A Trilateral Challenge

When devising policy toward China, India and Pakistan, you can’t plan for one without understanding the others.

By Richard Weitz for

A conference I attended in Phuket, Thailand on trilateral relations between China, India, and Pakistan underscored for me the subtle but often overlooked dynamics among the three nations – and their importance for the rest of the world.

The United States and other great powers have found it hard to manage this Asian strategic triangle, but have also found that they have no choice but to try. The reality is that unless third parties fully understand this triangular dynamic, poorly designed policies aimed at one can easily result in a worsening of relations with the others.

Certainly, Chinese policymakers have been deft at implementing policies with the triangle in mind. For most important bilateral issues, they typically consider the reaction of the third party when making their decisions. The governments of Pakistan and India, meanwhile, also seek to influence the policies of China toward the other country. Most importantly, Islamabad sees its ties with Beijing as helping negate New Delhi’s superior military capability, while Beijing has sought to deter India and assure Pakistan through military and other assistance (although all the time pushing Pakistan to become more capable in terms of self-defence). Still, at times, Pakistan’s declining capacity to neutralize India through terrorism, arms racing, and weapons has pressured Chinese policy makers into either taking radical steps to enhance Pakistani power, or contemplating accepting India’s limited hegemony over the subcontinent.

As the region’s two rising great powers, China’s ties with India are characterized by a mixture mostly of conflict and some cooperation. Sources of tension include economic competition, trade friction, territorial conflicts, arms races, mutual fears of encirclement, competitive diplomacy to secure the support of third parties, and status conflicts. But encouragingly, Sino-Indian economic exchanges are increasing and Beijing and New Delhi align on important global issues (e.g. climate change).

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China’s relations with Pakistan, in contrast, involve much more cooperation than conflict. Chinese officials have traditionally considered Pakistan a counterweight to India in South Asia, a significant economic partner, and a means for China to project influence in Central Asia and other Muslim majority regions. They’ve supplied Pakistan with a range of economic and military assistance to enhance its power regarding India. In addition, China remains the only major nuclear power willing to help Pakistan develop its civilian nuclear energy sector. But some problems arise from Islamabad’s fear of abandonment by Beijing and Chinese fear of entrapment through Pakistan’s conflict with India. Like Americans, Chinese leaders are concerned about Pakistan’s links with terrorism, though these differences are normally expressed in private since Beijing relies on its ties with the Pakistani government and military to use their influence to dissuade Islamist terrorists in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan from attacking Chinese targets or, even more importantly, from assisting Uighur militants seeking to weaken Beijing’s hold over Xinjiang.

Understanding the Asian triangle is complicated by the fact that it’s so imbalanced. China is a potential regional hegemon and perhaps a global superpower. India is also a rising power, but doubts persist over whether it can match China’s unprecedented ascent. Pakistan doesn’t have the human, economic, or military resources to achieve great power status and there are still worries that it will become a failed state.

This means that in terms of relative power resources, China and India are in a class by themselves. They are the world’s most populous nations, home to over one-third of humanity. Along with Brazil and Russia, the two countries are core members of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations. Forecasters expect their national gross domestic products to be among the world’s largest in the next two decades, while their growing human and economic resources provide them with considerable potential military strength. Not only can China and India field large mass armies, but their increasingly sophisticated scientific, industrial, and technological foundations have allowed them to deploy sophisticated conventional forces as well as nuclear weapons and associated delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles and long-range strike aircraft.

For decades, Chinese policy has been to fortify Pakistan with economic and military help to keep New Delhi preoccupied with Islamabad, allowing Beijing to focus on managing more important relationships elsewhere. Yet, India’s growing economic and military superiority over Pakistan is changing this dynamic, with Chinese policy makers recognizing New Delhi as a more important global player, especially in Asia. Although many Indians wouldn’t consider their country an economic or military equal of China, Indian policymakers perceive a trilateral dynamic at work in their relations with China and Pakistan. When India tested nuclear weapons in May 1998, its government justified this controversial action by citing the threat presented China’s military ties with Pakistan, as well as Beijing’s powerful nuclear capabilities, more than the threat from Islamabad directly.

New Delhi’s ties with Beijing are further complicated by the fact that, while mutually beneficial, their bilateral relationship is lopsided. Although China doesn’t rely heavily on Pakistan for advancing its strategic and economic interests, Islamabad depends greatly on Beijing as a strategic ally against India. Yet, China has established clear limits in its military support for Pakistan and won’t provide it with formal defence guarantees or coordinate military action against India. Although all three countries confront armed separatist movements within their frontiers, the Pakistani government has proven least effective at exerting its authority throughout its territory in recent decades. Still, Islamabad has been able to remain a relevant player in the Asian triangle thanks to its nuclear weapons and influence over foreign terrorist groups.

Easing the potential for conflict between India and China is the fact that two-way commerce between the two has increased to the point that China has become India’s most important trading partner, though even here, tension arises from the unbalanced nature of the commerce, with India running an enormous deficit. Indian leaders have also resisted Chinese proposals to negotiate a free trade agreement for fear that such an arrangement would allow cheap Chinese imports to flood Indian markets.

But the main source of Sino-Indian tension is that Beijing has long cultivated close ties Pakistan. Chinese officials have traditionally considered Pakistan a counterweight to India in South Asia, an important base for enhancing Beijing’s influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and a significant economic partner, both directly and as a transit country. In addition to the economic and strategic benefits of assisting Pakistan, many Chinese also view maintaining good relations with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as helping boost Beijing’s image in other Muslim nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Over the last three decades, China has become one of Pakistan’s leading suppliers of conventional arms. In addition to the continuing sale of Chinese weapon systems to Pakistan, Chinese and Pakistani firms now engage in the joint production of important military hardware, such as the JF-17 Thunder (FC-1 Fierce Dragon) multi-role fighter aircraft. Bilateral security cooperation has also extended to encompass the training of Pakistani defence personnel, the sharing of military intelligence, as well as the holding of joint military and counterterrorist exercises. The Chinese have appeared less concerned than the Americans, historically Pakistan’s other main arms supplier, that the weapons they provide Pakistan could readily be used against India. Chinese strategists believe that they can help negate any Indian military threat to China by keeping New Delhi distracted with Pakistan’s Beijing-supported military build-up, allowing Chinese strategists to focus on higher priority regions to China’s east and south.

Beijing’s most important assistance to Pakistan occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when Chinese officials sought to re-establish a military balance between India and Pakistan despite the latter’s defeat in the 1971 war, which resulted in the loss of East Pakistan (which became the independent country of Bangladesh). In order to reduce the increased power imbalance between the other two nodes of the South Asian triangle, China transferred considerable nuclear technology to Pakistan, including allegedly the designs for a nuclear bomb as well as the components to make it.

Despite the increased US aid flows to Pakistan in recent years, China continues to play an important role in the Pakistani economy. Although bilateral trade remains modest at under $10 billion annually, and Beijing provides much less economic assistance than Washington, thousands of Chinese nationals—engineers, advisors, labourers, and others—work in Pakistan. Chinese firms have invested heavily in Pakistan’s economy, especially in infrastructure projects such as road building, electric power generation, and telecommunications. This focus on infrastructure reflects the Chinese perception that Pakistan serves as a key energy and trade conduit linking China with Central Asia and the Middle East. From New Delhi’s perspective, some China-supported economic projects in Pakistan appear motivated more by strategic than commercial considerations. Examples include the building of Gomal-Zam dam in the conflict-ridden Waziristan region near Afghanistan, the construction of a telecommunication network in other tribal areas near Afghanistan, the continued upgrading of the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan to Xinjiang, and the dam building in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, which has engendered Indian protests. Although the volume of US economic assistance to Pakistan is greater, the aid from China comes with fewer conditions.

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Like their colleagues in Washington and New Delhi, Chinese leaders are also concerned about Pakistanis’ link with terrorism, though these differences are normally expressed in private. In general, Beijing has relied on its ties with the Pakistani government and military to exert influence and dissuade Islamist terrorists in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan from attacking Chinese targets or from assisting Uighur militants seeking to weaken Beijing’s hold over Xinjiang. Chinese officials have repeatedly complained to their Pakistani counterparts about the presence of East Turkestan Islamic Movement cells reportedly based in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Aware of Beijing’s importance in balancing India, Pakistani leaders have strived to appear responsive to these Chinese concerns about terrorist ties. They have reportedly reassured Chinese government representatives on multiple occasions that they don’t consider China a legitimate target of the global jihad, despite the assertions by some Taliban – and especially al-Qaeda leaders – to the contrary. When terrorists do attack Chinese targets in Pakistan, the authorities react strongly, as Musharraf did when he reportedly quickly bowed to Chinese demands to attack Islamabad’s Red Mosque in July 2007 after a group of Chinese women were kidnapped by Pakistani jihadis using the complex as a sanctuary.

When the United States and NATO were to withdraw from Afghanistan, Chinese officials will presumably seek to leverage the ties of Pakistan’s security forces with the Taliban and other Islamist groups to defend China’s commercial and strategic interests in Afghanistan.

Richard Weitz writes a weekly column on Asia-Pacific strategic and security issues. He is director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. His commentaries have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, The Guardian and Wall Street Journal (Europe), among other publications.