The 22nd of May 2021 marked the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and Pakistan that began in 1951. On this day, Pakistani PM, Imran Khan, while inaugurating the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant Unit -2 (which uses the Hualong One reactor designed by China), extolled the virtues of this friendship and the developmental prospects of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The People’s Daily carried an article with a similar triumphant tone, peppered with accounts from grateful Pakistani citizens. As the cherry on the top, President Arif Alvi reiterated the expression “deeper than the oceans, higher than the mountains and sweeter than honey” to describe the relationship. To further celebrate this day, a set of commemorative postage stamps were also released in Islamabad; one depicted the crown jewel of this all-weather partnership, the Gwadar Port. Xinhua News also released a video that heavily featured the achievements made under CPEC, very much in line with the message from President Xi Jinping.
The China-Pakistan friendship has been the cause for much discussion in India and is seen as an intense strategic challenge, which has only been intensified by the CPEC. While in media reports, the tone of this all-weather friendship revolves around economic cooperation, there is also an ever-increasing military cooperation between the two nations involving arms deals, joint exercises, and defence pacts. In this light, it is essential to understand the driving force behind this sustained bilateral relationship, particularly from China’s viewpoint, given its tumultuous history of conducting foreign policy. Why is a state such as Pakistan that constantly sits on the precipice of failure the recipient of China’s support?
In terms of external factors, one long-standing systemic explanation has been China and Pakistan’s mutual rivalry with India. Especially in the aftermath of the 1962 India-China War, political analysts claimed that China’s overriding strategic concern is to keep Pakistan independent, powerful, and confident enough to present India with a two-front threat. Moving beyond Beijing’s South Asia Policy, scholars have also situated Sino-Pakistani friendship within the larger context of Cold War politics. Pakistan was one of the first non-socialist states to diplomatically recognise the PRC and, by the 1950s, be responsive to the Chinese verbal attacks on the Americans. Even though Pakistan was a part of the Western alliance, it was seen as a weak link in the imperialist chain and a ‘potential source of contradiction within the camp.’ Later in the 1960s and 1970s, China’s fear of Soviet encirclement dictated its close ties with Pakistan, and also with the latter acting as the middle man in the 1972 US-China rapprochement. Finally, Beijing and Islamabad seemed to share the sense of being ‘misunderstood’ in the international arena, a rhetoric played by the media in both countries.