ISSN 2330-717X

Pakistan Playing The China Card: How Substantial? – Analysis


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

Pakistan’s overall thrust in its foreign and strategic policies has been to keep up its sleeve the ‘China Card’ as an ace to play against the United States in the final end-game. The question was not ‘if’ but ‘when’ it would be required to play the same. The strategic denouement between the United States and Pakistan had set in some time in 2007 and the tipping point finally arrived in 2011 with the liquidation of Osama bin Laden in the major garrison city of Abbottabad, deep within Pakistan.

In the wake of the United States Abbottabad liquidation operation, and the follow-up visit of the Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani to China for a four day visit, strategic analysts have had a field day that Pakistan has played the ‘China Card’. This is an inaccurate link-up as the Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit to China was a pre-planned visit, planned much in advance marking the 60th anniversary of the establishment of China-Pakistan relationship which now stands as an enhanced strategic nexus.

In actual fact Pakistan had already publicly played the ‘China Card’ well before his recent visit to Beijing when in a week after the Abbottabd operation the Pakistani Prime Minister on the floor of Pakistan National Assembly implicitly asserted so.

In fact the ‘China Card’ was earlier played by Pakistan under General Musharraf’s regime when he strongly advocated that China should be included in any discussions on the future of Afghanistan in a bid to dilute United States predominance over the issue.

Recently, before the Abbottabad operation when the Pakistani Prime Minister visited Kabul accompanied by Pakistan Army Chief, General Kayani to hold discussions with the Afghanistan President, both strongly argued that Afghanistan should cut its linkages with the United States, and like Pakistan embraces China.

China - Pakistan Relations
China - Pakistan Relations

The planned visit of the Pakistani Prime Minister to China could not have come at a more opportune time for Pakistan as it would have afforded an opportunity for Pakistan to enlist Chinese support for Pakistan Army cornered by the United States with threats of a repetition of Abbottabad-pattern unilateral military operations against the remainder top hierarchy of the Al Qaeda ensconced in Pakistan. Also hanging like a Damocles sword over the Pakistan Army is the American declaration that should another 9/11 emanate from Pakistan, the United States would not hesitate to wipe off Pakistan from the map.

China sensing an exploitative opportunity readily agreed to assist Pakistan with rhetorical support of how much Pakistan had done to fight terrorism and deserves international support. More significantly, China announced that it had decided to supply 50 new JF17 combat aircraft to Pakistan besides business investments.

In all the news reportage and academic analyses on Pakistan Army playing the ‘China Card’ what was missing was how substantial was the threat of Pakistan to play the ‘China Card’ against the United States?

This Paper attempts to analyze the main theme of this Paper under the following heads:

  • Pakistan Cannot Afford to Jettison The Privileged Relationship & Attendant Strategic, Military and Economic Crutches Provided by the United States
  • China Ill-Equipped to Step Into United States Shoes in Pakistan
  • Pakistan-China Strategic Nexus Equation Far Outweighed By China’s Stakes in a Functional China-United States Strategic Engagement
  • China Unlikely to Militarily Confront a United States Military Intervention in Pakistan

Pakistan Cannot Afford to Jettison The Privileged Relationship & Attendant Strategic, Military and Economic Crutches Provided by The United States

Pakistan and the Pakistan military hierarchy display schizophrenic behavior when it comes to Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. Both hate the United States as surveys show, yet both cannot do without the strategic, military and economic crutches that the United States provides which sustain the Pakistan Army and the Pakistani state.

The United States for far too long has accorded a privileged relationship to the Pakistan Army not for any particular reasons of the actual power potential of the Pakistan Army but more because of the “mischief potential” and to curb the “strategic nuisance and irritational value” of the Pakistan Army in relation to its nuclear weapons arsenal.

In 2011, the veneer has worn thin and seeing the sordid record of the Pakistan Army in the last decade to undermine and backstab the United States war-effort in Afghanistan, a Pakistan-United States strategic denouement has been witnessed in the last two to three years.

The Pakistan Army despite a civilian government in Islamabad continues to direct and control Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially when it pertains to USA, China, India and Afghanistan. Hence it would be fair to assume that Pakistan Prime Minister’s implicit reference to the China Card in his National Assembly address on the Abbottabad attack was made at the instance of the Pakistan Army hierarchy.

Pakistan Army has continuously followed a ‘hedging strategy’ in its approaches to both the United States and China. Strategically, Pakistan Army ever since 1962 has heavily tilted towards China.

The timing of Pakistan re-asserting the China Card against the United States is ominous in that never before has the Pakistan Army stood so cornered by the United States and called upon forcefully to deliver on its strategic pledges made in the last decade.

Pakistan therefore today stands on the horns of a dilemma. Its instinctive impulses and also the general mood of the people are clamoring for the Pakistan Army to stand upto the United States and in other words end the Pakistan Army’s privileged military relationship with the United States.

This is easier said than done, as the Pakistan nation-state and more specifically the Pakistan Army would lose their vital “life-support systems” provided by the United States.

Pakistan today has no other options, not even China, to provide it with alternative crutches and life-support systems to sustain it.

China Ill-Equipped to Step into United States Shoes in Pakistan

China with its over-sized strategic investments made in Pakistan extending from provision of nuclear weapons and long range missiles, nuclear power reactors and being the mainstay of Pakistan Armed Forces military inventories ranging from 70% to 80% can ill-afford to let all this go waste by not standing up and with Pakistan against the United States .

China has vast geostrategic stakes in Pakistan in the form of Pakistan having accepted China’s strategic intrusiveness to develop the Karakoram Highway, its eventual linking up with Gwadur Port and spreading an energy pipelines grid traversing Pakistani territory and linking it with China. Pakistan has given China a geostrategic foothold on the Arabian Sea and in the vicinity of the vital Hormuz Straits.

China today is militarily strong and has overwhelming financial strengths. It can easily step into United States shoes in Pakistan and add substance to Pakistan playing the China Card. But the big question is whether at the current juncture China would be so inclined to do so?

China adding substance to Pakistan Army playing the China Card against the United States would be strongly determined not only by the centrality of Pakistan in China’s strategic calculus but also more by its readings on Pakistan’s viability to continue as a stable nation-state, the South Asian strategic equations and the situation in East Asia where China has bigger stakes than to come to the rescue of its strategic protégé in South Asia.

China has in recent times shied away from financially bailing out Pakistan during its financial crises despite its vast holdings of monetary reserves. In terms of lending its considerable might behind Pakistan, the historical record of China has been of vociferous rhetorical support for Pakistan rather than anything substantial in terms of realpolik coercion in Pakistan’s confrontations with India. So it becomes difficult to imagine and come to a firm conclusion that when it comes to standing-up forcefully in favor of Pakistan against the United States, the Chinese are well-equipped today in terms of political will to add substance to Pakistan playing the China Card against the United States.

Pakistan-China Strategic Nexus Equation Far Outweighed by China’s Stakes in a Functional China-United States Strategic Engagement

The Pakistan-China Strategic Nexus equation has paid handsome dividends to China in terms of balancing India and restricting India strategically to South Asian confines. Likewise Pakistan has gained handsomely from the Pakistan-China Nexus in terms of Chinese provision of nuclear weapons and missiles to the Pakistan Army. But this highly mutually benefiting strategic power-play between China and Pakistan ends within South Asian confines.

China in her aspirational bid to emerge as the second pole in a future bipolar world has to contend with the United States. China by any stretch of imagination despite grim strategic forecasts by some of decline of United States power, cannot emerge as the global superpower contender in confrontation to the United States. If China so far has reached its current salience in the global power calculus, it has been able to do so because the United States because of its fear of Russian resurgence and other geopolitical factors willingly ceded strategic space to China.

From China’s demonstrated record so far it can be safely inferred that China despite her strategic brinkmanship games that it plays with the United States shirks in the end-game from an all-out confrontation with the United Sates. China can therefore be assumed to place a much bigger premium on a functional strategic engagement with the United States and that China’s strategic interests would dictate that this even outweighs its Pakistan-China Nexus equation.

China Unlikely to Militarily Confront a United States Military Intervention in Pakistan

The acid test of the substantiveness of Pakistan playing the China Card would lie in the certainty of China militarily intervening to forestall a United States military intervention in Pakistan. The way things are unfolding in Pakistan where the Pakistan Army is ill at ease to adapt to the twin challenges of loss of domestic public support and a trust-deficit with the United States may drive it into an adverse situation where the United States may be egged on by Pakistan Army’s delinquencies to opt for a military intervention in Pakistan to defang Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

The crucial question to be considered is that in such an eventuality whether China would step in militarily in favor of Pakistan to confront the United States, something which the Pakistan Army would ardently hope for.

Some reputed strategic analysts have opined that if ever there is a war between China and the United Sates it would not be over Taiwan but over Pakistan. It does make a lot of sense for such an assertion when China’s oversized strategic stakes and investments in Pakistan are considered and all those would stand endangered should a United States military intervention against Pakistan ever occur. In terms of strategic eventualities nothing should ever be ruled out.

However there is one major strategic complication for China should it feel inclined or be drawn into a military conflict with the United States over Pakistan. This is that such a military confrontation of China with the United States over Pakistan would not be restricted to South Asian confines. China would then have to be prepared for a two-front war with the United States, the first in Pakistan and South Asia and this situation forcing the United Sates to open a second front in East Asia.

The major military and strategic question is whether China can afford a Two Front War with the United States and that too over Pakistan?

In such a ‘Two Front War’ in which the United States would be pushed into by China, dangers exist of the United States exploiting the simmering unrest in Tibet and Xingjian. Once again I would like to reassert that China has no ‘natural allies’ other than North Korea and Pakistan to stand by its side. The United States has many more options in this regard.

On balance therefore, it would be strategically foolish for China to let Pakistan Army belabor under the strategic impression that it has a substantive China Card to play against the United States. It would still be more foolish for the Pakistan Army to presume that the Islamic World would side with it in such a conflagration against the United States.

Concluding Observations

In the current scenario following the outcry within Pakistan against the Pakistan Army, even implicit references to playing the China Card by Pakistan Army amounts to bluff and bluster. All logical analyses point to the unlikelihood of China honoring any playing of the China Card by the Pakistan Army against the United States.

Within Pakistan there is a lot of discussion that Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the Sinnic Civilization would ally with the Islamic World against the Christian World is coming out true but one wonders whether the outcome would be in favor of the Sinnic Civilization-Islamic World combine and moreso when the Islamic World itself is unlikely to side actively with Pakistan against the United States.

The Pakistan Army has to come to grips with realities of its strategic asymmetries and limitations. Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons arsenal are neither a “strategic shield” nor a “strategic spear” and nor can China realistically provide a security umbrella as cover for Pakistan’s strategic waywardness especially when directed against the United States.

Pakistan Army’s China Card seemingly is not substantial as China for many years to come would not be able to afford a ‘Two Front War’ with the United States and certainly not over Pakistan.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

One thought on “Pakistan Playing The China Card: How Substantial? – Analysis

  • July 1, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    what a biased article repeating same rhetoric of Indian origin. Strategically, look for separatist movements of India in 182 states out of 630 approx. instead of maligning others


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