Pakistan’s Role in the Taiwan Conflict

After the Kuomintang (KMT) lost the war in mainland China, it fled to Taiwan and proclaimed it as the true Republic of China in 1949. Since then, Taiwan and the mainland have tussled over claims of being the legitimate representatives of the entire Chinese population. Initially, Taiwan garnered overwhelming international representation, establishing diplomatic relations with several nations while also holding representation in the United Nations (UN). This held true until October 1971. Following the UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, the “Resolution on Admitting Peking,” the mainland, or the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was recognised as the sole representative of the Chinese people. Even before this resolution was passed, Pakistan was amongst the first countries in the world to recognise and establish diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1951. This move clearly indicated the path Pakistan had chosen for its future relations with the Chinese people.

Since 1951, Pakistan’s ties have gradually deepened with the PRC despite some difficulties. On the other hand, Islamabad has maintained only minimal relations with Taiwan. The situation has remained unchanged despite Taiwan’s attempts at greater interconnection with the rest of the world, or Pakistan in particular. Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy under President Tsai Ing-wen has aimed at improving relations with Pakistan (in addition to other South Asian countries and ASEAN members) since 2016. In the case of Pakistan especially, Taiwan has been interested in exploring the economic possibilities owing to the burgeoning consumer market and youth population bulge. Still, bilateral relations have remained limited. A brief comparison of the historical trajectory of Pakistan’s relations with China clearly shows why Pakistan’s strategic interests align with the PRC on this front. They also demonstrate that Pakistan can indeed play a constructive role in the Taiwan conflict.

Pakistan’s support was a defining feature in opening up China to the world at a time of diplomatic isolation and international apathy. Now Pakistan can act – provided it can weather its domestic storm – as a mediator to ease the deadlock in the Taiwan conflict.

Pakistan’s multilateral engagements with China, including in areas of trade, economics, diplomatic and security ties, distinctly dwarf its ties with other countries. Pakistan and China are “all-weather strategic cooperative partners”, which signifies the unchanging nature of bilateral relations despite international and domestic upheavals. Since the beginning of their diplomatic ties in 1951, both countries have supported each other in diplomatic fora. Notably, this includes the time when China was isolated at the UN and the opening up of China to the world, especially the United States (US), in 1972. China’s reciprocal support, on the other hand, amongst countless other social and economic initiatives, was decisive in promoting Pakistan’s nuclear program.

These deep-rooted bilateral bonds and Pakistan’s existing support for the One-China Policy already indicate Pakistan’s stance with regard to the issues faced by its friend and neighbour. Pakistan’s own struggle against domestically and internationally emerging existential threats since its inception, including the threat posed by violent separatism, underscores Pakistan’s approach regarding the matter. In this regard, both countries have reiterated their support for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

China considers the Taiwan issue central to its national security and territorial integrity. The importance of this conflict, amongst other matters, is apparent in China’s foreign policy outlook. Especially in recent years, it has been quick to realise the growing hostility and several provocations in the international arena. It has clearly voiced that it will not shy away from provocations and resulting conflicts. China is prepared to take a firmer stance.

A host of other traditional and non-traditional security threats have also brought Pakistan and China closer. Bilateral security cooperation has been extended to cover joint military drills. Threats including piracy, terrorism and drug smuggling have been undertaken as transnational concerns requiring closer collaboration between the states. The two states have repeatedly stressed that such cooperation must become a regional and not just a bilateral responsibility. Stress on such engagement shows that security in the region remains a significant concern for the two neighbours who are willing to combine their strengths to meet mutual threats. The Taiwan issue remains central to undermining not only China’s security but also Pakistan’s security as an immediate neighbour. The obvious result is that owing to their proximity and strategic alignment, China and Pakistan share a similar security outlook in this matter. Still, it is too early to consider whether an outbreak of conflict in Taiwan would spill over into Pakistan in terms of military or hard measures; diplomatically, Pakistan’s support has been unwavering. It is also certain that Pakistan’s position will become growingly difficult in the case of continued tensions.

Despite its lack of recognition as a vital actor in the region, Pakistan has an important stake and role to play in conflicts in the Asia-Pacific, or what has been strategically labelled the Indo-Pacific. The most important part that Pakistan can play here is to take on a role similar to that in the 1970s. Pakistan’s support was a defining feature in opening up China to the world at a time of diplomatic isolation and international apathy. Now Pakistan can act – provided it can weather its domestic storm – as a mediator to ease the deadlock in the Taiwan conflict. It can facilitate diplomatic channels between Taiwan, China and the US as the major actors in the conflict, Pakistan itself being a major stakeholder in case of a protracted conflict.

Natasha Khan

Natasha Khan is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies, NUST, Islamabad. Her research focuses include discourse analysis, defense and security, and international relations. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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