China put its warming relationship with Pakistan on full display this week, sending Chinese forces to march side-by-side with Pakistani troops. FT:
Members of the Chinese army, navy and air force on Thursday took part in a special military parade in Islamabad in celebration of the day when Muslims in British-ruled India began formally advocating for the creation of a separate country.
While Chinese troops have operated in Pakistan before, they have never previously taken part in a ceremonial parade, something diplomats and military experts said showed how keen China is to deepen its military co-operation with Pakistan. Mamnoon Hussain, Pakistan president, termed China’s participation as a “historic event”. “Both (China and Pakistan) wanted to send a powerful signal [with] troops marching side by side,” said one diplomat.
China’s participation in the parade is not just pomp and circumstance. It is clear sign that China is moving closer to replacing the United States as the key Pakistani ally. The geopolitical logic of aligning with Pakistan is overcoming deep Chinese qualms about the stability and trustworthiness of Pakistani government.
China has been heading down this road for several years now. By selling arms to Pakistan, negotiating massive energy and infrastructure deals, and taking over Gwadar Port, Beijing has been expanding its footprint in Pakistan while Islambad’s relationship with Washington has waned. And the deepening ties are already paying off for both sides: China has gained a port on the Indian Ocean to consolidate its “string of pearls” there, Pakistan has gained a reliable source of arms and investment, and both countries are gaining a formidable partner against India. Strengthening bilateral military ties will help China better protect its investments in Pakistan, especially the ambitious network of roads, railways and pipelines that constitute the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Amid all this win-win cooperation, one point of tension could be the Uighur issue. Beijing has long blamed Uighur militants for pushing a separatist agenda in Xinjiang; it has also directly accused Pakistan of harboring and enabling them. It is unclear whether China will make the Pakistani military throw its Islamist Uighur clients under the bus, but the issue could be a source of tension in the budding partnership.