PAK-CHINA  FRIENDSHIP – A FLIGHT THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF HISTORY

 

– By Abdul Majid Zargar

 

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor  has  brought the Sino-Pak relations into renewed  focus. Their   relationship  has poetically  been described as higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey. According to Pew Research Center , Pakistanis have the most favorable view of China after China itself.

But behind this friendship is the tremendous effort & sacrifice  made by Pakistan to nurture, sustain & develop the mutual relation  since the birth of people’s republic of China on October Ist 1949. Pakistan was the  first Muslim Country to recognize it in January 1950 at a time when communism was  viewed as an anathema to Islamic world.  It was followed by Pakistan’s  aggressive lobbying & support  for  restoration of China’s legitimate right to the permanent seat of Security Council in the UN. It  also played a  crucial  role in bringing United States and China closer to each other  in late sixties  by catalyzing and providing logistics for the Sino-US secret diplomatic linkage, in the height of the cold war. Consequently, these developments provided opportunities and allowed China to step out from the close-door policies and isolated economy, thus allowing it to interact and explore new avenues and opportunities in the international markets, especially U.S and Europe and also to mould its political outlook, trade and industrialization on modern lines. It is due to these Pakistani efforts that China has emerged as a major economic and military power, second to US only paving way for  Sino-Pak friendship to mature  into a comprehensive strategic partnership for peace and development in the region.

Very few people know today that America, in late Sixties was eager to establish & develop diplomatic relations with China but the efforts were not yielding desired results inspite of best efforts by Nixon & Kissinger, the president & National security Advisor of USA respectively. America was embroiled in Veitnam war and was desperately looking for an exit route for which it badly needed support of China, one of the main pillars of Communist block arrayed against America in the said war.

In September 1970, Nixon directed Kissinger to renew the effort  in view of the failure of earlier attempts to bear any fruit.  In October 1970,a meeting with Pakistan’s ruler Yahya Khan  had some potential for expediting contacts because Pakistan had provided a channel for earlier Sino-American communication in 1969.  Though Kissinger was also persuing  other channels, such as the Romanian government and an old friend, Jean Sainteny, who had connections at the Chinese embassy in Paris.   In December 1970,The Pakistani channel produced an important message from Zhou  which quickly generated a White House response .  This was followed by  Mao Zedong’s and Zhou’s signal in hosting  president  Nixon received through Pakistan in April 1971. But preparations for such a high level meeting had to be made in utmost secrecy. Both America & China placed their trust on Pakistan to facilitate the meeting with desired secrecy.

And the chain of secret preliminary  meetings started with  Kissinger’s visit to China via Pakistan. While his visit to Pakistan was known, his onward journey to China  was to be kept a top secret particularly from the prying eyes of neighboring  USSR which had the potential of torpedoing the whole affair. It is in these circumstances of utmost secrecy that Pakistan arranged its own flight for Kissinger’s visit  to China,  while the whole world was made to believe Kissinger  to be resting in  Muree hills. The details of that fascinating  secret flight is provided by none other than chief pursuer of the flight himself.

“Pakistan International Airlines was routinely used for VVIP ( Very Very Important Person) travel from its very inception. On 7th July 1971,a set of Boeing 707 crew under the command of Captain M T Baig was assembled in Intercontinental Hotel Rawalpindi  to fly a VVIP without any clue about his identity. The crew was  told in clear terms  not to communicate with any outsider and  that they  will be told to operate a VVIP flight on short notice.

On 8th July 1971 the whole crew  was  told to to get ready for a 3 AM departure. The departing Aircraft was parked in a Pakistan Air Force Steel hanger at Rawalpindi/Islamabad Airport under strict security. About half an hour before departure, a Chinese Navigator boarded the aircraft. With that solo passenger the plane departed in the Early morning hours for what is called a proving flight (Also called as pre-determination of route flight) to Peking (Now known as Beijing)  non-stop via north of Pakistan flying close to K-2 and Arriving at Peking in the afternoon. In a brief stopover at Peking Airport, a Chinese dignitary and an English speaking female interpreter boarded the plane for its return journey. Compared with  all previous VIP operations this seemed to be a very strange so called VVIP flight. 

On  return, the aircraft was again parked inside the steel hanger at Islamabad Airport. The crew returned to Rawalpindi Intercontinental and were asked to await further instructions and to stay in isolation.

On July 9Th the crew  was again asked to get ready for a 2 a.m. departure with a VVIP. With a complete blackout, the crew had to prepare for this VVIP flight with the Aircraft parked again in a steel hanger. The First VIPs to arrive were the Chinese Dignitary and the Chinese interpreter that  had been brought on previous trip. At about 2 a.m  a Volkswagen Beetle halted  next to the first class steps. It was being driven by Mr Sultan Mohammad Khan, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary and he was the first to alight from the car. Following him was was none other than Dr Henry Kissinger , America’s National security advisor and his entourage.

The pursuer  was the first to greet them aboard . Dr. Kisssinger then introduced other members of his entourage  to the crew. Mr Khan, who had escorted Kissinger & his entourage  got out, the door of the aircraft  closed and departure announced to Peking.

Soon after take-off the flight was to follow the same route as the proving flight of the previous night through the northern areas of Pakistan entering China through a narrow corridor that links Pak -China border, then along the majestic Karakorum Range of Mountains all the way over Chinese territory to Peking.

Dr Kissinger without wasting any time started his meetings with the Chinese official in the presence of the Chinese interpreter present in the aircraft. This lasted a few hours. At day break  the window shutter of Dr Kissinger’s seat was opened to show him an amazing view of the Grand K2 mountain. A hot American breakfast was served to all guests at this time.

Dr Kissinger was very relaxed but at one point the pursuer  could sense a bit of anxiety  in  him. The pursuer offered assistance, if any required. It transpired  that the trip was such a secret that Kissinger’s  staff had not brought his suitcase on board  which contained separate clothes for a change. The pursuer informed him that the Chinese hosts were very capable of laundering his shirt at short notice.

At around 1430 Peking time,the aircraft landed  at a secluded section of Peking Airport and Dr Kissinger and his entourage was whisked away in black curtained Chinese limousines. The same Aircraft & the crew brought   Dr Kissinger and party back to Pakistan on 11th July 1971.

Dr Kissinger and his companions were very busy on the entire return trip writing down reports etc of their historic visit to China. At one point he  asked  the crew  to brief him about Muree hills since on his return the press was going to ask him about his stay there. He was briefed  about the breathtaking mountains with pine trees and cool clean breeze which he sincerely  told the reporters in Pakistan when asked about his stay there.

On arrival at Rawalpindi/Islamabad airport, Mr Sultan Mohammad Khan came on board to greet the Americans. Dr Kissinger before deplaning thanked the crew most profusely and invited them to visit him in Washington, if any one of them ever happened to be in America. After the guests departed, Mr Khan gathered all the crew of the Flight and said that they were the few people who knew who went where and this was to remain a top secret till such time President Nixon was to declare to the entire world what had transpired”.

The flight & it impact on course of history is no more a secret. All details of  Kissinger’s discussion with Chairman Mao ze Dong and Prime Minister Chou En Lai are now a matter of Public Records. All those interested in World History will agree that this secret flight and the 48 hrs of meetings in Peking in 1971 set the stage for ending the Vietnam war and emergence of  a new and vigorous Sino American Relationship. It must also be said that Pakistan did all this at a time when it was facing an imminent war with India in its Eastern wing. China knows & values this tremendous sacrifice by Pakistan and has turned it into an ‘All weather friendship’ . Unfortunately America has forgotten  Pakistan’s hecatomb.

Note: The  fascinating account of Pakistani role in facilitating the rapprochement are contained in  F. S. Aijazuddin’s book, From a Head, Through A Head, To a Head: the Secret Channel Between the US and China through Pakistan. 

Author is a practicing chartered Accountant. E mail: abdulmajidzargar@gmail.com

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