For years, Chinese and Pakistani leaders have described their relationship, forged by a common rivalry with their neighbor India, as “sweeter than honey”. But the Pakistani Army’s view of the relationship with China appears to be souring — and diverging from the political leadership’s.
Last month, after Prime Minister Imran Khan declined the Biden administration’s invitation to its Summit for Democracy, the Pakistani television news anchor Kamran Khan posted a video on social media denouncing the “wrong decision”, one he declared was made at China’s behest. (China was not invited to — or happy about — the summit.) The journalist lamented that, with that move, the prime minister had “put Pakistan openly in China’s lap”. He alleged that Beijing’s loans had “entrapped” Islamabad, and he even called for an “audit” of the pros and cons of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has brought billions of dollars in debt-driven energy and infrastructure investment to Pakistan.
In Pakistan, press freedom and politics lie in a gray area, with red lines carefully managed by the army. With a mere phone call or WhatsApp message, colonels can whip a transgressive editor or lawmaker into line.
So the explicit call to reconsider relations with China by one of Pakistan’s most prominent media voices is no random hot take. It reflects the consent, if not the orders, of the country’s khaki masters. Indeed, Pakistan’s praetorian army would have preferred, according to a retired U.S. diplomat, that Prime Minister Khan had attended President Biden’s summit — to reinvigorate a relationship with a superpower that’s been giving it the cold shoulder.
The generals, of course, have little love for democracy or, for that matter, America. What they do have is a sharp sense of realism and a firm belief that the army is the guardian of the national interest. (The army has directly ruled or commanded strong indirect political influence for most of Pakistan’s history.)
The army leadership must know it has no permanent friends among political forces at home or abroad. It constantly seeks strategic maneuverability, balancing domestic and foreign forces in response to changing realities and to avoid dependence on a single patron, proxy or ally.
The historically on-again-off-again U.S.-Pakistan relationship is a perfect example. The 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan brought Islamabad and Washington closer. Army-ruled Pakistan had no choice but to accept a slew of U.S. demands, including aiding the overthrow of a Taliban regime it saw as friendly.
But by the mid-2000s, Pakistan resumed covert support for the Taliban, aiming to force a negotiated U.S. withdrawal. Last year, Pakistan got what it wanted. But now, after spending two decades working to push America out of Afghanistan, the Pakistani Army appears to want it back in the region.
Because as U.S.-China competition intensifies, Pakistan’s army fears getting trapped in a cul-de-sac with Beijing. So it seeks to balance the two great powers by grasping on to areas of cooperation, including counterterrorism and trade, that could salvage relations with Washington.
The prime minister, in contrast, appears to be more driven by personal sentiments. He admires China’s political system, especially its gains against poverty and its ruthless anti-corruption measures. And he has an anti-American streak, which helps explain why he might be more receptive to Chinese pressure.
The army, though, doesn’t seem to hold such grudges. Its focus is the present and the future, which seem foreboding. Pakistan’s economy is sputtering, which could be a recipe for social and political unrest, as well as cuts in military spending.
As the tap from China dries up — given Beijing’s growing aversion to lend to high-risk countries — and Pakistan’s economic woes worsen, much of the army command see Mr. Khan’s hypernationalism as counterproductive truculence, and the military leaders increasingly view him as more of a liability than an asset. This helps explain the overtures to Washington, which include not just the democracy summit messaging but also granting a U.S. diplomat rare access into the tightly controlled, Chinese-operated port of Gwadar.
But the attempted pivot back to America most likely won’t go far. Goodwill in Washington has dried up, especially given Pakistani intelligence’s support for the Taliban. And Islamabad’s sins aren’t the sole driver of the U.S.-Pakistan divorce. Washington has wholeheartedly embraced India, seeking to advance its rise as a global power, even as that country moves toward Hindu nationalist authoritarianism. Time after time, Washington has allowed an “India exception” in its human rights or nuclear proliferation policies, emboldening New Delhi and endangering Islamabad.
With relations with Washington at a nadir in 2011, Islamabad turned to Beijing to obtain military hardware it couldn’t get from America, including drones and advanced aircraft. China and Pakistan accelerated their joint manufacturing of a low-cost fighter jet that forms the backbone of Pakistan’s air force. And Pakistan became the only foreign country with access to the military version of China’s Beidou satellite navigation service.
While Pakistan’s generals appear irked by the prospects of being trapped on China’s side in a new cold war, they also have benefited from Beijing’s new muscularity — like when India last year was forced to divert troops from the front lines with Pakistan toward the border with China.
Fears of a two-front war with China and Pakistan have restrained New Delhi’s posture toward Islamabad for now. But they also tighten the Indo-American embrace. Paradoxically, Pakistan’s partnership with China may be paying off too well.
To counter China, India is overcoming its inhibitions to align with the Americans, dilute its “strategic autonomy” and deepen bilateral defense cooperation. This in turn increases Pakistan’s dependence on China, its largest arms supplier and bilateral creditor. And that compounds the Pakistani Army’s fears of being strategically boxed in.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has learned the hard way that when it comes to trade and lending, its special relationship with China isn’t so special.
Islamabad in 2020 started trying to renegotiate the expensive electric power contracts it recklessly entered into with Chinese companies. Beijing not only refused to do so, but it insists that Islamabad repay $1.4 billion in arrears owed to Chinese power producers.
Pakistan put nearly all of its eggs into one basket and is learning the limits of what it means to be an “ally” of China. Its predicament offers lessons for other smaller countries on navigating a new era of the U.S.-China rivalry: Don’t blindly pursue China as an alternative to the United States. In commerce and trade, China’s approach is mercantilist for friends and foes alike.
And so while Pakistan’s army appears to be trying to distance itself, it might already be too late.
Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm specializing in the Middle East and South Asia. His research focuses on China-Pakistan relations.