Review of "The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics"

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

In this engaging book, Small attempts to disassemble the relationship between two major players in Asian geopolitics: the historically unstable Islamic state of Pakistan and the communist, totalitarian People’s Republic of China. The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics identifies the importance of this mostly secretive bilateral relationship and untangles the dynamics between the two countries. Small makes some compelling arguments which are aided by interviews with Chinese, Pakistani, American, and Indian experts and officials, as well as secondary sources such as books by academics. Small argues that “Pakistan lies at the heart of China’s geostrategic ambitions from its take-off as a global naval power to its grand plans for a new silk road connecting the energy fields of the Middle East and the markets of Europe to the mega cities of East Asia.” However, his most critical analysis is of the imbalance in the relationship between the two countries. Small hints that Pakistan has a mythical view of its relationship with China, believing that China’s backing is steady and long term. In reality, he argues, China backs Pakistan only when its own self interests are at play.

The seven chapters of the book are thematically arranged, beginning with a discussion of whether Chinese involvement in the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars framed their close ties. Small argues that Chinese support for Pakistan in the midst of these wars was hardly present. The US under Nixon tilted towards Pakistan but apart from sending the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal, did little to change the realities on the ground. Rather, President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger hoped China would step in but, as Small explains, “It was clear to virtually every Pakistani visitor who passed through Beijing how uncomfortable China was with the crackdown in East Pakistan.” Not only had a senior Chinese official turned down a request from Pakistani General Yahya Khan “for a morale boosting trip,” but even during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s trip to China in November 1971, “there was never any question of active Chinese military involvement and such an eventuality was not even discussed.”

However, Small argues that China’s “greatest contribution” to Pakistan’s security has “never really been the prospect of an intervention on its behalf,”but instead lies in China’s aid in building Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program for “the ultimate means of self-defense.” He agrees with Aparna Pande’s argument in Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy, that military, and specifically nuclear ties between the two countries are central to their relationship. Further, China has helped boost Pakistan’s conventional military strength and build Pakistan’s military industrial complex. Small argues that while the Pakistani military has always preferred American equipment to Chinese equipment, China surpasses America in its nuclear assistance to Pakistan. This is evidenced by the nuclear reactors China has already built and future reactors that they have committed to build.

The lack of Chinese military intervention can be explained by its fear of Islamist militancy within its own borders. While China supported Pakistan’s use of non state actors – jihadis – for anti-Soviet purposes during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1970s and turned a blind eye to jihadi terrorism against India, Beijing has always expected and demanded that this would not spill over into China, especially Xinjiang. The rise of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Uyghur insurgency has become “the greatest sore point” in Sino-Pakistani ties. While Pakistan has always promised to do all it can on this front, the last decade has shown both Pakistan’s inability and possibly even unwillingness to act against these groups and actors.

The presence of Pakistani jihadis has soured Pakistan’s economic relations with China. Although Pakistan has always publicized its deep economic ties with ‘all weather ally’ China, Small demonstrates that this is far from the reality due to security concerns. The 2007 Lal Masjid incident—in which Islamic militants confronted the Pakistani government, and the abduction of Chinese engineers from Lower Dir in October 2008 were key incidents that lowered Chinese confidence in Pakistan’s ability to provide security and hence, future economic prosperity. Small asserts that after providing Pakistan with assistance in nuclear technology, Beijing is now uncomfortable with how Pakistan is using jihadis under the nuclear umbrella. “That has not stopped it from supporting Pakistan’s nuclear program but it has prompted Beijing to play a growing role in helping to defuse crises on the subcontinent and pushing Pakistan towards lasting ways to stabilize its relationship with India. Beijing may still be a vital enabler for Pakistan but nowadays it is also determined to limit the potential risks.”

The China-Pakistan Axis is one of the few books that untangles the complicated and important relationship between Pakistan and China in great detail. However, Small’s central question— whether Pakistan does in fact have a mythical view of its relationship with China, does not play out and gets lost towards the end of the book.  Small ends his book with the following argument:

“China has its fears about the country’s [Pakistan’s] long term future. The challenge of dealing with a country that is both the greatest source of China’s terrorist threat and the crucial partner in combating it, is challenging to navigate. Pakistan cannot match the trade and commercial prospects of its larger more economically successful neighbor. But friendship, the one commodity that Pakistan can offer China more convincingly than any other country, matters more to Beijing than it used to. As a result, the China-Pakistan axis is almost ready to step out of the shadows.”

Although Small cites official sources saying that China will not help Pakistan if it instigates a conflict, he does not follow this scenario through to a conclusion and ends on an optimistic note. It is as if he is almost hesitant in claiming his argument out loud. Nonetheless, Small’s account is a significant contribution to the previous dearth of academic literature on the geopolitical relationship between Pakistan and China.