China was established as a communist state in October 1949 on account of a prolonged struggle led by Chairman Mao Zedong. Pakistan became the first Muslim and third non-communist country to recognise China in May 1951. By mid-1950s, though the Chinese vice president and Pakistani prime minister had visited each other, bilateral relations remained lackluster. Rather the 1950s was generally regarded as “India-China brotherhood” era. However, the 1962 India-China war changed that and China revisited its neighborhood policy, with added emphasis on warming up to Pakistan. Little wonder, in 1963, the two sides concluded the boundary agreement. Moreover, in the wake of India-Pakistan 1965 war, the two sides initiated defence cooperation that consolidated over the following decades. In addition, road and air links were established during this period. Work on the Karakorum Highway (KKH) started in 1959, gained strategic significance in the post-war period and was completed, after twenty years, in 1979. The sustained communications and transportation encouraged not only state-level interaction but also promoted people-to-people contact.
In the early 1980s, China and Pakistan signed an MoU for educational exchanges and, by the end of the decade, the two governments had signed an agreement on Reciprocal Encouragement and Protection of Investments. Importantly, in the post-Cold War period, China expedited efforts to embrace global economic and other institutions under its Reform and Opening Up policy initiated in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. Subsequently, China was not only entering world top-class international organisations such as the World Trade Organization but also making inroads into regional institutional arrangements. China’s trade volume with ASEAN countries is a case in point. Importantly, by 1996, China in strategic collaboration with Russia, launched Shanghai Five to realise regional cooperation. This morphed into Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001. Pakistan was initially an observer at the SCO. It became a member in 2017.
China-Pakistan relations took a new turn in 2015 when the two governments signed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement. This is one of the six economic corridors proposed under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013. The CPEC has by now attracted more than $46 billion economic engagement. With unprecedented advancement in bilateral economic relations, the two countries have started witnessing enhancement in industrial institutional and cultural exchanges. For instance, more than 30,000 Pakistani students are enrolled at various Chinese colleges and universities and the number is increasing exponentially. Moreover, inter-university liaison is getting prioritised. In addition, various Pakistani universities and research institutes have signed MoUs with their Chinese counterparts. The number of Pakistani merchants and traders visiting China is going up. In the same way, the number of Chinese nationals, a majority of whom works on CPEC related projects, has witnessed unprecedented growth. A considerable section of the Chinese workforce is engaged in Gwadar where major projects in infrastructure and energy are under way. The Pakistani authorities, being aware of restive security situation particularly in Balochistan and generally in rest of the country, have established a dedicated CPEC security force to safeguard the Chinese manpower. The Chinese, residing in Pakistan, have, overall, demonstrated goodwill and good conduct. At the moment, a majority of Pakistanis perceive them as friendly. Nevertheless, given the state of security situation in parts of Pakistan post, public safely remains a big challenge.
In order to improve governance and security, Pakistani authorities have to tackle terrorism at multiple levels. Strategically, the country needs to engage with its neighbours especially Afghanistan meaningfully. China can play a role by encouraging regional cooperation through the BRI. Politically, Pakistani government needs to devise a workable strategy to deal with locally active extremist and insurgent groups. Ideologically, there is a growing need to conceive and implement a pluralist narrative to ideationally counter the hate mongers in the society. Above all, China and Pakistan have to play a central role by reinforcing the importance of peace and stability nationally and extra-regionally.
Last but not least, in the wake of the scheduled US withdrawal from Afghanistan in September this year, there is a growing need on the part of Pakistan and China to engage both the Afghan stakeholders and the Americans in a manner that mutual trust is enhanced in order to reap the true benefits of Belt and Road Initiative. If peace and stability are accorded a low priority by the said stakeholders, it is trade and economic cooperation that will suffer the most and, by consequence, millions of people will die in hunger, poverty and despair in our region. Thus, with a solid strategic partnership based on seven decades of bilateral engagement, it is pertinent that both China and Pakistan not only consolidate their mutual gains but also strive for regional economic cooperation with both regional players such as Iran and global actors particularly the United States which is a key stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific region.
The writer teaches at Iqra University, Islamabad. He is also an Invited Researcher, Fudan Development Institute (FDDI).