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Book Review: The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics; By Sundeep Kumar. S

C3S Article no: 0021/2017

Publisher: Random House India (15 December 2015)

Andrew Small’s ‘The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics’ book covers almost all important bases that determine the relationship between two of the most important actors in the South Asian region – China and Pakistan. Small’s thesis on this relationship is formed around three basic principles: 1) Strengthen Pakistan’s defence capabilities to balance India by keeping the latter’s focus away from its disputed eastern borders with China, 2) China’s fear of encirclement by U.S on its Eastern coast and 3) most importantly, keeping away Islamic extremism from encroaching into Xinjiang, a Chinese province with ethnic Uighur Muslim minority, a section of whom have been involved in separatist activities.

With the foundations of wars against a perceived common enemy- India in 1962, 1965 and 1971, Small rightly identifies the fundamental nature of Beijing’s support to Islamabad in times of adversity. It is this basic trait that projects the distances China will be willing to traverse to stand by its all-weather friend. This characteristic of the ties between the two also tells us what China expects from Pakistan’s state machinery and its military.

The chapter on Pakistan’s nuclear program sheds light to the level of commitment China has showcased to Pakistan thorugh the 1980’s and 1990’s. This was despite the poor proliferation record of Pakistan. With a fragile internal security and the constant threat of militant attacks within Pakistan, the nuclear facilities could be at the risk of being targeted by terror groups. This, the author, views as one of China’s major concerns and the very reason why it wants a stable Pakistan. China at no cost wants to deal with the prospects of nuclear terrorism or let an Indo-Pak war escalate to a full-fledged nuclear conflict. This is well illustrated by Small through his understandings of the 1999 Kargil war.

There is a contrast between the economic ties and strategic ties in Sino-Pak relations. Chinese projects in Pakistan have been stalled repeatedly due to domestic political strife and security threats to Chinese workers in Pakistan’s troubled regions such as Balochistan. The non-viability of Chinese investments in Pakistan is explained in detail through Small’s take on the economic rationale behind these investments and projects. These projects and investments compliment more to the political and strategic relation between the two nations rather than the economic dividends gained by either side. This indicates how the Chinese are weighing their cards on heavily financed Chinese initiatives in Pakistan. A detailed study on the proposed expansion of Gwadar port and other projects are provided as case points to support these conclusions of the author.

As China grows into a global power with its economy and military beginning to be more assertive in its policies, the fear of encirclement by U.S around its coast persists. This has proven to be the driving factor for Beijing’s pursuit for an alternate route to bring in supplies in case of a blockade at the Malacca Strait. With a string of U.S allies on its eastern coast and states posing security threats in the form of militancy on its western borders, China views Pakistan as a passage for its movements towards west Asia and beyond. This insecurity has become more amplified with India and U.S increasing their defence cooperation. A deep analysis on China’s perceived threats on these lines is covered by Small.

The book provides a deep insight into the web of connections between the Chinese officials from PLA, Pakistan’s intelligence agency –  ISI and the various extremist groups that are based out of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) which borders a war-torn Afghanistan. There is an exclusive chapter on China’s efforts to tightrope dance with extremist groups such as the Taliban. The narrative offers an opportunity to foresee developments in ties between China,  Pakistan and Afghanistan which is crucial for China’s internal security, its workforce operating in the region and the realisation of its ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.

Beijing under the new leadership of Xi Jinping set out to play a more enhanced role in the shaping of post-war Afghanistan. Small argues that Beijing, unusual to its more cautious and neutral approach towards militant groups in the region has been proactive since the Americans were moving away from the region. Small suggests that Beijing was ever uneasy about the presence of American troops across its borders since the Afghan war began in 2001. With the American troops pulling out, Beijing found it necessary to stabilise the region for its own territorial security. China presents itself as the potential troubleshooter that could achieve national reconciliation in Afghanistan. This especially because it believes it has a leash over Pakistan’s military establishment, who are vital for bringing in all stakeholders to the negotiation table, which includes the Taliban.

While mentioning the Chinese position in the region, Small points out to the ideological difference between the militant groups of the 1990’s-2000’s and the current set of extremists. He says that it is more challenging for China to deal with a Wahhabi militant than with a Pashtunwali. This is more pronounced with the ISIS encouraging the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the militant group that has been fighting for the independence of Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims, to carry out attacks against the Chinese.

Though dedicating a full chapter – ‘Re-hyphenating India’, this is an area where the author has fallen short of his observations. Small, throughout the book, mentions Gilgit-Baltistan as Pakistan’s territory. India’s claims to the region are hardly referred to and India’s overall strategic concerns are not widely narrated. What may probably be required for this aspect to be explored in detail is an independent work by Small on the triangular relations between China-Pakistan and India in the current geopolitical atmosphere.

With an economic reasoning that is not entirely convincing and having no common political and religious ideology, the Sino-Pakistan relation is a perfect example of a realist world where pure geostrategic agenda develops bonds between nations. This is profoundly projected by the author. The book is an important work that has to be analysed and referred to by all international relations scholars specializing in South Asia. It is a commendable account of the special and pure geostrategic ties that China and Pakistan have developed over the decades since the 1960’s. His extensive research based on careful study of history and several interviews with officials from different countries involved in the region has enabled him to present a compelling narrative. Not many scholarly works are available on this ties with such depth and understanding due to the opacity of operations in the region by the ISI, PLA and the Governments of the two countries. This explains the monumental effort that has been put in by the author.

(Sundeep Kumar. S, Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). M Phil Scholar, International Relations, University of Madras.)

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