In an open letter to the China Daily while on a trip to China last February, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari described the Sino-Pakistan relationship thusly: 

Perhaps no relationship between two sovereign states is as unique and durable as that between Pakistan and China.

On the Pakistan side of the Himalayas, the mighty range that separates the two countries, China is seen as a true, time tested and reliable friend that has always come through for Pakistan. That the Pakistan-China friendship is higher than the peaks of Himalayas is now a truism without exaggeration. I am certain that on the Chinese side a similar sentiment exists for Pakistan. It is a friendship rooted in the hearts and minds of the people of the two countries.

Zardari was back in China last month at the Baoa Forum for Asia annual conference, at least his third visit to China since October.

Pakistan was the third non-communist country to acknowledge the People’s Republic of China, establishing diplomatic relations in 1951.  Today there is significant bilateral cooperation between the two neighbors on projects ranging from the current expansion/widening of the Karakoram Highway (“Friendship Road”) that links Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to Islamabad.  This project is funded with $327m from the Export Import Bank of China.  One reason for this infrastructure expansion is to improve overland linkages between the deep sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan and mainland China.  Gwadar was constructed in large part as a result of Chinese funding.  Other linkages between the two neighbors include the joint construction of the FC-1/ JF17 Multirole Fighter Aircraft and Pakistan’s observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which India also has.

China, like the United States, Europe and India, has a strong interest in a stable and secure Pakistan.  Chinese citizens have been kidnapped in Pakistan.  Chinese investment continues to grow.  Earlier this month the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced that it will be releasing a set of investment guidebooks encouraging Chinese companies in what countries to invest; Pakistan is in the top twenty countries of 160 listed.  An unstable and insecure Pakistan is not in the short or long-term best interests of China.

China should be prepared to take a more proactive approach to the perilous situation in its own backyard.  A good place to start would be to take a leaf out of the Obama administration’s book and declare its intention to listen, both to Pakistan and to the United States.  They could pledge financial assistance toward strengthening Pakistan’s civil society institutions.  Likewise, the Chinese could encourage the Pakistanis to reduce the number of troops along the western Indian/Pakistan border, effectually moving them to the Afghanistan/Pakistan side. 

However, inclusion of both Pakistan and Indian — perhaps even Afghanistan — into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would be a potential milestone.  China shares a border with all three countries.  Furthermore, this would be the first time that both the Indian and Pakistani militaries would take part in cooperative exercises.  The diffusion of tensions would not occur overnight, but both the Pakistan and Indian militaries operating together in a multilateral forum could assist in making South Asia a somewhat safer region.  In addition, China could benefit by removing some of the mysticism  — and for some the suspicion —  about the purpose and intentions of the SCO. 

Its charter states:

The main goals of the SCO are strengthening mutual confidence and good-neighbourly relations among the member countries; promoting effective cooperation in politics, trade and economy, science and technology, culture as well as education, energy, transportation, tourism, environmental protection and other fields; making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region, moving towards the establishment of a new, democratic, just and rational political and economic international order. 

This mission statement is applicable to Pakistan and South Asia.

Xinhua reported on April 19 there was an SCO exercise in Tajikistan involving “About 1,000 servicemen from Tajikistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China participated in the maneuvers staged at Fahrabad, 50 kms south of Dushanbe, practicing the release of hostages captured by Afghan terrorists…”  This is actually the type of operation that both the Pakistan and Indian militaries could benefit from.  China and the SCO have a responsibility within South Asia. Now is the time to consider the notion of implementing a constructive policy which incorporates Pakistan’s military, and by default the militaries of India and Afghanistan.  

Damien Tomkins is an intern in the Atlantic Council’s Asia Program.