President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to China has caused predictable anxiety among those in India who tend to view relations with Beijing as a zero-sum game with Islamabad. Mr. Zardari has been a frequent flyer to China — three times last year — but this second official visit after October 2008 seems to have caused much apprehension in official India. First, there was China's reported plan to build two more nuclear reactors at Chashma. Then it was a proposed rail link from Kashgar in China's Xinjiang region, across the Karakoram mountains to Havelian in Pakistan's Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly North West Frontier Province). Just for perspective, during Mr. Zardari's five-day visit, the two sides signed six agreements on agriculture, healthcare, justice, media, economy, and technology. Presidents Zardari and Hu Jintao jointly pledged to fight the “three forces” of extremism, terrorism, and separatism. However, there was no official word from China on its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, although it is definitely on the cards. The rail link is less certain. Envisaged as running parallel to the Karakoram Highway, across the Khunjerab Pass and through the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, the rail idea has been around since 2004; last year, both sides held preliminary talks for carrying out a feasibility study. Islamabad is keen but the extent of Chinese interest in the project is yet unclear. The Karakoram Highway, the highest paved road in the world, built with Chinese assistance, has proved an expensive link to maintain. A railway line would prove far more expensive.
It is true that the relations Pakistan has with China are the best it has with any country in the world. They have withstood the strain of shifting international relations for more than 60 years. However, it is by no means a problem-free friendship. There have been tensions over alleged training camps for separatist Xinjiang militant groups in Pakistan's north-west frontier region. Islamabad felt let down that its “all-weather friend” offered little help during a financial crunch in 2008, forcing it to knock on the doors of the International Monetary Fund. But this friendship has solid foundations, and it is time India recognised that it cannot alter the dynamics of the Pakistan-China relationship to suit its own needs. It would be more useful to focus on ways to improve India's own relations with China, and protect the substantial progress made since 1988. As National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon emphasised during his visit to Beijing, the India-China relationship has its own logic. Linking it with another bilateral relationship, which is driven by its own logic, would be self-defeating.