Sixty-Nine Years of Pakistan-China Friendship The Relationship That Will Define the 21st Century

In the contemporary international system, states define their bilateral relations based on common historical experiences, geographical exigencies, economic needs, political ideologies, shared interests, the commonality of values, or common aspirations. Pakistan-Chinese relations stand as a category in itself, with all these elements and many more. Our common friends use it as a ’model’ to aspire for their own friendship and cooperation, while the adversaries feel jealous and frustrated. Many Western scholars have tried in vain to measure the depth of Sino-Pakistan friendship. They find it difficult to explain how the hearts of the two peoples beat with the same rhythm, even if they do not share the same language, belong to the same racial group, or have similar cultural heritage, social organization, and political system. Few Westerners know that the Gandhara region during the Kushan rule had its envoys at the court of the Chinese Han dynasty, before the birth of Christ.

The growing interest of the Chinese in Buddhism led several monks and pilgrims to trek to Pakistan in search of authentic Sutras as Buddhism was dying a slow death in the Indo-Gangetic Valley due to Brahmin intolerance. Names of Faxian, Xuanzang, Song Yun, and a host of others, appear in history. The episodes 89 to 92 in the famous Chinese classic novel ‘Journey to the West’ based on part facts, part fiction, and part historical events cover the travel experience of monk Xuanzang to the Gandhara region including Peshawar, Taxila, Hund, Tribal Areas, Kashmir, Sialkot, Lahore, Swat, etc. from 630 to 645 AD. The Kushan rulers promoted the Silk Route trade from China to Rome via Persia.

The Kushan ruler also gifted a pair of lions to the Eastern Han dynasty Emperor Zhang in 87-88 AD, the arrival of which in Han court proved to be a good omen as the king was blessed with a son from his favorite queen. Hence began the tradition of ‘lion dances’ in China. Lions were also revered in the Buddhist religion. Mahayana Buddhism (Greater Vehicle), as was practiced in the Gandhara region and Afghanistan (instead of Theravada or ‘lesser vehicle’ as practiced in India), was ancient Pakistan’s largest item of export to China. Pakistan’s national poet and philosopher Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) had foreseen the ‘Chinese Renaissance and revival’, like his dream for Pakistan, and mentioned it in his poetry. Sadly, he did not live long to see both coming true.

Sixty-Nine Years of Pakistan-Chinese Friendship: The Relationship That Will Define The 21st Century

Evolution of Contemporary Pakistan-Chinese Relations

Former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had once observed that ‘the Chinese and Pakistani people’s friendship began with the advent of mankind’. He was not off the mark as in 139 BC the Han dynasty Emperor Wu Di sent his envoy Chang Jian to the court of the Great Kushans (known in Chinese as the great Yuechi) who ruled Afghanistan and Gandhara region of Pakistan, for a strategic alliance against the Huns. His visit made the Gandhara region and Peshawar a historic bridge, economic corridor, and a gateway promoting the exchanges in goods and ideas of China with Persia, the Middle East, and Rome, etc. Historically, the Chinese people have maintained a close relationship with the people of the South Asian region too. During the Tang dynasty known as the ‘Golden period of China’, contacts between China and South Asia region accelerated in the domains of trade and culture.

Pakistan became the first Muslim country to recognize the People’s Republic of China in January 1950 and established diplomatic relations on May 21, 1951. Premier Zhou Enlai attended the Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung in April 1955. It proved to be China’s first foray into regional politics of Asia and also the beginning of the romance between Pakistan and China. Despite the fact that Pakistan was a member of two Western-led alliances, SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), the ‘body movement’ of Premier Zhou Enlai showed his full understanding of Pakistan’s dilemma. The Chinese leadership faced with the leaders of both India and Pakistan could easily discern the difference between the two countries.

The massive support by the West and Soviet Union rushed in economic and military assistance intoxicated Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru into adopting a ‘Forward Policy’ like the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing right now (in 2020) in the Ladakh region. India was then however in a far stronger position as compared to China which was isolated in the world and had suffered a very bad famine as an effect of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958-1962) in which many millions perished. The skirmishes from 1958 to 1962 converted into a full-scale war in October-November 1962. The Indian Prime Minister ordered the Indian military to ‘throw out’ the Chinese. The war however proved to be a devastating blow to the Indians, all along the border. Thousands of Indian soldiers surrendered with the loss of vast territory in the Ladakh and North East Frontier Agency (NEFA).

The Chinese were within reach of Assam when they declared a unilateral ceasefire, vacating occupied areas, and returning to their pre-hostilities positions. No doubt, the hostile Indian attitude compelled China to look for allies. Pakistan was an obvious choice. During the Sino-Indian conflict, Pakistan did not open a second front and missed an opportunity to liberate Kashmir. The failure of the U.S. leadership to keep its promise to help resolve the issue of illegal occupation of Jammu and Kashmir by India however compelled Pakistan to make a ‘strategic shift’ in relations for closer cooperation with China by signing several agreements including boundary demarcation. The Indians paid back Pakistan’s gesture by unleashing all the weapons and equipment they had collected, under the pretense of a ‘threat by China’ by launching naked aggression against Pakistan in September 1965.

The Strength of Pakistan-Chinese Bilateral Cooperation

China may have a dozen reasons for a time-tested strategic partnership with Pakistan and so has Pakistan, with common animosity to India being only one of the factors. Pakistan has been China’s most trusted friend and was at the forefront among the States supporting China at all regional and international forums from its difficult days when it was boycotted by the Western nations. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was the ‘first foreign airlines from the non-Communist world’ to touch down in China, providing it a window to the outside world.

The older generation of Chinese preferred to travel with PIA, to destinations in Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, several hundred Chinese experts and students attended courses in Pakistan in civil aviation, banking, audit and accountancy, tourism, finance, taxation, customs, public administration, English language, and defense-related programs, at a time when the Western world shunned them. Pakistan played a far greater role in helping China during this era, as a source of the latest knowledge, skills, and technology.

The Chinese are deeply beholden to Pakistan for being a window to the outside world during their difficult days. Over the past several decades, China-Pakistan friendship has been fully marked by mutual trust, sincerity, understanding, respect, and support to each other. In the wake of the 1971 War, China provided liberal military assistance at ‘friendship prices’. Chinese economic and technical assistance increased substantially with projects aimed at self-reliance such as Heavy Industrial Complex, Tank Rebuild Factory, Air War Complex, Karakoram Highway, sports gymnasium, Gwadar Project, etc. Globally Pakistan became the largest recipient of Chinese flood relief assistance at USD 247 million with an additional commitment of USD 400 million for rehabilitation and reconstruction in 2010. China provided emergency relief assistance to the people of Northern Areas affected by the Attabad Disaster twice.

Sixty-Nine Years of Pakistan-China Friendship The Relationship That Will Define the 21st Century

Irrespective of the changes in the regional and global situations, China-Pakistan relations have shown amazing continuity and growth. There is enormous potential in the cooperation between the two countries, waiting to be harnessed by future generations. The future world will be shaped by ideas, soft power, and technology. Currently, Pak-China bilateral relations span all areas of cooperation with flourishing economic, business, cultural, and strategic ties.

Pakistan also played a critical role in the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the United States through the famous secret visit of former U.S. National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger in July 1971, which shaped the post-Cold War world, making the United States the sole superpower in the world following the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the United Nations, Pakistan was among the frontline countries, supporting China’s demand for its rightful place as a member of the global community. When China became a member of the UN in 1971, it utilized for the first few months the facilitation, premises, and experience of Pakistan’s Permanent Mission in New York (as was related to the author by China’s former Foreign Minister Huang Hua). Such a level of diplomatic ‘bonhomie’ is rare in contemporary foreign relations.

Pakistan also wholeheartedly supported China’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001. Further, Pakistan played a critical facilitating role in the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Gulf States, and a few other countries. The Chinese diplomats have been highly appreciative of the professional insight and advice on pressing regional and global issues by Pakistan’s finest diplomats in global capitals. Pakistan has steadfastly supported China’s position on human rights issues, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet. China has provided valuable support to Pakistan in nation-building, infrastructure development, science, technology, and national defense fields.

The achievements of China during the last four decades make Pakistan uniquely positioned to benefit from its achievements and lessons in development. A market survey in 2002 in China indicated an export potential of USD 40 billion for Pakistan, which in 2013 was still around USD 27 billion. With 97 percent of Pakistani exportable products allowed at zero-rated tariffs under the second phase of China Pakistan Free Trade Agreement (CPFTA), Pakistan has now been provided a golden opportunity to penetrate China’s USD 2 trillion import market.

Pakistan’s private sector should carry out market surveys, develop linkages with Chinese supply chains, and form joint ventures for value addition and increase in productivity, quality, and diversity of Pakistani exportable goods. There is great potential for Chinese companies to also utilize opportunities in Pakistan by harnessing their rich human resources, natural resource endowments, maritime resources, and location advantages. Pakistani policy planners now urgently need a ‘CPEC software’ of a paradigm shift with new policy initiatives to ensure utilization of the energy of 220 million Pakistanis, to secure their future in a world where smart technology, soft power, and trained human resources, etc. provide the winning edge.

The Pakistani youth will need to be liberated from the stranglehold of the colonial education system, archaic syllabus, decadent mindset, and despondency. They instead need a paradigm shift to learning Chinese language, cultural heritage, philosophy, business practices, systemic organization, social organization, and soft power values. When the visiting U.S. President Bill Clinton in his meeting with the Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1996 asked him to stop military assistance to Pakistan, the reply of the Chinese leader was: “We Chinese have a tradition that when we drink water from a well, we always remember the one who dug up the well.” Bill Clinton had nothing to comment in view of Pakistan’s critical role in facilitating Sino-U.S. normalization of relations.

Bilateral Economic Cooperation Reaches New Heights

The launching of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 of USD 1.3 trillion of connectivity projects, roads, highways, rail lines, special economic zones, ports, etc. by connecting China with 65 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe aims to add USD 4 trillion in wealth to regional economies by 2030 AD. The revival of the ancient land-based Silk Route Economic Belt and building of the 21st century Maritime Silk Route holds immense potential for all the countries of the Euro-Asiatic Region, particularly Pakistan.

The successful implementation of the First Phase of the USD 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a good omen. The completion of dozens of power, infrastructure, motorways, and the deep seaport of Gwadar projects worth USD 22 billion under the Early Harvest Program, have resolved the acute energy load-shedding and infrastructure bottlenecks in the country. CPEC has now entered its crucial Second Phase which envisages launching of the industrialization, relocation of industries, the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), business cooperation, agriculture, tourism, higher education, science and technology, healthcare, ML-1 railways, energy pipelines, water conservation, and environment, etc. China is not only the largest trading partner but also the largest foreign investor in Pakistan for consecutive five years in a row.

Pakistanis have all watched China’s rise with enthusiasm, respect, and admiration. China’s foreign policy of promoting ‘peace and development’ globally and ‘Prosperity Thy Neighbour’ in the extended neighborhood generates genuine hope and optimism. The Western scholars and journalists know very well that Pakistan is supercritical in China’s strategy in defeating the Western ‘containment policy’ now, as much as before. China’s Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to Pakistan in 2013 during his address to Pakistan’s Parliament in Islamabad acknowledged Pakistan’s contribution stating ‘China’s development cannot be separated from Pakistan’. Of course, China has grown in power, influence, and economy over the past four decades, yet the geographical location of Pakistan and the natural goodwill of the Pakistani people will always influence the strategic calculations of China. Pakistan’s spectacular achievements whether in the fields of defense technology, nuclear program, energy, infrastructure or healthcare, etc. cannot be separated from China’s seminal contribution.


I was fortunate to meet the very first ambassadors of both countries in each other’s capital including Mr. Han Nianlong who served in Pakistan during (1951-56) and Major General N.A.M. Raza (R) who served in China during (1951-54) and (1962-1966). They both were kind enough to share with me the historical wealth of information and their own contribution to the nurturing of this unique relationship, at its roots. The Chinese people, particularly the older generation, have a nostalgic memory of this relationship being personally forged and nourished by Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai, and Senior Leader Deng Xiaoping. Metaphors or euphemisms however fail to capture the full depth of Pakistan-Chinese friendship.

Pakistan-Chinese friendship has been called ‘Higher than mountains, deeper than oceans’ or ‘Sweeter than honey and closer than eyes’, ‘An all-weather friendship’, ‘Iron Brothers’, and ‘One family’ among many other such descriptions as part of commonly used expressions in this respect. According to several surveys, Pakistan has remained the most loved country amongst the ordinary Chinese and so has China, among the Pakistanis, irrespective of the regional and international developments. In China’s rise, there are vital, useful, and relevant lessons for all the developing countries, particularly Pakistan, struggling with underdevelopment, poverty, and debt, etc. Having stayed in China for nearly a decade, I am an eyewitness to how China learned from the world, including from Pakistan’s strengths. It is now Pakistan’s turn to learn from China’s development experience which has catapulted it to global power status from a much weaker position.

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