The China-Pakistan political and military relationship has significant implications for South Asia. China's military assistance has bolstered Pakistan's defense capabilities and played a critical role in its nuclear weaponization. This strategic relationship, aimed at counterbalancing India, also provides military basing options for Chinese naval power projection and technology transfers for Pakistan’s defense industry, including ballistic missiles and advanced platforms such as the JF-17 fighter jet. China’s most crucial support was its clandestine assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, which involved the direct transfer of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium as well as nuclear weapons designs and their delivery platforms. These investments serve both states’ objectives of restraining India, limiting U.S. influence on Pakistan, and giving China a presence in the Arabian Sea at the doorstep of the Indian Ocean to collect intelligence, project power, and potentially engage in coercive diplomacy. This “ironclad” relationship has altered the region's strategic environment, while the growing presence of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) is set to reshape maritime dynamics.
Pakistan’s intensifying economic, political, and security instability is not good news for China’s strategic investments. So, what are Beijing’s options? Before diving into them in detail, it is helpful to first take a snapshot of Pakistan’s crises to understand the current context. This is followed by an examination of the economic, security, and political characteristics of their deep-rooted relationship, which is critical to the strategic goals of both countries, before concluding with a run through of Beijing’s options.
Pakistan’s multiple crises
An overview of Pakistan’s crises illustrates the extent of its troubles, which are likely causing consternation in Beijing. Pakistan’s economy is under severe stress, with real GDP growth expected to slow sharply to 0.4% in the current fiscal year. Islamabad is also dealing with low foreign reserves, a depreciating currency, and high inflation. The reverberation of the ongoing economic crisis is evident from multiple indicators. These include the surge in inflation to 28.3% in July 2023, a sharp rise in food prices by 40%, and a 39.88% increase in electricity costs over the previous fiscal year, all of which are amplifying the financial burden on Pakistani households. The ongoing price surge has hit Pakistanis in their wallets, reducing disposable income levels and increasing friction with the political establishment. Another indicator showcasing the worsening economic climate is the projected poverty rate, which is forecast to increase to 37.2% this year, up from 21.9% in 2018.
Pakistan's deepening economic turmoil compounds the ongoing political crisis. The removal and subsequent three-year imprisonment of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan in August on corruption charges have reshaped the political landscape. Khan's conviction, barring him from public office for five years, has left his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in disarray. This shift benefits the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which gained from the PTI's decline after Khan’s arrest. The PTI's strength has notably waned due to the targeting of its leadership, many of whom have been arrested or are in hiding. This was prompted by the military’s crackdown after the PTI's violent protests on May 9, triggered by Khan’s previous arrest. Khan's outspoken criticism of the military, including personal attacks on Army Chief Asim Munir, led to his inevitable removal. Without Khan in public view and its leadership missing in action, the PTI is unlikely to feature as a top political contender in the country’s next general election, although it could still be a spoiler.
The political field is likely to face additional stress with the potential return of exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The three-time prime minister and leader of the PML-N was disqualified from office by the country’s Supreme Court over undeclared assets. Following debarment, the elder Sharif nominated his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, as his replacement for party head and prime minister, who succeeded Khan after he was toppled from power. The Sharif brothers’ political play ensured that the country's prime ministership remained firmly within the family following Khan’s dismissal.
The vexed political environment must also contend with a brewing constitutional crisis. Following Khan's removal from office, the younger Sharif led Pakistan for 15 months as prime minister, stepping down on Aug. 9 in preparation for upcoming elections. The current caretaker government has a maximum of three months to hold elections, yet a census demanding constituency boundary revisions is poised to delay the process, triggering a constitutional crisis. This delay could grant the Sharif brothers, the PPP, and other players an opportunity to strengthen their influence and weaken Khan's PTI. Such a revised electoral timeline would align with the military's interests, enabling it to exert influence, much as it did when backing Khan earlier. Beyond overt interventions, the military's covert sway remains significant, as no elected prime minister has completed a full term since Pakistan's independence in 1947.
Despite Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban's rise to power in August 2021, its security situation is deteriorating. The Afghan Taliban's return has enabled the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) to strengthen itself by rearming, recruiting, and expanding operational capabilities to launch cross-border attacks from Afghanistan. The link between the Taliban and the TTP is evident as the former accepted the latter's pledge of allegiance to the Islamic Emirate. This resurgence emboldened the TTP, causing it to end its ceasefire with Islamabad in November 2022 after peace negotiations failed. Pakistan has faced a surge of attacks over the past 10 months, exceeding 123 this year alone, as the TTP leverages its ideological alliance with the revitalized Afghan Taliban across the Durand Line. Consequently, Gen. Munir warned the Afghan Taliban of an “effective response” if they fail to halt cross-border TTP attacks originating from Afghanistan.
Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan face escalating terrorist attacks, hindering Chinese investments and denting Pakistan's security image in China's perception. Notably, Baloch insurgent groups like the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), engaged in a longstanding conflict with Pakistan, have specifically targeted Chinese interests. Examples include the 2018 attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi; a 2019 bus bombing that killed 13, including nine Chinese nationals; and a 2022 suicide bombing at Karachi University's Confucius Institute, claiming the lives of three Chinese teachers and a Pakistani citizen.
Pakistan’s increasing dependence on China
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $62 billion Chinese infrastructure development project initiated a decade ago, exemplifies the convergence of Pakistan and China's economic, security, and political ties. Launched in July 2013, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif touted CPEC as a transformative initiative that would reshape Pakistan's trajectory through development gains and sustainable growth. Comprising interconnected projects including highways, railways, power plants, and energy pipelines from western China to Gwadar Port in Pakistan's Balochistan Province, CPEC aims to link China to the port for energy security, offering an alternative route in the event of a blockade of the Strait of Malacca, a key global maritime chokepoint. Although the road and rail infrastructure have been built, transporting oil and natural gas overland is prohibitive, rendering the route unviable thus far.
Although CPEC has delivered on large infrastructure projects, it has failed to produce sustainable growth. Instead, it has added to Pakistan’s mounting external debt, which exceeds $120 billion, with one-third owed to China. Despite Pakistan’s significant debt to its foreign creditors, Beijing is likely more willing to support Islamabad than others, as it needs a strong Pakistan to counter India’s growing power.
India’s rising economic and military power has propelled it to confront aggression more assertively. This was evident in 2016 and 2019 when India conducted limited ground operations and air strikes on Pakistani terrorist camps. These actions demonstrate India's determination to change the rules of the game. Despite the risk of escalation, India's strategic calculus has shifted. This shift is exemplified by the substantial response in 2020 after the Galwan Valley clash, when India deployed around 70,000 troops along with heavy weaponry and air assets, including drones, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. This deployment bolstered India's military posture, maintaining credible forces to deter or deny future moves by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Although ongoing talks aim to de-escalate LAC tensions, the situation remains precarious due to the PLA's encroachments into Indian-controlled territory, resulting in violent confrontation.
China’s options are increasingly aligned with the Pakistani military
As Pakistan’s relative stability has frayed, Beijing increasingly relies on the Pakistani military establishment. This arrangement supports the Pakistani military’s domestic image that it is the guardian and the glue that holds the country together. This image also helps to propagate the myth that the Pakistani military is unlike its civilian counterparts: corrupt, incompetent, and seeking only to advance their selfish interests for political power and personal enrichment.
The Pakistani military's dual role in both national security and economic sectors raises concerns regarding transparency, corruption, and the distribution of wealth. This dynamic not only affects the economy but also has political ramifications, leading to imbalances favoring the military and undermining democratic processes. For instance, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif's recent government shifted authority from civilians to the military through the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). As a result, the military has gained more control over CPEC as well as domestic and foreign investments, thereby codifying its role in shaping key domestic economic policy decisions. Despite the military’s intrusion into the political and economic domains, it maintains the narrative that it is the country's protector, even though its praetorian role perpetuates power imbalances.
As Pakistan’s civilian influence across the political domain diminishes, there is one point of authority that matters for China: the military. Although the military might relish the economic and political opportunities its increasingly dominant role presents, it also cannot distance itself from the worsening crises confronting the country. As these crises gain traction, China can exercise at least three options to secure its strategic goals, including CPEC.
First, it could negotiate more concessions from future Pakistani civilian governments through its relationship with the Pakistani military so that more Chinese firms are awarded lucrative contracts with less oversight. As Pakistan owes one-third of its debt to China, over $30 billion, Beijing is in a comfortable position to demand concessions to keep its funding tap turned on.
Second, and linked to the earlier point, Beijing could delay, decrease, or renegotiate investments and debts to strike more favorable terms, such as pressuring the Pakistani government to prioritize debt repayments to ensure CPEC’s financial profitability instead of other creditors.
Third, due to the rapidly deteriorating security environment, China can demand the Pakistani government and military take more concerted action against terrorist and insurgent groups targeting its investments and citizens. Although a stable security environment is desirable, there are significant risks that kinetic responses to complex political challenges, ideological issues, and historical grievances could amplify discontent and violence, resulting in an overall net negative. Moreover, taking military action at the behest of a foreign power would further widen the chasm between the Pakistani state and society, opening vectors for internal and external exploitation, including by the coterie of terrorist groups taking refuge in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military’s policy of diluting the civilian government’s power serves its interests but is ill-considered. One of the significant benefits of elected governments, even incompetent ones, is that they do not last long due to elections. But if elected governments are removed from power before a full term due to covert or overt military intervention, the responsibility for an increasingly fragile state shifts to the power that precipitated their undoing. Despite the increasing fragility, Pakistan’s military masters appear to want all of the power but few of the responsibilities because it is easy to blame another institution for the country’s ills. This approach sells and has worked remarkably well for Pakistan’s military. Yet, the military establishment, due to its inherent structure and the role it plays in Pakistan’s politics, lacks the ability and willingness to hold itself accountable. This lack of accountability highlights the importance of democratic elections and governments as they serve as vital pressure release valves for the public, making it possible to change elected leaders for poor performance. China should ask what happens if the military cannot deliver. Moreover, Beijing should also consider whether the strategic decision to support the praetorian state based on opportunistic calculations could have adverse consequences. This is particularly crucial because there is no viable alternative, as elected representatives have been stripped of their authority and rendered increasingly powerless. These representatives now derive their power and survival not from public support per se, but from the military that believes it can better serve the people.
Dr. Nishank Motwani is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute and an Edward S. Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.
Photo by ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.