Imran Khan, Pakistan’s popular prime minister, was ousted from power in April this year. The coup was staged in the interests of the United States and Britain as both countries were heavily involved in regime change in Islamabad. It appears, however, that China was probably the main target of the coup.
Pakistan has been a cornerstone of China's strategy in Asia for decades. Close ties with Islamabad gave Beijing access to the Indian Ocean and a meaningful presence in the strategic region adjacent to the Persian Gulf. The security of China's western provinces was also ensured mainly by its "special relationship" with Pakistan.
Still, it seems almost inevitable that the Chinese will be driven out of Pakistan. On the other hand, the recent efforts made by Washington and London to "remove" Beijing from the region may produce the opposite effect by bringing such eternal rivals as China and India much closer. If that is the case, the world’s two largest nations are likely to shrug off the annoying supervision of the former colonial powers and start working together to determine the future of the entire Indo-Pacific region.
China established friendly relations with Pakistan shortly after the communist party came to power in Beijing. However, it was not until the 1960s that the relationship grew closer. At the time, Beijing chose Islamabad as a strategic ally in its standoff with India. In addition, China and Pakistan agreed on strategic cooperation and provided each other with political support on a number of occasions. Pakistan handed a part of the disputed region of Kashmir to China and supported Beijing on the issues of Xinjian and Taiwan. China, for its part, promised to help Pakistan in a major war with India and frequently provided Pakistan with military and economic aid. A separate page is a joint war with Pakistan and some Western countries to fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
As soon as Pakistan gained independence, the U.S. became its primary partner. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, the U.S. adjusted its regional policy and began improving relations with India. Washington objected to Islamabad's nuclear military program while turning a blind eye to similar projects undertaken by India. When Washington curtailed its military aid to Pakistan, China quickly stepped in. Close relations between Islamabad and Beijing gradually turned into a strategic alliance encompassing large-scale military and economic cooperation. Among other things, China helped Pakistan develop its nuclear industry and build missiles, aircraft and tanks. China also invested in several infrastructure projects, including upgrading the strategic Karakoram highway between the two countries. China's main objective was to secure access to the Indian Ocean via the port city of Gwadar at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. Having built a deep-water port, China intended to use Gwadar as a naval base.
However, the future of the China-Pakistan alliance was called into question following the ouster of Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, who focused his policies on Pakistan’s national interests and sought to develop ties with China and Russia. The vote of no confidence against Imran Khan was orchestrated shortly after CIA chief William Burns met with Pakistan’s top brass, convincing them to replace the charismatic prime minister with opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif, a member of an influential pro-British clan from Punjab.
Traditionally, China did not have an issue with military coups, Islamabad’s "pro-Western" stance or the lack of independence displayed by Pakistan’s heads of state. Now things have heated up due to the ongoing war in Europe and an unprecedented level of confrontation across the world. China is likely to be driven out of Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan may be used by other forces to counter China’s influence in Afghanistan and Xinjiang without regard to Islamabad’s national interests.
Actually, China is already facing challenges in Pakistan. For example, shortly after the downfall of Imran Khan, terrorist groups became active again. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), in April 2022, the number of terrorist attacks increased by 24% compared to March. Most of these attacks occurred in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, two Pakistani provinces that border Afghanistan. Incidentally, Gwadar, the port city coveted by the Chinese, is also located in Balochistan. Several Chinese institutions were targeted almost immediately. On April 26, 2022, the Balochistan Liberation Army attacked the University of Karachi, killing the director of the local office of the Confucius Institute and two of its staff members.
The terrorists have always been open about their intentions to target the Chinese, saying that they oppose China's presence in Gwadar and large-scale investment in the province. Understandably, Pakistani authorities and China’s representatives strongly condemned the attack in Karachi. In addition, an unusually stern warning came from Beijing. Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Chinese state newspaper Global Times called for air strikes against Pakistan-based militants who threaten China’s national interests and citizens. In addition to the acts of terror in Pakistan, China also has to worry about mounting tensions in Afghanistan. Beijing has just made a deal with the new Taliban government to secure Chinese interests in the country.
The growing regional instability and risks associated with Beijing’s reliance on Pakistan may gradually prompt China to revise its strategy in South Asia. Beijing is primarily interested in peace and stability in the region to ensure Chinese trade and economic interests in the Indian Ocean basin. The precarious state of world trade and the unfolding crisis in the West encourage China to explore peaceful, stable and safe markets. Oddly enough, to this end, China may reach out to its eternal rival India, which is also trying to take centre stage (if not as a global player, then certainly as a regional power) amid the unfolding crisis in the West.
China-India relations became warmer after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, which was underscored by the April visit by Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. "China does not share the so-called 'unipolar Asia' concept and respects India's traditional role in the region. If China and India speak in unison, the world will listen to them. If China and India hold hands, the whole world will pay attention," said Wang Yi during his visit to the Indian capital.
According to Wang Yi, China and India, as two major powers in Asia, must work together to focus on national renewal without posing any threat to each other. These strategic statements are based on a solid economic foundation. Despite recent border disputes, trade between the two countries is growing rapidly. For the first time in history, bilateral trade topped $100 billion in 2021, reaching as much as $125 billion in turnover. The upward trend has continued this year. In the first quarter of 2022, trade turnover grew by 15% compared to the same period last year. As the crisis in Europe and the West deepens, a new geopolitical balance may emerge in Asia. In other words, China and India are on track to sideline external players to determine the region’s future together.