China's route through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. Source: AFP
China's route through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. Source: AFP

This Monday, May 21, marked another anniversary in the history of China-Pakistan relations. The  formal diplomatic relationship was established on that date in 1951, but the history of the relationship goes back thousands of years, to the time when ancient Chinese traders traveled to Europe via what is now Pakistan.

Pakistan was an important station on the ancient Silk Route. And more than 2,000 years ago, famous Chinese monks such as Fa Xian and Xuan Zang traveled to Pakistan to study Buddhism. Although it is mentioned in the famous book Journey to the West that Fa Xian and Xuan Zang traveled to India to acquire Buddhist knowledge, most of the names in the book, such as Peshawar, Swat, Taxila and Kashmir, to name a few, are all in present-day Pakistan.

The first official delegation of the government of Pakistan visited China on January 4, 1950, just three months after the end of the Chinese Civil War and establishment of the People’s Republic.

In its first six decades, relations between Pakistan and China were mostly political in nature. There were frequent exchange visits of the leaderships of both countries. The two nations supported each other on domestic issues, as well as on regional and international issues.

The foreign offices of both countries maintained close coordination, which resulted in complete harmony on world affairs. They made major progress on bilateral ties and many memoranda of understanding  and agreements were signed between the two countries, including:

  • January 1963: The first formal trade agreement between China and Pakistan was signed.
  • March 1963: China and Pakistan reached a border agreement. The boundary agreement provisionally demarcated the frontier between the two neighbors. The final agreement was signed by foreign ministers Chen Yi for the Chinese side and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for the Pakistani side.
  • August 1963: An air transport agreement was signed authorizing each other’s airlines to land and operate, along with other services.
  • March 1965: The Chinese and Pakistani governments signed a cultural exchange agreement in Rawalpindi. They agreed to draw up plans for annual cultural exchanges.
  • July 1971: Pakistan assisted the United States in making contact with China that resulted in the visit to China by then US national security adviser Henry Kissinger.
  • May 1976: China and Pakistan signed an agreement to cooperate in the fields of science and technology.
  • 1978: The Karakoram Highway linking mountainous northern Pakistan with western China was officially inaugurated.
  • August 1982: The two countries signed a protocol on opening Khunjerab Pass on the Pakistani-China border.
  • October 1982: President General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq paid an official visit to China. During the visit the two sides agreed to set up a China-Pakistan Joint Committee of Economy, Trade and Technology.
  • September 1986: China and Pakistan signed a comprehensive nuclear cooperation agreement.
  • March 2002: Chinese vice-premier Wu Banggu visited Pakistan to attend the groundbreaking ceremony of Gwadar deep-sea port. China provided US$198 million for the project.
  • November 2006: The two countries inked the China-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement.
  • July 2010: Pakistan and China conducted a joint anti-terrorism drill.
  • 2011: Pakistan and China celebrated “Pakistan-China Friendship Year” on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of bilateral Pakistan-China relations. On May 21, 2011, the governments of the two sides and common people sent messages to each other on the 60th anniversary. That year, there was remarkable progress in the economic, trade, energy, defense, culture, sports and education fields. The head of information of the Chinese State Council, Wang Chen, visited Pakistan and attended the anniversary celebrations.
  • July 2013: Pakistan and China inked a historic framework agreement for the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will link Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea and Kashghar in Xinjiang in northwestern China.
  • April 2015: President Xi Jinping arrived in Pakistan on a state visit. During the visit 51 agreements and MoUs including the plan for CPEC were signed. President Mamnoon Hussain conferred Pakistan’s highest civil award, Nishan-i-Pakistan, on his Chinese counterpart on April 21, 2015.
  • August 2017: A high-level delegation led by Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang visited Pakistan to attend the 70th Independence Day Celebrations.

With the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative and signing of the CPEC agreement, relations between Pakistan and China have entered a new era. In addition to the already strong political and military relationship, economic relations have improved exponentially.

Chinese investments are pouring into Pakistan, and several mega-projects have been launched in power generation and transmission. Basic infrastructure such as motorways, railway, airports, seaports, oil and gas pipelines, and optical-fiber linkages are being upgraded and strengthened.

Chinese nationals are coming in to help build a stronger and viable Pakistan. People-to-people contact has increased tremendously. The number of flights between two countries has increased. Cultural exchanges are increasing by means of students learning Chinese and cultural troupes visiting each other.

Pakistani students now consider China as one of the most desirable destinations for higher education.

Sino-Pakistani friendship has expanded in all dimensions and has been forged into a strategic partnership. In fact, Pakistan has entered a new era of relationship with China.

To date, CPEC’s progress is satisfactory. The early harvest projects meet the timelines in most cases. However, CPEC in entering the next phase, where Pakistan will launch special economic zones and China will move some of its industry into Pakistan. The Pakistani private sector is gearing up for joint ventures with Chinese counterparts.

Industrialization will generate an abundance of job opportunities and increase national productivity in Pakistan. The industrial output will meet the requirements of the domestic market, eventually reducing Pakistan’s import bill, while excess products will be exported, reducing the trade gap and becoming a major source of foreign exchange.

Agriculture is Pakistan’s economic backbone and will remain a key feature in CPEC’s next phase. The mineral sector is another area that needs attention and will see a surge in the next phase.

The real potential for growth of economic ties between China and Pakistan is huge. China and Pakistan will work hand in hand to achieve a prosperous future.

Long live Pakistan-China friendship. Zhong-ba you yi wan sui.

Professor Zamir Ahmed Awan is a sinologist at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) Chinese Studies Center of Excellence, Islamabad, Pakistan. Posted to the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing as science counselor (technical affairs) from 2010-16, he was responsible for promoting cooperation between Pakistan and China in science, technology, and higher education.

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