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Book Review: The China-Pakistan Axus: Asia’s New Geopolitics

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by June Teufel Dreyer, Ph.D
Published on December 20th, 2015

Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axus: Asia’s New Geopolitics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Author Small argues that China’s “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan, born of a common enmity to India, has survived numerous stresses, yet remains important to both.  For China, ties with Pakistan are useful not just because of Beijing’s ongoing rivalry with India but also as an entree to the Muslim world as well as a key link in its plans to establish a fancifully imagined Silk Road trading route that, if successful, will connect most areas of the world from a hub in Beijing.  For Pakistan, China has been its protector, its chief arms supplier---including help with the construction of weapons of mass destruction---and its economic lifeline.

The Sino-Pakistani relationship is now being tested by a new development, the rise of militant Islamic terrorism. Extremists are not only at war with the Pakistani government but with its far more powerful sponsor---China. Although this would seem to reinforce the existing partnership between the two, reality is not as simple as logic.  Militants have infiltrated the Pakistani government, and particularly its intelligence service.  Moreover, there are factions within the extremists who sometimes work together but can work against each other.  They can combine and split; hence an agreement made with one cannot always be regarded as firm.  Although the author has thoughtfully provided a list of acronyms at the front of the book, the permutations of the groups can still tax the reader’s concentration. In other words, it’s complicated.

Perseverance will be rewarded: this is a superb book. Small spent years interviewing foreign ministry officials in Beijing and Islamabad as well as prowling the streets and bazaars of Kashgar and Abbottabad for insights. In his assessment, Beijing would like to see the India-Pakistan relationship exist in a state of managed mistrust, where economic ties can flourish despite political antagonism and the risks of war, which would require the PRC to take a position, are kept very distant. In other words, it is essentially comparable to China’s relations with India.

An excellent example of how this attitude worked in practice was the detonation of India’s nuclear weapon in 1998, with its foreign minister saying explicitly that the reason was fear of China.  The test also caused a rift between India and the U.S. Surprisingly, in view of the venom Chinese media heaped on India for its “gratuitous accusation against China,” Beijing sought to take advantage of the rift to improve ties with India, to no avail. It was therefore forced to come to terms with Pakistan’s own projected detonation a few weeks later, in retaliation against India’s.  Knowing that Beijing wanted to forestall the test, the Pakistani foreign minister went to the Chinese capital asking for a public guarantee that China would reduce India to ashes if it dared attack Pakistan. He did not get it, receiving only a promise that the PRC would not sanction Pakistan if it did detonate. Which it honored when Pakistan went ahead with the test a few weeks later. In the following year, Pakistan infiltrated troops across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Kashmir, disputed between it and India, hoping for Chinese backing. But Beijing refused to do so, illustrating that China had no intention of backing its all-weather friend in military adventurism.

The same pattern characterizes Chinese diplomacy with the Taliban and their activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After 9/11. a delicate Chinese diplomatic dance ensued as Beijing maneuvered among groups and factions to avoid civil war and an insurgency that would destabilize both Afghanistan and Pakistan while abetting already-existing Islamic terrorist groups in its restive Xinjiang region.  When Washington asked for Beijing’s help in stabilizing the area even as it was pursuing a containment policy against the PRC, Chinese policymakers suspected a trap. The Americans were in essence asking China to clean up the mess they had made in the area, dragging the PRC into the morass, thereby weakening it and diverting its attention from America’s pivot toward Asia.

As Small notes, whereas the United States has a decades-old alliance system that spans the Atlantic and Pacific, Beijing can count its reliable friends on the fingers of one hand. North Korean truculence is an enduring risk to Chinese strategic interests in Northeast Asia, with each instance of P’yongyang’s saber-rattling providing Japanese conservatives with arguments for increased defense budgets and perhaps even nuclear weapons.  The Burmese junta, which had long counted the PRC as its only supporter, has turned toward the West and political reform.  Elsewhere in the world, the PRC’s other supposedly close relationships have proved fragile, reversible, and often regime-specific.

While this is basically true, the fact that trade with the PRC is an important factor in nearly all of these relationships means that a change of regime, even when accompanied by animosity toward China, will not necessarily result in a change in policy toward the PRC.  Zambia is a case in point. In his campaign to unseat long-term incumbent Hastings Banda as president, Michael Sata, engaged in fiercely anti-Chinese rhetoric, vowing to rid his country of their influence.  Once elected, however, Sata modified his views substantially, since the PRC is a major customer for the country’s copper. Other countries have also backed down in the face of economic pressure from Beijing.  Yet Small’s point stands: Pakistan has for half a century and through numerous regime changes remained an all-weather friend. And will likely continue to be so.

A version of this review appeared in the American Journal of Chinese Studies, Vol. 22, October, 2015.

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