Book Reviews

"The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia's New Geopolitics," by Andrew Small

By Book Review Editor
Wednesday, February 25, 2015, 8:26 AM

Published by Oxford University Press (2015) 

Reviewed by Bruce Riedel

In December 2006, the Chinese People's Liberation Army and the Pakistani Army conducted their first-ever joint counterterrorism exercises -- practicing intelligence collection and sharing, special forces tactics, and other military operations to enable them to jointly fight terrorism five years after 9/11.  The Pakistanis hosted the exercise at their national military academy in Abbottabad, just north of the capital of Islamabad.  The exercise was a political symbol as well as a military and counterterrorism event:  it symbolized the "all weather" friendship of Islamic Pakistan and Communist China.

Meanwhile, just a half mile from the Kakul Military Academy, the most-wanted terrorist ever, Osama Bin Laden, was enjoying the new hideout he had moved into the year before.  Bin Laden no doubt followed the procession of helicopters over his lair, as senior Pakistani and Chinese dignitaries flew from Islamabad to Abbottabad to attend the exercise and laud the Chinese-Pakistan entente.  High value target number one was in Pakistan's front yard as it discussed fighting terror with its closest ally.

Now we have an authoritative study of that pivotal entente.  Andrew Small's The China-Pakistan Axis:  Asia's New Geopolitics is a concise and informative study of one of the world's most important state-to-state relationships.

The Beijing-Islamabad axis has its roots in the 1962 Sino-Indian war.  The rapid defeat of Indian forces in 1962 by the PLA was closely studied by India's arch-rival.  The dictator in charge in Pakistan in 1962, Field Marshall Ayub Khan, tried to extort concessions from India on the Kashmir dispute during the war, but President John F. Kennedy told Ayub the U.S. would not tolerate Pakistan blackmailing India in its hour of weakness.  After the war Ayub tilted Pakistan increasingly toward China.

Pakistan's next dictator, Yahya Khan, made possible Richard Nixon's opening to China.  The Pakistani channel was the key to Henry Kissinger's secret diplomacy with Mao Zedong.

Pakistan's third dictator, General Zia ul Huq, moved the country ever further toward China.  Secret collaboration on nuclear weapons gave Zia the bomb and missiles to deliver them.  China provided the bulk of the arms for the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan -- arms paid for by the CIA and the Saudis.  If America was the quartermaster of the mujahedeen, then China was their armorer.

Small provides a well-researched account of how this axis emerged, offering a sharp focus on the nuclear dimension.  He has drawn on extensive interviews in both China and Pakistan as well as thorough research in the memoirs of the players involved.  The book is a wealth of data on a previously under-researched subject.

While geopolitics and arms are the core of the axis, extensive efforts at building economic infrastructure and trade have largely been expensive failures.  The Gwadar port development project on the Arabian Sea, for example, has not produced a Pakistani Dubai or a Chinese Gibraltar.  The Karakoram Highway linking China to Pakistan is an amazing engineering accomplishment, but there is little truck traffic on the road.  Economics don't drive this relationship.

Terrorism is the biggest hurdle in the axis.  Pakistan is home to China's top terrorist enemy, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which fights for Uighur freedom in Xinjiang.  As Small relates, American drones have done far more damage to ETIM than Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence spies.  Indeed, the ISI plays many of the same games with the Uighurs that it does with Al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda and ETIM enjoy very close connections, according to Small's research.

Beijing and Islamabad manage these tensions for the sake of their larger geopolitical goals.  As America exits Afghanistan, the China-Pakistan axis is preparing for the next phase in the great game in Central Asia.  This past January, when President Barack Obama traveled to India to watch the Republic Day parade in New Delhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, the country's strong man, was in China meeting his counterparts.  The geopolitics of Asia was on vivid display.   The region's dual axes and their evolving relationships -- India and America on the one hand, and Pakistan and China on the other -- will be central to the global order in our times.

(Bruce Riedel is Director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989.)