HIGHER THAN THE HIMALAYAS
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI WITH PRESIDENT XI ON HIS G20 STOPOVER IN SEPTEMBER
factor poses new challenges for a sensitive relationship. “We know China and Pakistan have a longstanding strategic investment, but what one can say with a degree of confidence is that their strategic relations are certainly not getting eroded; if anything, they are getting stronger,” says Kantha, the former ambassador. “For China,” he adds, “the relationship with Pakistan is clearly important, and some now describe Pakistan as China’s only ally.” For much of the past two decades, the lofty rhetoric China and Pakistan often used to describe their relations as “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the oceans, and sweeter than honey” was not often reflected in reality. This was, after all, a relationship forged in the heights of the Karakoram Highway in the 1960s— when the two countries battled a common enemy, India—and one that has historically had immense strategic value, with China offering Pakistan missiles and aircraft, and illicitly helping its nuclear programme.
As China’s economy lifted off in the 1990s, caution and selfinterest, rather than romanticism, began dictating its approach to a neighbour whose periodic descents into chaos were viewed warily across the Khunjerab Pass. This was all the more evident after the normalisation of ties with India following Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit, when Beijing understood it needed to improve relations with its biggest neighbour to the west—and that to do so, it had to be seen to effect what one official described as “a better balance” with India and Pakistan.
But insiders in Beijing believe this twodecade ‘tactical shift’ may now be at a crucial inflection point, with China once again tilting back towards its old ‘allweather ally’. Signs of this change in China’s approach, officials say, date back to around 2009, a time when the United States, which had emerged as Pakistan’s principal military and financial donor, began winding down its presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan was seen by Washington as a needed ally in its ‘war on terror’, but as the