Early into my lunch with Andrew Small, I learn quickly that a reporter’s notebook doesn’t always suffice when having a meal with someone who talks as quickly as he does. We meet at The Leela Palace’s multi-cuisine restaurant, The Qube, at Chanakyapuri, New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave. Small, author of The China Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, had suggested the venue and I had gladly accepted, partly drawn by the prospect that if the conversation flagged my guest and I would, at least, be charmed by the manicured lawns and flower beds in front of the restaurant.
Very quickly I discover, this is not a relaxed luncheon. I find myself at the edge of my seat as I sit across Small and try scribbling furiously, but give up soon enough and use the voice recorder app on my phone. Small and I dive straight into the heart of the matter, discussing the book that Small spent seven years researching. The China Pakistan Axis details how Pakistan is not only China’s most trusted partner but also its “great economic hope”.
While Pakistan lies at the heart of China’s geo-strategic ambitions, it is increasingly also the battleground for China’s encounters with Islamic militancy, the book has argued.
As we flip through the menu, Small tells me the reason his book has been well received, even in official circles in Pakistan, is that he didn’t demonise anyone. People have appreciated the “cold analysis” that is shorn of angularities and are pleased that somebody bothered to study the China-Pakistan relationship on which the only material available until his book came out was from the 1960s and 70s.
The highlight of the book, at least for its Indian readership, will be the details of China’s intense engagement with the Taliban in the last few years and the shape of the proposed Chinese investments in Pakistan, in building the Gwadar port and the construction activity in Gilgit and Baltistan.
Just like The China Pakistan Axis, his maiden book, Small, blonde and boyish, is objective yet engaging in his analysis. A Transatlantic Fellow with the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States since 2006, Small has spent several years in Beijing, speaks fluent Mandarin and was in Brussels for five years. While researching the book, he travelled to Pakistan frequently, but hasn’t been to India as often.
For the past couple of months, Small has been navigating the seminar and discussion circuit in India and Pakistan, sharing the stage with foreign policy wonks at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and with the likes of geo-strategist, author and former bureaucrat Ayesha Siddiqa and Pakistan’s glamorous former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar in Islamabad. To my question of how difficult it was to get information from sources in Pakistan, Small is effusive about the country and its people — for their courage to withstand terrorists, for providing him insights and for being amazing hosts.
His choice of food reflects his love for sub-continental cuisine. It is still early afternoon. While I am still recovering from an ill-advised heavy breakfast and ask for a spicy chicken Tom Yam soup, Small goes straight to the main course. He opts for a Dum ki Biriyani, which he finds suitably “mild”, and fresh orange juice.
My fears that the conversation might meander were unfounded. As we traverse the entire gamut of China’s relations with not just Pakistan, but also with its other neighbours, Small keeps me engrossed with his fluent and sharp analysis that also helps me shed some of the prejudices about countries and people that one tends to pick up by reading only one side of the story.
I ask him about China being this “all weather friend” of Pakistan, and Small is quick to describe it as mythology. “It would imply that China is always there for Pakistan. In practice, in a number of wars and other instances, China encouraged Pakistan to pull back and coordinated with the US on this,” Small replies. He says China has equally been a restraining force in India-Pakistan relations, and the Chinese military has detailed plans to meet any emergent crises in Pakistan.
But what about Chinese military help to Pakistan, including support to Islamabad’s nuclear programme? “China has consistently supported Pakistan through weapons and missile technology but the relationship is in a different phase now. It has a very serious economic component and will be the big piece of Islamabad-Beijing relations in the years to come,” he says.
The economic corridor and the One Belt, One Road initiatives that Chinese companies are building in Pakistan will be the largest investments that China is making anywhere in the world and the first time that Beijing is executing such huge projects outside of China. The spin-offs from these projects will be important for the Chinese economy in the years to come, says Small.
We soon come to what had been the highlight of his book — the China-Taliban engagement and how China has recently become a target for the ISIS. Small says there was “astonishingly” little material on the subject of China-Taliban equation, just rumours about Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, meeting Chinese diplomats or that the Taliban had this special set of agreements with China which it had with no other non-Muslim country. Much of this has come out in the public domain only in the last 18 months.
Beijing, Small says, relied on Pakistan to use its influence, and in some cases even its control over some of the terror groups, to ensure that China wasn’t targeted. Islamabad also reined in any Uyghur militant activity within its territory. It worked well for a long time but problems arose after the rise of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, over which the Pakistan establishment had less influence. The last eight-nine years have been difficult for China.
But worse could be in store. The ISIS executed a Chinese hostage and its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has referred to China as a target. Then there are Uyghur fighters in Syria and propaganda emanating from there, which it did earlier from the hideouts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “It is quite a serious concern for China. They have been quite happy to see the ISIS targets attacked, although not joining the attacks themselves,” Small says.
Since he has studied the militant activity in Balochistan, I ask Small about his assessment of allegations by Islamabad that Indian intelligence agencies fomented trouble in that region. “These are exaggerated. The scale of what Pakistan implies is far beyond what the reality is and at best these could be individual contacts,” he says. China, which is carrying out a lot of infrastructure work on the Gwadar port in Balochistan, isn’t unduly concerned about any Indian activity in Balochistan, says Small.
Unlike most Indians used to looking at everything that China and Pakistan do together through the prism of an anti-India conspiracy, Small is quite upbeat about the Chinese investments in Pakistan. He believes India, although it has territorial claims on Gilgit and Baltistan, will be the unlikely beneficiary of this. Small is of the view the investments might help stabilise Pakistan, become a catalyst for change within the country, which in turn could restrain temptations towards some set patterns of behaviour within Pakistan. He also dispels some of my myths about the Iran-China friendship, and how Tehran has had problems with Chinese companies as well as the way the Chinese took advantage of Iran’s straitened circumstances in the face of economic sanctions.
Small hopes to focus his next few years on China’s unfolding relations with the Islamic world, particularly its engagement with the Middle East.
By now it is almost time for Small to head to another meeting but not before some espresso.
As we sip our coffee, he asks for and I give him a quick rundown of Indian politics, the significance of the Bihar Assembly poll results, and of India’s north-eastern states and India-Myanmar and India-Bangladesh relations. Small, in his impartial, matter-of-fact way, says he someday hopes to study more deeply the region where India and China meet.