China-Pakistan relation: Strain in ties between all-weather friends?

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s China visit comes at a time when Islamabad’s relationship with Washington appears to be deteriorating by the day.

Pakistan PM Imran Khan and Chinese President Xi Jinping (Madoka Ikegami/Pool Photo via AP, File)

By Farooq Wani

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s China visit comes at a time when Islamabad’s relationship with Washington appears to be deteriorating by the day. While Beijing has proved to be an exceptionally generous benefactor, unlike the US, China’s aid and assistance, be it military or economic, doesn’t come free, nor is it unconditional. To make matters worse, Washington cosying up to New Delhi has added to Islamabad’s discomfiture.   

Since Khan’s king-size entourage include Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin, Planning Minister Asad Umar, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf, Commerce Advisor Abdul Razak Dawood and Special Assistant on China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Khalid Mansoor his four-day China visit was seen as an important event.

Khan who was scheduled to meet the Chinese leadership and also President Xi Jinping had also accepted Beijing’s invite to attend the Winter Olympic Games opening ceremony, which had been boycotted by many influential countries like the US, Australia, and Britain, because of credible reports of Chinese atrocities against the Uyghur Muslim community living in Xinjiang Autonomous Region. It’s ironic that Khan who has positioned himself as a fierce defender of Muslims worldwide has ignored the plight of Uyghur Muslims, just to get hefty loans in order to keep Pakistan’s sinking economy afloat.

For more than two decades as a political leader, and especially since becoming premier in 2018, Khan has repeatedly railed against Islamophobia and has even called for the establishment of a global coalition to combat it. He has also decried the abuses suffered by Muslim communities in Chechnya, Yemen, the Palestinian territories. However, the moral ground taken by Khan against Islamophobia has been undone by his deafening silence on the oppression of the Uighur community in China. To add to his woes, Khan and his high-level team were left red-faced when they were informed that one of the key meetings, for which they had flown from Islamabad to Beijing, would be held in virtual mode.

Imran Khan’s China visit has come at a time when Pakistan finds itself in a quagmire of issues. On one hand, the condition of Pakistan’s economy has gone from bad to worse, while on the other hand, the security scenario within the country particularly in the restive Balochistan region and Afghan border has deteriorated alarmingly.  

There are other embarrassments for Khan too. Before becoming Prime Minister, he was a critic of CPEC citing lack of transparency in the contracts and imbalanced investments which resulted in certain provinces of the country being neglected. However, since the main purpose of  Khan ‘s  China visit was to persuade his “Iron brother” Xi Jinping to give Pakistan a $3bn loan. 

China has already placed around $11 billion with Pakistan in the shape of commercial loans and foreign exchange reserves support initiatives, including $4 billion in SAFE deposits. Beijing’s money is part of the nation’s current official foreign exchange reserves recorded at $16.1 billion. It is to stabilise Pakistan’s dwindling foreign currency reserves and boost investment in various sectors of its economy.

But that is not the end of Khan’s problems. He is dependent heavily on two lender countries – China and Saudi Arabia. Previously, China has been helping the Imran Khan government for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is the main part of Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan and the slow pace of work on CPEC projects in the recent months, China has bluntly conveyed its displeasure to Islamabad.

China wants extension of the CPEC to Afghanistan, and Pakistan is also in favour of this proposal. While the interim Afghan government has also expressed its keenness on this issue, Beijing is not happy with the security situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan also faces a huge threat from TTP which has established bases in Afghanistan. However, despite threatening Kabul that if it fails to act against TTP, Islamabad will launch air strikes on their stations, the Afghan Taliban remains unperturbed.

Analysts say that China does not consider the prevailing security, financial and political situation in Pakistan amenable for further investment, particularly when Islamabad seeks additional borrowing at exceptionally low-interest rates despite the live dangers of it defaulting on existing financial agreements.

Khan’s visit to Beijing coincides with growing security concerns from militants who are openly targeting the CPEC and China’s commercial interests. Last week, ethnic Baloch separatists launched deadly attacks in restive Balochistan province, the CPEC’s epicentre, in which several Pakistani soldiers were killed and a series of bold attacks by Balochi militants on security check-posts.  

Rawalpindi has been sponsoring militant groups and providing them safe sanctuaries and on its soil. Today things have come a full circle and Pakistan is being attacked by terrorist groups that are based in Afghanistan, and the same Afghan Taliban that enjoyed Pakistan army’s hospitality for two decades is today unconcerned about terrorists attacking their erstwhile hosts! 

(The author is Editor Brighter Kashmir, TV Commentator, Political Analyst and Columnist.  Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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