China and Pakistan maintain a strong relationship that is credited as a threshold alliance. Established in May 1951, diplomatic ties between the two neighboring states has transformed into a strong friendship and partnership encompassing various areas of cooperation. Both sides, adhering to the norms of sovereignty, formed a strong bond as they sought to assert their role in regional and international arenas. Pakistan faced two full-scale wars in the early decades (in 1965 and 1971) and received critical and much-needed support from China, which cemented the bilateral relationship. China’s support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, notwithstanding its changing stance on the dispute, and its decision to fund infrastructure projects in the disputed areas exhibited the depth of its partnership with Pakistan.
In the early 2000s, Beijing and Islamabad broadened their ties by agreeing to develop Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and signing a free trade agreement in 2006. The 2015 launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), strengthened their economic ties. Bilateral trade rapidly increased after the signing of CPEC. Although the fanfare that marked early years has been missing from the CPEC discourse in recent Pakistani and Chinese commentaries, and there are indications of differences between the two, leaders on both sides have unequivocally rejected claims of rifts on questions of alignment, bloc politics, and regional issues.
The emergence of a new discourse about rifts in China-Pakistan relations owes to the slow growth of CPEC-based infrastructure projects during the past few years, the rise in terrorism, and political instability in Pakistan. Despite Islamabad’s renewed rhetoric of amplified cooperation, the slow growth of infrastructure projects of CPEC remains evident. Various indicators show that Pakistan cannot afford infrastructure loans due to persistent political crises and a weak economy.
Similarly, China is also facing a decline in economic growth, which poses grave implications for CPEC, the flagship project of BRI. Simply put, Beijing may not be able to afford to replicate its past largesse. Despite Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s request during his visit to China in November 2022 for a rollover of $6.3 billion in debt, there was no indication from the Chinese authorities that they were ready to agree. China’s slow response and the delay in finalization of the 11th Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) meeting minutes led many China-Pakistan watchers to argue that the relationship had descended to the level of “vague and broad commitments” devoid of concrete actions.
Besides the economic factor, China’s concerns regarding the revived surge in terrorism and extremism in Pakistan remained evident. December 2022 saw an 88 percent increase in terror activities across the country. Some terror attacks directly targeted the Chinese nationals residing in Pakistan (specifically teachers at a Confucius Institute in Karachi and workers at a dental clinic in Karachi). The Chinese authorities expressed serious concerns regarding these attacks and the safety of their nationals in Pakistan.
After the visit of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to Beijing in May 2022, when the official statement from China’s Foreign Ministry stated that China and Pakistan would enhance counterterrorism and security cooperation. Some reports emerged that the Chinese authorities wanted boots on the ground to protect their nationals in Pakistan.
The developments in the following months show that despite speculations and conjecture, the China-Pakistan partnership remains resilient, and the evidence of rifts undermining their enduring cooperation remains inadequate. The historical foundations and the contemporary developments, rooted in mutual trust and shared strategic interests, serve as the pillars of continuity. China’s eventual decision to roll over a $2 billion loan to help Pakistan cope with the persisting economic crisis depicts the Chinese stance on their all-weather partnership with Pakistan.
China and Pakistan have collaborated on economic grounds for decades, primarily through CPEC in recent years, showcasing a multifaceted and comprehensive partnership. Credited by President Xi Jinping as the “flagship project” of China’s BRI, CPEC encompasses energy projects, infrastructure development, industrial cooperation, and trade enhancement. The megaproject aims to connect China’s northwestern Xinjiang region to Gwadar port in southwestern Pakistan via a vast network of roads and railways. CPEC’s economic benefits are far-reaching: It can transform Pakistan’s economy, create massive job opportunities, and enhance regional connectivity and development. The unprecedented amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) under CPEC has the potential to significantly improve Pakistan’s economy. CPEC is far from perfect, but Pakistan’s economic and political circumstances during the last decade should also inform the critical appraisal of the project.
Overall, Chinese investments in infrastructure and energy projects in Pakistan have positively impacted the country. Under CPEC, numerous infrastructure projects have been initiated – including motorways, railways, and ports (six of them already completed, five under construction) – facilitating connectivity both within the country and with bordering regional states. The injection of Chinese investment has helped Pakistan cope with the chronic energy crisis by facilitating major energy projects. According to the CPEC website, 14 of these projects have been completed, contributing over 12,000 megawatts of electricity.
Although there is significant criticism of the slow development of industrial and special economic zones (SEZs) via Chinese assistance, some of the bottlenecks have been overcome. The Punjab government has allotted lands in most of the local zones. Therefore, the SEZs and industrial parks of Punjab and Sindh may spearhead the initiatives in this regard. Nonetheless, of all major areas of cooperation, economic collaboration is relatively underexplored, and it may take more time and joint effort to flourish.
On the other hand, the most important domain of bilateral cooperation – security – has witnessed extensive collaboration in recent years. Pakistan and China are reliable partners with a strong alignment on military cooperation and key strategic issues in regional security and counterterrorism. They have a strategic partnership based upon recognizing the importance of a stable and secure regional environment.
This close partnership can be witnessed by the statement of the former army chief of Pakistan, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, at a ceremony marking the 95th anniversary of China’s People’s Liberation Army, held at General Headquarters, Rawalpindi. Bajwa stressed the importance of the China-Pakistan military partnership by characterizing the PLA and Pakistan Army as “brothers in arms” that work together to safeguard “our collective interests.”
China plays a crucial role in maintaining a balance of power in South Asia. Pakistan is the largest recipient of Chinese arms, acquiring almost 40 percent of Chinese arms exports. In terms of military collaborations, military interactions between China and Pakistan during 2017 and 2021 surpassed China-Russia military engagements, making Pakistan’s military the top collaborator with the PLA during this period. These collaborations include joint exercises, defense cooperation, and the exchange of military technologies and expertise.
China’s renewed support for Pakistan’s stance on critical matters like Afghanistan and the Kashmir dispute underlines a close alignment in shared interests. Its immediate call for a U.N. Security Council meeting in 2019 upon Pakistan’s request, after border escalations and air skirmishes occurred between India and Pakistan, embodied China’s “unlimited support” for Pakistan in the United Nations.
The recent visit of Foreign Minister Qin Gang to Pakistan in May 2023 to attend the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan foreign minister dialogue also underlines the importance China attaches to Pakistan and stability in its neighborhood. China’s mediating role in the Middle East and its willingness to engage the Taliban regime by integrating it into Beijing-led regional economic frameworks indicate that China wants a stable and prosperous Pakistan to become a regional hub that can check India’s hegemonic aspirations and secure Chinese interests in the region.
Pakistan is important for any initiative in South Asia and the neighboring regions. Its value for China as a tested partner and capable military power has increased in the face of growing pressure from the U.S.-led allies and growing collaboration between India and the United States. Amid these challenges, minor rifts between China and Pakistan, which do not affect China’s national security interests, would not impact the trajectory of their bilateral relations.