Navigating the China-Pakistan-India-U.S. relationships

Next month, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao will reportedly visit Pakistan to "deepen strategic cooperation" between the two so-called "all-weather friends." His visit comes on the heels of Pakistani President Asif Zardari’s sixth visit to China in two years earlier this month. In light of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India the same week as ...

Alexander F. Yuan - Pool/Getty Images
Alexander F. Yuan - Pool/Getty Images
Alexander F. Yuan - Pool/Getty Images

Next month, China's Premier Wen Jiabao will reportedly visit Pakistan to "deepen strategic cooperation" between the two so-called "all-weather friends." His visit comes on the heels of Pakistani President Asif Zardari's sixth visit to China in two years earlier this month. In light of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to India the same week as Zardari's China visit and U.S. efforts to contend with China's regional assertiveness, longstanding Sino-Pak ties seem to be a conspicuous counter-point to deepening U.S.-Indian relations. Nonetheless, cross-cutting interests in the region belie calls within the United States for a U.S.-Indian partnership to contain China, including its power projections via Pakistan.

With next year marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, Sino-Pak relations have historically derived strength from common tensions with India. Both states have fought wars and have ongoing border disputes with India. Today, Sino-Pak relations remain politically and militarily robust. China is one of Pakistan's largest arms suppliers, accounting for a third of its conventional arms imports between 1950 and 2008; joint military exercises are ongoing. China has also been controversially instrumental in Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons. Economic relations, however, have lagged with trade at $7 billion -- one-seventh the Sino-Indian trade volume. To plug this gap, Zardari pitched the economic benefits of greater rail and road connectivity during his visit, citing a gas pipeline from western China to Pakistan's Chinese-built Gwadar port. Zardari also called on Chinese investors "to take advantage of the geo-strategic location, trade and economic potential and the warm waters of Pakistan."

Next month, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao will reportedly visit Pakistan to "deepen strategic cooperation" between the two so-called "all-weather friends." His visit comes on the heels of Pakistani President Asif Zardari’s sixth visit to China in two years earlier this month. In light of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India the same week as Zardari’s China visit and U.S. efforts to contend with China’s regional assertiveness, longstanding Sino-Pak ties seem to be a conspicuous counter-point to deepening U.S.-Indian relations. Nonetheless, cross-cutting interests in the region belie calls within the United States for a U.S.-Indian partnership to contain China, including its power projections via Pakistan.

With next year marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, Sino-Pak relations have historically derived strength from common tensions with India. Both states have fought wars and have ongoing border disputes with India. Today, Sino-Pak relations remain politically and militarily robust. China is one of Pakistan’s largest arms suppliers, accounting for a third of its conventional arms imports between 1950 and 2008; joint military exercises are ongoing. China has also been controversially instrumental in Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons. Economic relations, however, have lagged with trade at $7 billion — one-seventh the Sino-Indian trade volume. To plug this gap, Zardari pitched the economic benefits of greater rail and road connectivity during his visit, citing a gas pipeline from western China to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port. Zardari also called on Chinese investors "to take advantage of the geo-strategic location, trade and economic potential and the warm waters of Pakistan."

The specter of Chinese economic expansion and assertiveness in and beyond South Asia has generated Indian concerns, U.S. attention, and diplomatic opportunities. As recently stated by former Indian national security advisor Brajesh Mishra and affirmed by former U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, India has long viewed China as using Pakistan to slow India’s rise through military aid and quietly project itself in South Asia. Now China seems to be visibly encroaching southward. The Indian government has stated that it is "giving careful and special attention to the development of infrastructure in the border areas opposite China, in order to meet our strategic and security requirements." While admitting that legitimate development goals may be motivating China, India’s army chief has stated, "we are not very sure about the intentions. And when intentions change, with this capability, things can go wrong."

Meanwhile, leading Indian and U.S. analysts are calling attention to China’s horizontal and vertical expansion. Looking westward, some Indian writers point to China putting "trans-continental connectivity at the heart of its grand strategy," including building rail links with Pakistan and Iran as part of its reach into the corners of Eurasia. Looking southward, some American analysts view Gwadar as part of a Chinese "string of pearls" strategy to facilitate its push to the Indian Ocean, with its vital energy and commercial lanes.

Coloring China’s economic expansion has been its territorial assertiveness with its neighbors. India views China’s recent refusal to grant a visa to the head of the Northern Command that includes Kashmir, issuance of non-standard stapled visas specifically to applicants from Kashmir, and construction projects in Pakistan-administered Kashmir as unwarranted assertions of Kashmir’s disputed nature. Noting this "new assertiveness" in uncharacteristically blunt language, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has stated that "China would like to have a foothold in South Asia" and that it could use India’s "soft underbelly" of Kashmir "to keep India in low level equilibrium." Meanwhile, prior to and in response to China’s protracted territorial dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, the United States has sought to shore up regional relations and revive its Pacific profile through what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called "forward-deployed diplomacy."

In this light, Obama’s visit to India, along with three other Asian democracies, arguably reflects a nascent U.S. hedging strategy with respect to China due to uncertainty over the nature of China’s rise and ambitions. Alongside the easing of U.S. export controls, a joint statement issued during his visit recognized India’s role in East Asia (a U.S.-India dialogue on East Asia has been ongoing since the spring) and affirmed its global role by endorsing its United Nations Security Council aspirations for the first time.

The symbolism and content of Obama’s visit to India was not lost on Beijing or Islamabad. Neither was on Obama’s itinerary; both harbor concerns about the U.S. and India to varying degrees. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi declared China and Pakistan’s "unanimous stand" against India’s Security Council bid and said that the U.S.’s "unilateral support" on the issue could "affect peace and stability of the region." President Zardari and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to enhance coordination in international and regional affairs to safeguard their countries’ interests.

Despite these maneuverings, great power relations in South Asia are far from zero-sum. Cross-cutting interests draw all four players together, even as Indo-Pak ties remain in fragile limbo. China is India’s largest trade partner amidst ongoing talks to resolve the boundary dispute. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has noted there is space for both countries to grow together. The U.S.-Pakistan partnership is an important if troubled one, driven by security imperatives though with broader potential. The Chinese and U.S. economies are intertwined with cooperation key to stabilizing the global economy.

Notably, the joint statement issued during Obama’s visit to China last November called for collaboratively enhancing stability in South Asia — treating China as a partner in the region and not an adversary. Indeed, even in engaging a far more hostile Maoist China, it is often forgotten that the pivotal back channel for the Nixon administration’s normalization efforts was Pakistan. Reducing Pakistan to a Chinese pawn in a new great game pitting the United States and India against China would thus be ironically shortsighted.

Ziad Haider is a joint degree candidate at Georgetown Law and the Harvard Kennedy School and previously served as a foreign policy aide in the United States Senate. He is the author of the Ideological Struggle for Pakistan (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2010), and is fluent in Mandarin and Urdu.

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