The two countries remain close friends and share good and bad times together, remarked the Chinese ambassador Zhang Chunaxiang.

Pakistan’s minister for communications, Ahmad Ali, going even a step further, said that the  friendship is deeper than oceans and higher than the mountains bordering the two brotherly countries.

Pakistan-China relations have blossomed with the passage of time. 

Besides being the first Muslim state to recognize China on 4 January 1950, Pakistan had also refrained from voting on the resolution branding China as an aggressor in the 1954 Korean War.

Islamabad was also among those few states that backed Beijing’s entry into the United Nations in 1962.

In the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, it was the Chinese ultimatum of dire consequences to India which achieved a ceasefire for Pakistan.

Following that, China supported Pakistan with military equipment, including fighter aircrafts and tanks, to compensate for the war material losses and to strengthen Pakistan’s defence capability.

The 1800 km Karakuram Highway (KKH) linking the two countries, the nuclear power plants Chashma I and II, and the ongoing development of the Gawader deep-sea port on the Arabian Sea southwest of Islamabad are a few other examples of economic cooperation between the two countries.

Military relations

China's alleged assistance for Pakistan’s controversial nuclear and ballistic missile programme has been an eyesore for western countries.

However, Aisha Siddiqa, a security analyst for the Janes’ Information Group, points out that the cooperation could be driven more by Chinese business and military interests rather than strengthening a friendship dating from the cold war era.

“Pakistan military has a better operational know-how of quality equipment (procured from western sources) and that way is a good source of learning for Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA),” says Siddiqa.

She dismisses the myth of a fair deal for Pakistan out of this “self-less friendship.”

“The Chinese are as unscrupulous as the French or the British when it comes to military hardware purchases, and they have been acquiescing Pakistan into buying Chinese arms and equipments, at times for much higher prices,” Siddiqa added.

Pakistan is a key buyer for almost every new Chinese weapons or arms system. It has also established rebuilding factories for fighter aircraft and for tanks with Chinese support.

China is said to have helped
Pakistan in its missile programme

Indian variable

Beijing, to the discomfort of Islamabad, has also been mending fences with Pakistan’s bitter enemy India, underlying its endeavour to move from enmities to friendships with all its neighbours.

“I think the Chinese realized that while friendship with Pakistan is important, broadening the  foothold of relations in south Asia, and responding to India’s desire of establishing a fruitful relationship with China was also the call of the hour,” says Dr Tanveer Ahmad Khan, Pakistan’s ex-chief diplomat and analyst.

He believes that the 1999 Indo-Pakistan conflict in the Kargil sector of the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir dented China’s traditional support for Pakistan on the issue.

“The Kargil crisis was the defining moment in Pak-China relations…the Chinese did not support the Pakistani actions in Kargil, and advised against any political-military adventurism in Kashmir,” says the ex-ambassador.

 

Kargil, southern sector of Kashmir, had become a flashpoint for a possible fourth war between the two adversaries when Pakistan-backed Kashmiri separatists as well as army regulars moved in to occupy rocky mountain peaks inside the Indian part of Kashmir in May 1999.

The crisis was diffused only after the then US President Bill Clinton intervened and urged Pakistan to pull out its forces from Kargil.

US ally

Observers also note that by supporting the US led "war against terrorism", Beijing also sent a strong message to Pakistan.

“China has a problem of Muslim unrest in its western Xinjiang province and has also been drawing lots of Muslim preachers as well as pro-opposition elements from Pakistan in the garb of business,” says an Islamabad-based Chinese journalist requesting anonymity.

He said Beijing views this movement with suspicion, considers it "terrorism" and would like Islamabad to curb it.

"Beijing no longer seems content with just friendship with Pakistan, it would like a better equation with all countries, and is also pursuing rapprochement with India”

Fazl al-Rahman
Research scholar

That is why both countries signed an "anti-terrorism" agreement last year, and reinforced it through another memorandum of understanding (MoU) this year.

Pakistan’s active participation in the "anti-terror war" has also gone down well with Beijing, which observers say, might be relieved that the Muslim nation is finally out to act against “mischievous Muslim opposition forces in Xinjiang.”

Balancing act

"Beijing no longer seems content with just friendship with Pakistan, it would like a better equation with all countries, and is also pursuing rapprochement with India,” says Fazl al-Rahman, a research scholar on Chinese and central Asian affairs at the Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS) at Islamabad.

Fazl al-Rahman, a frequent visitor to China, reckons that Beijing has moved on to a more business-like relationship, though without compromising its commitment to Pakistan’s geo-strategic interests.

Both India and China are vigorously vying for political and economic consolidation within the region, Fazl al-Rahman says. That has brought them closer and perhaps at the expense of Pakistan.
 
Yet, “China needs a balancer...if India grows too big for its boots then you need somebody who can pull back or pull down India, and only Pakistan can play that role,” he added.