The rise of China – strategic allies I: N Korea, Pakistan, and Iran

Brian M Downing 

States rise to global power in partnership with other countries. Britain, for example, rose to preeminence with allies that weakened enemies on the continent, and with local notables on the subcontinent. American preeminence came after the Second World War with a slew of alliances stretching from Western Europe to East Asia. Islamic empires, by contrast, had few strategic allies, only coalescences of tribes that came and went from the Maghreb to Persia.

Historically, China also eschewed strategic partnerships, preferring domestic power and isolation. Its empires too came and went, the last one chopped up and exploited by powers that agreed on almost nothing except China’s weakness and wealth. Today’s Chinese leadership knows well the errors of predecessors inside the walls of the Forbidden City. Their ambitions are bold and global. They have dozens of economic partners, but most of them have weak armies designed mainly for prestige and internal suppression. Several, however, have large, well-trained armies.

North Korea

The Korean People’s Army is large (900,000 active duty), well trained, and well equipped. There is national conscription from a disciplined and spirited population. The population, however, has faced pronounced and enduring malnutrition. Over the years, inductees have shown steady decline in height and weight. Frequent purges leave little doubt regarding the generals’ loyalty but a good deal of doubt regarding their competence. Nonetheless, the military is considered a reasonably reliable and effective force.

Heated rhetoric has come out of Pyongyang for many years. But the N Korean leaders aren’t all talk. Over the last several decades, N Korea has bombed jetliners, begun skirmishes along the DMZ, attacked US personnel at Panmunjom, and torpedoed a S Korean warship. In recent years, it has developed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Progress has been so impressive in recent years as to suggest considerable foreign assistance.

China might worry that Pyongyang will ignite a war that would be ruinous for the Korean peninsula and at least problematic for China itself. However, Beijing benefits considerably from N Korean belligerence. It ties down large numbers of S Korean, American, and Japanese assets which might be used elsewhere. Furthermore, Pyongyang is underscoring to East Asian powers that the US can no longer assure regional security. Indeed its tough talk and ominous deployments is worsening tensions. China alone controls N Korea, and eyes must now look to Beijing.


Once a reliable US partner, Pakistan has shifted to a “triangulation” policy. It plays off the US-China rivalry, gaining support from both as each power worries about losing all influence in Pakistan. The US gets supply routes into Afghanistan and clandestine bases. China gets export routes from Afghanistan and leverage against India.

Pakistan may one day break with the US and align firmly with China but that day is not at hand. President Trump recently delivered a public rebuke to Islamabad over its support for terrorism which did not lead to a firm response such as closing US supply routes. Islamabad fears that a break will lead to a solid US-Indian partnership and perhaps to mutual support for Baluch separatism – a near obsession in army bureaus.

Should a break come, China may find it aligned with an army that has never fared well in battle and is increasingly plagued by hardline Islamists within its ranks. Further, Pakistan will try to maneuver China into a war with India. Most worrisomely, population pressures and ethnic tensions may overwhelm the Pakistani state and army. Little wonder that China publicly declined Pakistan’s offer to establish a naval base at Gwadar.


Like Pakistan, Iran has a large military. There are about 400,000 troops in the regular army and another 125,000 in the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranian propaganda extolls its effectiveness and, oddly enough, so do the analyses of neoconservative think tanks and politicos. IRGC units in Syria, however, have demonstrated no great fighting ability. Casualties were high, which suggests motivation and perseverance, but ground advances were limited. Syrian gains came from pitiless Russian airstrikes, not disciplined Iranian ground troops. Putin is thought to have been keenly disappointed by the IRGC.

The IRGC has shown effectiveness in training other forces. Hisbollah has emerged from a handful of Shia bands to a respected fighting force. It wore down Israel in the 1980s and today deters it from anything more than brief punitive campaigns. Similarly, early in the Syrian civil war, the IRGC trained Shia fighters who helped stabilize the government’s position.

Iranian forces are presently preoccupied with threats posed by Sunni Gulf powers, insurgent movements in Kurdish and Baluch parts of the country, and internal terrorism risks posed by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq and ISIL. Insurgencies and terrorism risks will likely increase as sectarian tensions escalate.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.