Beijing's balancing act: courting New Delhi, reassuring Islamabad.

Author:Yuan, Jingdong
Position:Sino-Indian Relations - Report

The "all-weather" Sino-Pakistan relations, characterized especially by Beijing's position on the Kashmir issue and its long-standing and close defense ties with Islamabad, continue to affect New Delhi's threat perceptions and Sino-Indian relations. Beijing's need to sustain friendly relations with Pakistan stems from its desire to mitigate ethnic separatist problems, improve energy security and execute its policy of hedging against a rising and future rival in India. Despite the changing international and regional security environments and Beijing's more balanced South Asia policy, this need is viewed in New Delhi as a major obstacle to enhancing mutual trust and improving bilateral relations between China and India. Conversely, without de-hyphenating Sino-Indian ties, the Pakistan factor will remain a point of contention in fully developing the increasingly important relationship between Asia's two rising powers.


The year 2010 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and India. Beijing and New Delhi celebrated the occasion with a series of festivities and high-level visits. Indian president Pratibha Patil visited China in late May, while Chinese premier Wen Jiabao led a 400-member delegation for a three-day visit to India in mid-December, during which major business contracts worth $16 billion were signed. With annual trade at $60 billion, the two countries are poised to reach $100 billion in trade in the coming years. (1)

Since 2003, Beijing and New Delhi have established multiple channels of bilateral dialogue and consultation aimed at improving mutual understanding, developing a political framework for resolving territorial disputes and promoting bilateral cooperation on both regional and global issues. There have been regular meetings between Chinese and Indian leaders, either at bilateral summits or on the sidelines of international and regional forums. The two militaries maintain contact and in recent years have conducted joint exercises. China and India share similar positions and have cooperated on issues such as climate change, recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis and food security.

However, despite the steady progress and commitments from both Beijing and New Delhi to further develop the bilateral relationship into a strategic partnership for the 21st century, major strains remain. Territorial disputes show no sign of resolution after fourteen rounds of meetings between the special representatives of both governments. Meanwhile, the two countries have also been embroiled in water disputes, growing rivalry in the Indian Ocean and competition for energy.

Some of the major factors affecting Sino-Indian relations, especially where New Delhi's threat perceptions are concerned, are the resilient, all-weather China-Pakistan relationship over the past six decades and Beijing's position on the Kashmir issue. After the 1962 Sino-Indian War and until the early 1980s, China offered strong support of Pakistan's stance. Within the broader Cold War context, as Sino-Indian relations began to improve in the late 1980s, Beijing shifted to a policy of neutrality and called on both India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue through dialogue and mutual consent. China's changing position on the Kashmir issue has been informed by its decision to develop a more balanced South Asia policy, including improving its relationship with India.

China's close political and security ties with Pakistan grew out of a shared hostility toward India, and they have been sustained by Chinese concerns over energy security, ethnic unrest in China's western territories (e.g., Xinjiang) and the need to hedge against a rising and potential future rival in India. These in turn cause New Delhi to view continued close ties between Beijing and Islamabad as a deliberate attempt to encircle and contain India. The challenge for Beijing is to convince New Delhi that its continuing close ties with Islamabad are not directed at India and are largely driven by its domestic needs for economic development, energy security and campaigns against ethnic separatist activities. Over the longer term, closer economic ties in terms of expanding bilateral trade and investments and cooperation on regional and international issues ranging from anti-terrorism to climate change should encourage Beijing and New Delhi to foster better relations. However, for the time being, lingering mistrust, growing suspicions of each other and an emerging strategic rivalry between Asia's two rising powers will continue to impose significant restraints on the scope and pace of normalization.


Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1951, China and Pakistan have developed and maintained close political and military ties. (2) Chinese analysts on South Asian affairs have identified five key features of the Sino-Pakistan strategic partnership: (1) an unchanging friendship and strong ties between the two countries despite different social, political, ethnic and religious backgrounds and the dramatic changes of the past six decades; (2) a relationship of mutual respect and mutual understanding based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence; (3) regular exchange visits between the leaders of the two countries for consultation and close ties; (4)mutual support, assistance and cooperation in the international arena; and (5) in-depth cooperation in economy, defense, science and technology and culture, with mutually satisfying results. (3)

Perhaps most important in the all-weather Sino-Pakistan relationship are the extensive defense ties, where Chinese assistance and support have proven crucial in building Pakistan's conventional, missile and nuclear capabilities. Over the years, China has provided Pakistan with a wide range of major conventional weapons systems and the two countries have also developed a close partnership in various defense cooperation programs such as the K-8 jet trainer and the FC-1 fighter aircraft. China stood behind Pakistan during its military conflicts with India in 1965 and 1971 and has been a major source of military supplies to Pakistan for many years, including critical nuclear and missile transfers? During most of the 1980s and 1990s, Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation became a major proliferation concern for the United States, in particular the controversial 1995 transfer of 5,000 ring magnets to Pakistan by the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation (CNEIC). (5)

China has also provided complete missile systems and technologies to Pakistan over the years. In 1992, after the Bush administration announced the sale of one hundred and fifty F-16 fighter aircrafts to Taiwan, Beijing delivered thirty-four sets of M-11 short-range ballistic missiles to Pakistan. (6) While the strategic relationship initially grew out of China and Pakistan's mutual need to counter the Soviet and Indian security threats, it continues to serve the two countries' national security interests in the post-Cold War era. For Beijing, a stable and strong ally in Pakistan allows China to reach out to the broader Islamic world and provides alternative routes for future energy supplies from the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Sino-Pakistan cooperation also becomes critical in China's efforts to deal with the growing ethnic issues in its northwestern region. (7) For Islamabad, continued political, economic and military support from Beijing helps reassure Pakistan that it can still rely on a trusted ally in a much-changed regional security environment, in which the U.S. South Asia policy has clearly shifted toward developing closer ties with India.


China's declared position on the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir has been an important determinant of Sino-Indian relations. In the 1950s, Beijing upheld a more or less neutral position on the Kashmir issue, as it maintained a cordial relationship with New Delhi. That position took a dramatic turn in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus that soon emerged reflected Beijing's tactical calculation, informed by an appreciation of how the Kashmir dispute could be used to advance Chinese security interests in South Asia. Allen S. White observes:

Pakistan's geopolitical situation has attracted China's support since the early 1960s. It was a useful counterweight against India, perceived both as a neighboring threat and a client of the Soviet Union. In addition, the proximity of Kashmir to the disputed Sino-Indian border area took on strategic importance with a nearby road from Xinjiang through western Tibet serving essential military logistic needs. (8) Throughout the 1960s, as Sino-Indian relations deteriorated, China gradually shifted its position toward public support of Pakistan's stance on the dispute. By the 1970s, Beijing stood firmly behind Pakistan's position on Kashmir. The Chinese position began to change again in the late 1970s as Beijing and New Delhi moved toward normalization. During his February 1979 visit to China, then Indian coalition government foreign minister Atal B. Vajpayee pointed out to his Chinese hosts that Beijing's pro-Islamabad position on Kashmir created an unnecessary complication for the development of Sino-Indian relations. China began to adjust its position on Kashmir in order to pave the way for Sino-Indian normalization. In June 1980, Dens Xiaoping, Chinese vice-premier and paramount leader, told a visiting Indian delegation that the Kashmir issue was a bilateral dispute and should be resolved by India and Pakistan peacefully. (9) Since then, China and India have moved toward normalization of bilateral relations, with Beijing returning to a position of neutrality even as it sought to balance the need to satisfy Pakistan's demands for support and the growing interest in...

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