When China was penniless and politically unfashionable just a few decades ago, it found friends and allies – besides a few Leftist pariahs and revolutionary oddballs – very hard to come by.
Today, as Chinese pockets bulge, would-be partners from across the globe can be found queuing outside China’s open door; and Beijing, eager to secure overseas markets for its sleepless shop floors and also new sources of raw materials on which to feed its voracious productive appetite, is all too happy to welcome them in. Barack Obama was the latest to make the pilgrimage: on his recent Asian tour, he spent one day visiting stalwart US ally Japan only to spend three in China turning on the charm.
But China, for all its newfound friends, still shows favour to those who stuck with it through the bad old days – and one of these long-time allies on China’s western border is still able to find favour in Beijing’s corridors of power.
A significant gesture of this enduring trust came in mid-November when China confirmed that Pakistan would become the first export customer for what is probably the most advanced fighter plane that the Chinese have ever built: the J-10. Pakistan is buying 36 of the aircraft – which is still new to China’s own air force – for at least $1.4bn.
The J-10 sale is the latest, reaffirming chapter in a long story of collaboration – military and otherwise – between two countries whose other allies have often proved hard to find and even harder to keep. A shared mistrust of India and the Soviet Union created the bond during an otherwise lonely Cold War. And while the US has been a fair-weather ally to the Pakistanis, selling them F-16s one year only to slap sanctions on them the next, the Chinese have consistently offered Islamabad a sympathetic ear.
Revelations of just how deep this sympathy once ran have only just emerged: China, it is said, kick-started Pakistan’s nuclear programme back in the early 1980s, gifting Islamabad a nugget of weapons-grade uranium complete with easy-to-follow bomb-making instructions – the result of a deal struck by Mao Zedong himself several years earlier. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is now thought superior to India’s in both size and effectiveness.
Since then, the roots of Sino-Pakistani military co-operation have spread. Besides the J-10, China and Pakistan have been jointly developing another, less sophisticated aircraft: the JF-17 Thunder. The plane is both cheap and capable, and the partners – as well as flying it themselves – hope to make it the mainstay of Third World air forces across Africa and Asia. Much of the Pakistani military’s equipment, besides aircraft, is also Chinese made; China has built a major seaport at Gwadar in southwest Pakistan – a boon for Pakistani commerce and for Chinese strategic interests in the Indian Ocean; and last year China agreed to build two civil nuclear reactors for Islamabad, just as the US was itself committing to a similar project in India.
Washington’s growing support for Delhi could be what finally drives Pakistan irretrievably into the Chinese camp. The war against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and beyond has forced the US to cultivate Pakistan over the last eight years, for all its closeness to China; but US military assistance has often been begrudging, as well as conditional. Let the Indians have them, many Pakistanis now think. American weapons might be a lot flashier, but in the end the Chinese will sell you guns without asking what they’re for.
Islamabad’s political realists may also point to a certain indignity at the heart of China and America’s Pakistani tug-of-war. Pakistan, facing financial ruin last year, asked its friends for several billion dollars-worth of help. Neither Beijing nor Washington picked up the phone.