Since establishing diplomatic ties in 1951, China and Pakistan have enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial relationship. Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950 and remained a steadfast ally during Beijing’s period of international isolation in the 1960s and early 1970s. China has long provided Pakistan with major military, technical, and economic assistance, including the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology and equipment. Some experts predict growing relations between the United States and rival India will ultimately prompt Pakistan to push for even closer ties with its longtime strategic security partner.
Sino-Pakistani cooperation should be seen within the matrix of China’s ambition to increase its strategic weight in South Asia. In. Islamabad, China is today seen as a regional counterweight to Washington and NATO. Beijing supports Islamabad’s position on Kashmir, while Pakistan supports China on the issues of Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. China has strongly embraced Pakistan, despite knowing fully well that Pakistan and its neighbors are infested with terrorists affiliated to Al Qaeda and their cross-country brethren like Uighur and Chechen extremists. This makes it crystal clear that China has got its mind made up to embark on a comprehensive geopolitical expansion mode. China has other things on its mind than just expanding its financial investment horizon. The nation is looking forward to maintain a permanent strong military presence in the Central Asian and West Asian regions as leverage against the hegemony of U.S. and Russia.
The very recent handing over by the Pakistani government of the construction and operation of Gwadar deep-sea port in Pakistan to the Chinese Overseas Port Holdings (COPH) is a strong case in point. This port is strategically situated at the mouth of Strait of Hormuz and probably will be used by China to build up strong naval presence in this area, thereby threatening all nations in this region and beyond who are opposed to China and its “ally” Pakistan’s policies.
China’s basic interest has been in wanting to gain access to the Gwadar port through the Gilgit region. The Chinese efforts to access the Arabian Sea through Gwadar Port by developing road and railway links have raised concerns especially after media reports since 2010 that the Chinese are stationing their troops and building critical infrastructure for strategic use. The two sides have also agreed to expand the width of the historic Karakoram Highway, which connects Gilgit-Baltistan with the neighboring Xinjiang region in China, from 10 meters to 30 meters and triple its transportation capacity. The official Chinese agency Xinhua reported at the time that the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation would be in charge of the designing and reconstruction of the highway. Upgrading the Karakoram Highway is of critical significance to China, since this region offers Beijing a window to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Chinese firms are also working on six other mega power projects in Gilgit-Baltistan that include hydro power projects at Dasu (US$ 7.8 billion), Phandar (US$ 70million), Bashu (US$ 40.01 million), Harpo (US$ 44.608 million) and Yulbo (US$ 6 billion). China is also investing an additional amount of US$ 300 million in housing and communication sectors.
The ulterior motives behind increasing Chinese involvement in Gilgit Baltistan are related to its spreading its influence in its neighbourhood and encircle India, potentially its biggest rival in South Asia. This was established beyond doubt when there was a disproportionally high personnel stationed in the Khunjerab Pass on border of Gilgit-Baltistan to protect the Karakoram Highway construction crews. With the reported stationing of a unit of soldiers near the Khunjerab Pass and Chinese military officials frequenting the Field Command Office of Gilgit, , a pervasive Chinese intent of establishing a military edge in India’s northern sector cannot be negated.
Besides, the “developmental” activities, China has also been colluding with Pakistan’s ISI. According to Indian intelligence reports, executives and technical staff of certain Chinese telecoms companies have directly participated in ISI planning sessions for operations in India, and have later provided technical backup for such missions.
Moreover, the China-Pakistan military cooperation have further risked the security situation in South Asia. The Pakistani nuclear weapons program is essentially an extension of the Chinese one. Despite being a member of the NPT, China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear materials and expertise and has provided critical assistance in the construction of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Although China has long denied helping any nation attain a nuclear capability, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, himself has acknowledged the crucial role China has played in his nation’s nuclear weaponization by gifting 50 kg of weapons grade-enriched uranium and tons of uranium hexafluoride for Pakistan’s centrifuges. This may be the only case where a nuclear weapons state has passed on weapons-grade fissile material as well as a bomb design to a nonnuclear weapons state.
It is for the Western policy makers to remain cautious in their assessment of Chinese Pakistan relationship. China will advance an agenda that, first and foremost, safeguards its citizens and assets. It will be unlikely to take on a major security role, preferring to bolster local authorities with whatever they say they need to counter the threat. Human-rights issues are unlikely to be prioritized.