung out with your rich neighbour all night.

The Pakistanis like to think the Chinese will be there for them. And I don’t think they’ll ever really learn that the Chinese don’t really care about them at all.

China is the cheapest ally the Pakistanis have. They don’t give much aid to the Pakistanis. And they don’t even really care to trade with them on favourable terms. But somehow delusional Pakistanis who need to imagine that they have a superpower in their corner too, imagine taht the Chinese will drop everything and go to bat for them.

There’s no money to be made in Pakistan. And increasingly, the strategic value of using Pakistan to keep India tied up is diminishing. Pakistan in short represents a very poor case for Chinese investment financially, diplomatically and militarily.

Posted by True.North | Report as abusive

well for that matter most chinese dont have a high opinion of south asia as a whole though admittedly theres comparatively a wider relationship with india and slightly more respect for india than other south asian countries. limited goodwill in some sections towards pakistan due to govt propoganda and some limited goodwill towards india in view of ancient history, buddhism (more a liability in todays china), it/growth achievements in recent years (much to chinese surprise), and films (though increasingly scoffed as low culture); however, there are more (though overall still very few) lasting marriages between indians and chinese including in 3 rd countries. overall india and china have broader relations and goodwill and a desire even by many in govt in both countries to ringfence conflicts, manage competition and rivalry in amicable healthy manner and identify and build cooperation wherever possible and to promote people to people and cultural contacts; indeed in 90s it looked like sino indian relations would improve before usa india relations and theres no popular animosity or historical enmity, i for one have good regard for many chinese interlocutors and a few real friendships though we usually disagree on political issues; however, the pla is increasingly assertive in chinese foreign policy (especially as it senses an opportunity in perceived USA decline) and the spoilers for china are india’s hosting of dalai lama and improving relations with usa and spoilers for india are the unresolved border issue and chinas insensitivity to indian sentiments thereto and in respect of indias unsc permanent membership (though india always supported chinas p5 membership and even turned down relacing china in p5), chinas support to pakistan,and chinas unwarranted involvement in south asia and rising presence in the indian ocean. these are the factors that unfortunately dont lend optimism. and a further reason why once the usa pak relationship is irretrievably broken china will then likely pick up the pieces – though on its own terms and not pakistans (as pak may come to regret). theres a piece in the diplomat worth reading on the china-india-pakistan triangle (especially suitable for those who love hyphenated relationships).

Posted by buntyj | Report as abusive

also both pak army and pla appear to have written off the usa as a superpower at the same time and see it in irrevocable decline and thus sense its the right time to assert themselves; is that a coincidence or did one tutor the other and, if so, which one did the tutoring?

Posted by buntyj | Report as abusive

also both pak army and pla appear to have written off the usa as a superpower at the same time and see it in irrevocable decline and thus sense its the right time to assert themselves; is that a coincidence or did one tutor the other and, if so, which one did the tutoring?

Posted by buntyj | Report as abusive

The rats are leaving the sinking ship.
Even the great Imperial power is looking towards Europe, meaning Germany to save Europe and the world. Time of october 3 tells its views about this dilemma.

Mr Obama has no longer the potency to undo George w ills, torture, war and great prisons since there are no jobs for the veterans afterwards. Recession or inflation are the alternatives left. Alan Greenspan is now travelling in the amazon territory and BenBernanke is not answering the phone calls?

The chinese are cool as usual and generous, have offered to help European countries particularly Greece, Portugal and Spain with dud green dollars which they were carrying for a long time. Besides they have just launched the probe in space as a first step to start building a chinese palce in Space.

Pakistan has no need to worry, there problems were of own making. Break with the evil ally and angels are going to enable this country to become self sufficient. People are the stregnth of a country, not the military. There is a lot which one can learn from the chinese who had to live in harsh conditions to catch up with industrialisation and make advances in agriculture.

Let war remain the act of ognorance of the past period.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

actually chinese aid offers to eu are highly conditional and the conditions may not be accepted, china is now showing less enthusiasm for such aid
china’s attempts to come up by the bootstraps didnt really succeed china did well after 80s due an export led growth model for which it for a quarter century put aside disputes and took full advantage of access to western markets and inward fdi; indeed nearly 80% of chinas new jobs post 80s came from exorts and balance from infrastructure
china has excellent law n order, i have landed at small town chinese airports at midnite unaccompanied, not speaking chinese, no1 speaking english at airport taken a taxi n driven 1 hour to my hotel on deserted highways; have left expensive gifts in airport lockers for 3 weeks n forgotten receipts n have never faced a problem.
pakistan doesnt have chinas law n order, infrastructure etc and to adopt chinese export led growth model in adverse economic climate will need peace at home n abroad n much international goodwill. so dreams/fantasies aside theres no way pakistan can develop without international goodwill which means accepting many of the economic n other policies advocated by usa n rejected by pakistan
if pak almost uniquely didnt benefit economically like other usa allies in cold war it was due to its own wrong policies and blind hatred for india and not due to usa which often made good suggestions to pakistan for its development that were disregarded by pak

Posted by buntyj | Report as abusive

this is what politics is, President Bush came to Pakistan to assure that Pakistan and US are allies and then he left for India and despite the fact that India was in the Russian block, he offered the Civil Nuclear Technology to them, who is playing the duplicay game. US has a history that it never reward its ally instead it throws a bone, like a coin to a begger. So its i think useless to have relations like this. Its not about HN, like the pak army has clean sweeped the sawat valley and fata areas, its no big deal for them, but now its the time to ask for the equality thing. Here at this point i am sure Indians will agree, that its US who injected curropt politics in this region. Even today millions of Muslims are living in India and Hindus in Paksitan and they are in harmony, then from where this phobia of existence came and this nuclear and ballistic race came from. Its not the time to play blame game, its the time to sit in the UN and to admit all the mistakes done in the past and to find a solution to all the problems. Why our border cant be like the GCC or Shengen? I think the situation is absolutely clear and what all sides are doing is making things complex and controversial. I have conducted a poll here locally by myself, 68% people in Pakistan said that they have no problem with India. Same will be the ration in India. When majority is peace loving who is the rat. The politicians, the foreign influence in the region, unequal distribution of money or what? i dont think its difficult to find out.

Posted by Abdul_Basit | Report as abusive


Well said! Political leaders should declare solidarity with the people of the region!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

@ Bludde,

Since you are privileged enough to dine with the President, there are a couple of issues those in your circle should note, if they are not already aware of these.

1. Irredentism by seduction:

The northern reaches of Gilgit-Baltistan gradually are being lured into the Chinese fold whether by design or accident. The heavy-handed settlement policy followed by Zia, and very poor governance, do not help. Moreover, the presence of Chinese “troops” in the guise of whatever will make for a piquant future. How do you get them to return, if they do not wish to?

Plus, there are numerous public records similar to S.M.Qureshi & cohorts granting a “blank check to China to negotiate foreign policy” on behalf of Pakistan (with India??). Exact words, and you can verify this. I could not believe what I was reading, shortly after 26/11/2008. That is a very calamitous surrender of sovereignty, practically accepting suzereinty under China! You will not have forgotten the recent offer by the Minister of Defence, ignored by China, begging them to set up a permanent Naval base at Gwadar. Is that not a dangerous diminution of sovereignty? Who can remove them, if that becomes necessary? NO COMMENT from the JI, the ever-vigilant Ejaz Haider, or sweet Shireen!!

2. We are discussing geopolitics but the most clear and present danger to Pakistan is the trajectory of population growth and the fact that no preparation has been made for 2040, just 1 generation hence. Problems of FOOD & WATER supply, SOIL conservation, cropping systems, changing to crop species more appropriate to present and future needs have received scant thought and NO preparation. These changes all have very large LAG times and cannot be initiated amidst a CRISIS. No use of blaming XYZ about water issues and such, when there is absolutely no competent thinkers, save 2 or 3, who can be bothered about these topics. A disaster is happening as we speak, and no one is concerned that Pakistan’s soils and agricultural capacity are being permanently degraded. There will be NO RECOVERY over the next 50 years, the crunch time. Urgent action is needed NOW. So please talk to the elites.

Posted by peacelover2012 | Report as abusive