The fact that two countries share a border usually means one of two things – either those countries work very closely together to foster cross –border relationship aimed at securing economic growth and geo-political stability, or the two countries are constantly on a high alert state of preparedness for going to war over the border.
The first of these is always going to be preferable, of course, and this was probably what lay behind the decision of the Pakistani government in 1950 to become one of the first countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China. The fact that China, even back then, was a large and powerful country in close proximity to Pakistan (in an area of the world in which strategic geographic concerns were always going to be at the forefront of any governments thinking) was probably what lay behind the decision of the Pakistan government. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, China endured a prolonged spell of international isolation, and the fact that Pakistan stuck by its ally during this period can now be seen as highly prescient. As China has emerged as one of the dominant superpowers in the world – with many commentators predicting that before too long it will be the single most powerful country on the face of the planet – the fact that Pakistan has been a loyal ally for more than half a century has placed the country in a highly advantageous position.
The political, military and economic bonds between the countries have been symbolised on many occasions by state visits to Pakistan by the Chinese Premier or President. During the course of his life the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited Pakistan on four occasions, receiving a very warm welcome every time. The bond between the Premier and the country of Pakistan was so strong that, following his death, a road in the Pakistan capital Islamabad was named ‘Zhou Enlai Road’, making it the first road in the entire country to be named after a foreign leader. Also symbolic of the strong links between the two countries was the fact that, in 1976, the then Chinese leader Mao Zedong, aged 83 and suffering serious illness, received the Pakistani President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as his last ever foreign guest.
More recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan, with his presidential jet being escorted through Pakistani airspace by eight JF-17 fighter jets. This was his first foreign visit of the year, and the first to Pakistan by a Chinese President in 9 years. As with previous visits, the Chinese President was met by the Pakistani president and prime minister, and his welcome included a 21 gun salute and a guard of honour. Describing visiting China as feeling like visiting the home of his brother, he wrote the following touching account of the feelings that he had for the country of Pakistan:
“When I was young, I heard many touching stories about Pakistan and the friendship between our two countries. To name just a few, I learned that the Pakistani people were working hard to build their beautiful country, and that Pakistan opened an air corridor for China to reach out to the world and supported China in restoring its lawful seat in the United Nations. The stories have left me with a deep impression. I look forward to my upcoming state visit to Pakistan.”
The relationship between Pakistan and China which has flourished since Pakistan recognised China in 1950 has been built on a foundation with two main planks. In the earlier days of the relationship the greatest practical demonstration of the bonds between the countries was the military aid which China supplied to Pakistan. During the 1960s this involved building arms factories around the country and supplying entire weapons systems. Geo-political developments saw the US imposing sanctions on Pakistan during the 1990s and this move saw China stepping up to the plate to take over as the leading arms supplier to Pakistan. The military relationship deepened at this stage to take in not only arms and hardware but also training, shared intelligence, joint exercises and counter-terrorist operations. The military support provided to Pakistan by China has included the following:
Aircraft – the Pakistani air force includes Chinese interceptor and trainer aircraft, as well as early warning and radar systems designed to aid in the detection of enemy aircraft. In addition to this, the two countries have worked co-operatively to produce the JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft and the K-8 Karakorum light attack aircraft.
Nuclear – although journalistic rumours abound about the extent to which China has aided Pakistan in setting up its own nuclear programme, what can be stated with certainty is that they have helped with both nuclear technology and practical assistance.
Since the 1990s, the growth of China as an economic powerhouse much more open to the rest of the world has seen a shift in the nature if the relationship between the two countries. This shift has led to trade and investment taking precedence over military matters in terms of joint initiatives launched by the two countries.
These trade relations date back to the very earliest days of the strong links between the two countries. The first formal trade agreement was actually signed as long ago as 1963 but it wasn’t until 2008 that a full-blown comprehensive free trade agreement was drawn up and signed, opening up the markets in each country to the markets and opportunities in the other.
This co-operation has also taken the form of joint working on large scale infrastructure projects, a move which covered everything from road and rail links to copper mines and power plants, and reached maximum expression when China provided 80% of the funds, and a share of the expertise, needed to redevelop Gwadar Port in the Balochistan province of Pakistan. The development of Gwadar as a deep water port with strategic access to the Strait of Hormuz is a part of the vast China Pakistan Economic Corridor programme. This is a huge bi-government initiative which involves China investing billions of dollars in Pakistan on infrastructure projects of virtually every type. As the CPEC takes shape, the wisdom involved in the 1950 decision by Pakistan to recognise China will become ever-more apparent.