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China: Revisiting the 2005 Friendship Treaty with Pakistan

As appeared in www.saag.org

The China-Pakistan Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good-neighbourly Relations, signed and ratified by both the sides on April 5, 2005 and January 4, 2006 respectively, in the main, binds the two nations to desist from ‘joining any alliance or bloc which infringes upon the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the other side’. It also forbids actions of similar nature by both that include the conclusion of treaties of this nature with a third country.

As a clear sign that the treaty would continue to occupy a key position in future bilateral relations, the Joint Statement issued at Islamabad at the conclusion of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Pakistan (November 23-26, 2006) described it as one providing ‘an important legal foundation for the Strategic Partnership’ between Pakistan and China. The Treaty also found a special mention in Hu Jintao’s address to Pakistan nation, broadcast live by radio and television networks. Also, while there has so far been no official or media release in Pakistan of the full text of the Treaty, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) chose to publish the full text on the very next day of signing (People’s Daily Online edition, April 6, 2005).

The difference in emphasis being given to the Treaty by the leadership and officials in Pakistan and China deserves mention. While Pakistan seems to focus on the significance of the Treaty in terms of protecting its security, the Chinese side appears to downplay the security aspect, laying stress only to the importance of the document to the overall bilateral relations. While the Ambassador of Pakistan in China Salman Bashir highlighted Beijing’s ‘clear, unambiguous and categorical assurance’ to Islamabad through the Treaty, to ‘defend Pakistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity’, Chinese leader Jia Qinglin described the Treaty as a ‘blue print for future development of bilateral ties’. The PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s comments were brief, calling the Treaty a ‘historic document with great practical sense’. What should not be missed at the same time is that unofficial opinions in China tended to treat the document as a symbol of China-Pakistan alliance. For e.g., an authoritative PRC scholar Professor Yu Dunxin of the Ministry of State Security-affiliated China Institute for Contemporary International Relations said that ‘through the Treaty, the two countries are bound to work as close allies against any foreign threat’ (APP, November 22, 2006)

For Pakistan, which in the past had been a member of the CENTO and SEATO alliances, the Treaty with China is unique with no similar pacts with any other country. Regarding China, the Treaty marks it the first one with a nation in South Asia; outside the region, the PRC had signed friendship treaties with countries like the DPRK (1961), Myanmar (1961), Japan (1978), Russia (2001), Uzbekistan (2005) and Afghanistan (2006). The motivating factors for Beijing in concluding these treaties were: countering perceived US hegemony (Russia, Uzbekistan), drumming up support to one-China policy (Myanmar, Japan and Russia), making progress in border demarcation (Myanmar and Russia), ensuring safety of Xinjiang through cooperation in counter-terrorism field (Russia, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan), neutralising US influence in Central Asia (Russia, Uzbekistan) and benefiting from economic and trade cooperation (Russia, Japan, Afghanistan).

There are many things in common between China’s treaty with Russia (July 2001) and that with Pakistan (April 2005). Both the documents have almost identical titles. Opposition to US hegemony, counter-terrorism and energy cooperation have been among China’s objectives in both the cases. Both the treaties have been described as having provided a legal foundation to respective bilateral relations. The theme of “friends for ever, enemies never” dominated the atmosphere surrounding the Sino-Russian treaty; the corresponding theme when China-Pakistan Treaty was concluded was “all weather friendship”. The Treaty with Russia, which came close on the heels of formation of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, paved the way for holding the first ever China-Russia joint military exercise later (August 2005). Not long before signing their 2005 Treaty, China and Pakistan organised their first ever-joint anti-terrorism exercise (August 2004). Also, the Treaty was followed by a joint China-Pakistan search and rescue Navy drill in November 2005.

What have been the gains for Pakistan and China in concluding the Treaty? Taking the case of Pakistan first, it becomes clear, that the Treaty in reality conforms to Islamabad’s strategy of using its close ties with China as leverage against perceived threat from India. The strategy still holds good for Pakistan despite the fast changes occurring in South Asia, marked by increasing signs of a shift in perceptions of the US and China about India. Pakistan may not have missed that the atmosphere prior to signing of the Treaty was being dominated by US policy announcements to help India to ‘become a major world power in the 21st century’, a status far more significant than its position of a “Non-NATO ally” of the US. Pakistan may have also noticed that China on its part has been adopting a somewhat neutral position on Kashmir issue, besides giving a new importance to India as a rising global economic and political power. Pakistan’s other aims in signing the Treaty seemed to include strengthening of military relations with China, specifically in procurement from the latter-weapon systems and missile as well as nuclear technology, in addition to getting benefits coming from cooperation with the PRC in important sectors like energy and trade.

For China also, the India angle seems to have been an influential factor behind its treaty with Pakistan. The PRC is engaging India no doubt, to suit to its own interests (stable neighbourhood for modernisation), but it is also simultaneously following a strategy to isolate India in the region by getting a foothold in other South Asian nations through building with them a network that are of political, economic, and military nature. On one hand, China is assuring that it has ‘no selfish’ gains in South Asia (as said by President Hu Jintao in India) and on the other, through the Treaty, it is giving signals of a willingness to ally with Pakistan against India. China’s intentions in essence thus seem to be contradictory.

There is also a US factor concerning China joining Pakistan in signing the Treaty. The growing strategic concerns of China in recent years have mainly been about further firming up of the US-Japan alliance in East Asia, the increasing US clout in Central Asia and the growing US strategic importance to India in South Asia. In spite of certain improvements in bilateral ties, Beijing’s basic suspicions about the US strategy to contain China in the long run persist. The PRC may have perceived that a Treaty of this sort with Pakistan could mean that in any eventuality in future of China-US strategic competition in South Asia becoming acute, Islamabad would be treaty-bound in not supporting the US. Secondly, Pakistan’s pledge in the Treaty that it will not join any anti-China alliance (a US-led one by implication) may sound a positive factor for Beijing on Taiwan issue, a potential flashpoint in Sino-US relations. Also, Pakistan’s cooperation assured through the Treaty to oppose extremism, separatism and terrorism, is very much relevant to the PRC’s efforts to tackle the problem of separatism in its Xinjiang region, adjacent to Pakistan and Central Asian nations, with which the Uighur dissidents have always had links. The utility of Pakistan for China as a link with the Islamic world, particularly the resource rich Central Asia and benefits accruing from mutual economic and trade cooperation, are among other factors influencing China’s decision to sign the Treaty.

Islamabad has rejected the offer made (March 2006) by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a Pakistan-India Treaty of Peace, Security and Friendship, giving the reason that a solution to Kashmir issue should be found first. Under the circumstances therefore, it is likely that in the China-Pakistan Treaty, Pakistan would continue to find a convenient tool to hedge against India in coming years. In short, it can be said that the pressure on India from the nexus between China and Pakistan is not going to diminish immediately. How would the US policy towards the region progress further? What will be the results of the ongoing India-Pakistan peace talks on Kashmir and other disputes and the Sino-Indian initiatives for solving the contentious issues including the border? Answers to these questions, though concerning India and Pakistan, the two major powers in the region, will be crucial for obvious reasons to the determination of geo-political future of South Asia as a whole.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is former Director, Cabinet Secretariat and Government of India. email:dsrajan@gmail.com)

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