The China-Pakistan-India triangle and stability in South Asia

Indian political observers have long been of the opinion that the sole purpose of relations between Beijing and Islamabad is to keep Delhi in check in South Asia. Although such a conclusion is entirely logical, it clearly does not take into consideration the significance of external tendencies that have had a strong influence on the internal political situation in China over the last ten years.

The constant destabilizing effect of events in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China on the country’s overall development is a commonly acknowledged fact. Moreover, in Beijing some do not exclude the possibility that supporters of an “independent Uighur state” now operating from Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) are being helped by the United States and some Muslim countries. This is why the Chinese leadership is trying to neutralize the forces of political Islam in the XUAR, including at the state level. In this connection new important moments have appeared in relations between China and Pakistan.

On the one hand, official Beijing was satisfied by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s full support of its actions to liquidate disturbances in Urumqi. On the other hand, China doubts the ability of the Pakistani authorities to maintain effective control over the entire country. These doubts took the form of a direct agreement on cooperation between China’s XUAR and Pakistan’s NWFP. The purpose of this agreement is to establish direct ties with the leaders of the NWFP with the object of intercepting the activity of Islamists on this territory.

Meanwhile this agreement has a serious socio-economic aspect. Its “weight-bearing construction”, evidently, is the widening (with China’s help) of the strategically important Karakoram Highway, which connects China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range through the Khunjerab Pass at an altitude of 4,693 meters (15,397 ft.). Pakistan is trying to convince China of the expedience of using this highway as a main international road for supplying China with the imported goods it needs from Pakistani ports, primarily Gwardar (modernized with Beijing’s help) on the Arabian Sea.

Transport infrastructure aside, the XUAR-NWFP agreement envisages cooperation in interregional trade, science and technology, culture, education, health care, agriculture, sport and tourism. It is fair to assume that China will try to involve the largest possible segment of the NWFP population in these bilateral interregional ties, thus distracting it from activities in the XUAR that are destructive for the PRC.


The Chinese leadership, however, realizes that interregional relations are only part of Beijing’s general line to stabilize the situation in Pakistan. It knows that the problems in Pakistan are structural and systemic, born of contradictory tax policies that threaten the territorial integrity of this country. One can imagine that the hierarchy of problems in Pakistan looks to Beijing something like this:

The creation of Pakistan in 1947 on a confessional basis rather than a political and economic one inevitably lessened the attention of the Pakistani ruling elite to problems of development (i.e. economic growth on the basis of maximum employment and a sustained reduction of social disparities) and frequent crises to do with the “modernizing project” being completed by the military men who had come to power. These last, as a rule, did not have constructive ideas and were mainly engaged in making order while indefinitely postponing the transformations that society needed.

The alternating “military” and “civilian” cycles prevented the establishment of capable institutions of political representation in Pakistan and the formation of an effective political elite oriented toward the interests of society as a whole (modernization), rather than certain segments.
The absence of a progressive diversification of the economic and political systems convinced the Pakistani Army that it played the principal role in society. This made the whole country dependent on the personal will of top military commanders, whose most odious exponent was undoubtedly General Zia-ul-Haq (he ruled Pakistan from 1977-1988). His tolerance of political Islam was such that today it is challenging the Army for supremacy in the life of Pakistan. This sort of “diarchy” is equally dangerous for India and China.

These problems (the increased role of Islamists) created by the military in the late 1970s and early ‘80s have become a real threat to Pakistani statehood and to the country’s territorial integrity. The eventual collapse of Pakistan, about which the international press has begun to write in earnest, could have a destabilizing effect on China (the “permeability” of its borders) and be a threat to India, Iran and other neighboring countries (the dismantling of a secular state).

China, India and other states in South and Central Asia have an interest in Pakistan’s unity and territorial integrity since Islamabad has at its disposal a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons (no fewer than 80 warheads, according to the estimates of Western analysts), one that is still growing despite the economic crisis.


The complex and contradictory political reality inside Pakistan is forcing China to diversify its geopolitical strategy with respect to this country and to South Asia as a whole.

First of all, Beijing considers that that U.S. involvement in military operations in Afghanistan has weakened American positions in Pakistan. The new “equation” of geopolitical forces in Central Asia, evidently, has assigned the leading role to China.

China is implementing a gentle ouster of the United States from Pakistan with the help of the tried and true practice of broadening economic ties. In 2009 the volume of trade between the two countries totaled $7 billion (in 2008, $6.8 billion), while in 2011 trade is supposed to more than double to $15 billion. Moreover, Islamabad is counting on substantial help from Beijing, as well as cooperation in the field of “classic’ energy, mainly in building Chinese-designed hydroelectric plants in mountainous regions.

Secondly, true to its main strategic principle (“economics determine geopolitics”), China is actively participating in the modernization of Pakistan’s transportation infrastructure. The implementation of joint projects to support foreign economic ties has two aims: to provide secure transport for fuel from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea and to limit the influence of the United States in “sensitive” regions for China, such as the Middle East, South and Central Asia.

Western and Indian experts say that the most successful Pakistani-Chinese infrastructure project is the port at Gwadar. Situated in the northwestern part of the Arabian Sea, it is an ideal place from which to observe the passing of trade vessels and military ships traveling east from the Persian Gulf; and, if need be, it can be used to defend transport communications for supplying fuel to the Middle East. This assumption is supported, in part, by the active participation of Chinese specialists in modernizing Pakistani bases and berths for military submarines, which may also be used by Chinese submarines.

Thirdly, international press reports suggest that Beijing is lobbying Islamabad for permission to open a Chinese military base on Pakistani soil. Such a step, say experts, would have at least three strategic aims: to put military and political pressure on India; to limit Washington’s influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and to directly observe the activities of “Uighur separatists” in the NWFP. Official circles in Islamabad have so far refrained from commenting on the possible installation of Chinese base in Pakistan. However, they do allow that China may use existing “military areas” on a “non-public basis”.

Fourthly, China, according to the Times of India, is already the principal supplier of arms to Pakistan. Today 70% of the Pakistani Army’s military technology is Chinese. Moreover, sources in Delhi maintain that if India receives a fifth-generation jet fighter from Russia, Pakistan will turn to China as a leading manufacturer of such aircraft. Finally, Beijing has been an “irreplaceable” partner for Islamabad in improving the nuclear weapons it has supplied since 1976. There is no evidence that this partnership will cease in the foreseeable future.

Consequently, China’s strategic line with respect to Pakistan is a complex symbiosis of at least three geopolitical designs: to contain the influence of political Islam (i.e. forces acting on Pakistani soil) on the development of internal processes in the PRC (primarily in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region); to limit India’s role in South Asia; and to gently oust the United States from South and Central Asia.


The legitimate question arises: does the development of Chinese-Pakistani relations affect Russia’s interests? The answer must be “Yes”, and for two reasons.

Owing to historical and geopolitical circumstances Pakistan has become a sort of “seedbed” for political Islam and international terrorism. The lack of effective control by the central authorities over all of Pakistan results in the “export” of radical ideas and practices to adjacent territories, among them China. The threat of Islamic extremism has also become significantly greater for Central Asia.

Russia must change the algorithm of its foreign policy with respect to Pakistan, that is, it must once again be an active foreign participant in the processes of South Asia. A complication of the geopolitical “equation” in this region would be in our long-term interests since the struggle for calm in Central Asia begins in Pakistan. Reviving political dialogue and foreign economic ties with Pakistan to at least the level of the mid-1960s would allow Moscow to actively influence Islamabad’s foreign policy.

The return of Russia to South Asia would require an organizational and institutional framework for dialogue about security in this important region. To discuss and resolve (on a multilateral basis) the problems of its security would allow Russia to actively participate in the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Moscow can and should balance Beijing’s active role in this international organization; the SCO’s effectiveness ultimately depends on this as a political instrument for international security.

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