Is China Taking the Place of Saudi Arabia for Pakistan?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Mohammad Zare’
Researcher; Foreign Policy Department of Center for Strategic Research, Iran

Rejecting Saudi Arabia’s call to take part in the aggression against Yemen by Pakistan and a later visit to Pakistan by Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 21, 2015, followed by an agreement to give USD 46 billion in aid to Islamabad have led to speculations among expert circles about Pakistan turning toward China in its effort to distance from Saudi Arabia. The understanding by Pakistani officials and decision-makers  that the Middle East is entering the period of “termination of traditional power generation;” futility and high cost of being part of power blocs in the region; the role played by Pakistani army in making major decisions in the country; correct understanding of trends in security environment of Pakistan and dominance of economic trends in that environment; as well as the role and position of Pakistan in China’s large-scale strategy can be considered as the most important causes of Pakistan’s unwillingness to accompany Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen and to turn toward China. Some of the reasons behind Pakistan’s unwillingness to accompany Saudi Arabia include:

1. In reality, Pakistan’s rejection of Saudi Arabia’s request to attack Yemen had a basic effect on Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and its effort for strategic transition form a sectarian policy to a new policy of state-based coalition building in order to play a more prominent role in the Middle East. First of all, such a rejection can be considered as a result of differences in strategic priorities of the two countries with regard to development in the Middle East region. This comes at a time that strategic priorities of Pakistan, especially with regard to such issues as economic stability and development, as well as the containment of India, are very close to China’s strategic priorities.

2. The Middle East is entering a new period which can be called “the end of the generation of power” in its traditional sense and in the form of the existence of a dominant state as the main regional power. The existence of such a high degree of simultaneous disorder in security environment of the Middle East has basically made impossible the existence or creation of a regional power, rejection of whose demands would be followed by major punishments. Therefore, various actors in this region are now feeling that they have more latitude to act and more options to choose from. This is why it seems that military and political officials in Pakistan have come to realize that rejection of Saudi Arabia’s demand cannot have grave consequences and outcomes for their country, at least, in the short run. Secondly, they believe that staying away from developments in the Middle East and getting in line with east-based initiatives, especially the initiatives offered by China, can meet the national interests of the country in a better way at the present juncture.

3. Another reason for the rejection of Saudi Arabia’s request, perhaps, is the power that the Pakistani army sways in decision-making and policymaking system of Pakistan. The Pakistani army had to choose between two approaches: either to send its soldiers to war in Yemen and help Saudi Arabia, or to deploy those soldiers inside the country in order to protect Chinese assets and resources in Pakistan. There is no doubt that the realism that has become institutionalized among Pakistani army officials has made them choose the second option, that is, to deploy soldiers inside the country and at a lower cost in order to protect Chinese resources and assets.

4. It should be noted that developments in security environment of Pakistan, especially China’s domination over geoeconomics of the region has been very influential in making Pakistan turn around and show more willingness to get along with China’s initiatives, while rejecting Saudi Arabia’s request. In other words, China has turned into the biggest trade partner and the most important foreign investor in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in recent years. Most probably, when the macroeconomic project known as the “Silk Road Economic Belt” is put into gear, China’s influence on regional economies will greatly grow compared to the present time. In other words, the trends that determine security environment of Pakistan are mostly of an economic nature and subject to China’s initiatives. Therefore, Pakistan’s more pronounced role in these initiative will not only help Islamabad meet its national interests in a better way, but can also make up for any loss of financial and capital aid from other countries, including Saudi Arabia.

5. The fact that Pakistan is seen by China as an important strategic asset is another reality that should be taken into account here. Some analysts have even described Pakistan as a platform that can help China’s transition from a regional power to a global power. The following notes are worthy of mention with regard to the importance of Pakistan in the large-scale strategy of China:

a. Pakistan is an important element in indirect strategic balance between China and India;

b. Pakistan is an important medium that can boost the influence and reach of China in security environment of Afghanistan;

c. Pakistan is one of the important pivots of China’s policy, which aims to establish Beijing’s dominance over geoeconomic environment of Central Asia and Caucasus;

d. Pakistan can play an important role when it comes to China’s stability and security in one of the most important regions that is Achilles’ heel of Beijing, namely Xinjiang Province, by helping China control and contain extremist groups active in that region; and

e. Implementation of major economic projects in Pakistan by China such as the development of Gwadar port and Gwadar – Islamabad – Kashgar economic corridor can further reduce China’ dependence on and vulnerability in the Strait of Malacca. It can also provide China with necessary logistical grounds for exerting more control on the Indian Ocean.


Through correct understanding of developments in their security environment, Pakistani officials believe that alignment with China’s economic initiatives will meet their interests at the present juncture. However, in reality and due to various reasons, such alignment with China cannot be considered as “turning toward” China or “replacing” China for Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, the weakness of the central government and its need to more resources and capital in order to survive, in addition to strong religious ties with Saudi Arabia, do not allow separation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to take place quite easily. On the other hand, China is not willing to project an image of itself as a possible substitute for Saudi Arabia, which is currently the biggest supplier of crude oil to China. Therefore, it seems that Pakistan will follow a double policy toward China and Saudi Arabia in future in order to take more concessions from both countries.

Key Words: China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Middle East, Stability, Security, Yemen, Crude Oil, Double Policy, Zare’

More By Mohammad Zare’:

*Strategic Consequences of Alliance between ISIS and Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang:

*Photo Credit: Tribune

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم