A recent Toby Dalton op-ed discussed the role that China may have played (and may continue to play) in Pakistan’s nuclear program. Dalton argued that, apart from the specifics of the dispute, relations between Pakistan and China need to be understood in context of growing strategic tension between China and India.
This is nothing new. China and Pakistan have seen each other as (semi-) reliable allies since the 1950s, when tensions between China and India grew over Tibet and other issues. With the increasing strategic complexity associated with growing Chinese and Indian military power, however, the relationship takes on multiple new dimensions. The Pakistan-China-India triangle (with, as Dalton notes, one antagonistic, one competitive, and one cooperative leg) is embedded within a larger set of triangular relationships, including Japan, Russia, and the United States.
Pakistan is, in an important sense, Beijing’s answer to every step India takes to expand its influence in the South China Sea. To the extent that India evinces a willingness to either support the aspirations of China’s smaller neighbors (such as Vietnam) or ally with China’s more serious antagonists (such as Japan and the United States), China can respond by increasing the size and sophistication of its arms shipments to Pakistan, as well as supporting Pakistan in various international fora.
And in the end, India has no good answer for China’s support of Pakistan; it cannot blockade Pakistan, cannot peel it away from Beijing, cannot plausibly change the regime, and cannot likely find an ally as willing and capable of irritating China as Pakistan is of India. As Anatol Lieven has argued, while the current Pakistani regime has great difficult exerting control over its own territory, it sits upon a network of social relations sufficiently robust as to not seriously fear being overthrown.
Of course, Pakistan could certainly reconsider whether it can do better than act as a Chinese bargaining chip in the Sino-Indian relationship. There are limits on the extent to which China can dial up or dial down Pakistan’s threat profile towards India; as Pakistan found in 1971, friendship with China can’t immunize it from Indian power. And although Pakistani relations with the United States are at a low point, stronger relations with Beijing seem hardly likely to improve the situation.
China may also eventually find itself constrained with respect to policy in Afghanistan. The nature of the post-withdrawal peace in Afghanistan is of great interest to both India and Pakistan, and both seem willing to devote resources to their preferred players. While China has expressed interest in Afghan resources, what it most wants is stability, which may come into conflict with Pakistani preferences.
But as other strategic triangles have shown, the balance between the cooperative and competitive legs of strategic trianges can change on short notice. Ironically, US rapprochement with China in the early 1970s may have made both less capable of aiding Pakistan, as it embedded the Indo-Pakistan relationship within the larger Cold War struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. And as India continues to build “cooperative” legs with partners such as Russia, the United States, and Japan, the utility of the triangle may become steadily more tenuous for Beijing.