China continues to maintain the India Pakistan dichotomy as it applies different yardsticks to describe its relations with them, more so with Pakistan. While China continues to block India’s attempts in the UN to designate Pakistan-based terrorists on the UN Security Council’s 1267 list of terror entities, it goes out of its way to appease Pakistan, even giving it financial loans to tide over a national economic crisis. The main reason for China’s easy-going relationship with Pakistan is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.
No wonder, then, that Pakistan Prime Shehbaz Sharif, even went to Beijing to congratulate President Xi Jinping in person on getting his third term of power at the 20th Party Congress. The CPEC agreement was signed when Shehbaz’s brother Nawaz Sharif was prime minister. China was content with the progress of the project till Imran Khan came to power. The Khan government was not overtly interested in the project and even criticized it on occasions.
The project is dear to China because of its direct link to the Belt and Road Initiative, the infrastructural arm of China’s power projection. It is through the BRI that China expects to project its influence along the land and maritime ‘silk routes’ connecting China with Europe. Much of the land route goes through the Himalayan region close to the international border with China while the maritime route passes through the Indian Ocean Region. The CPEC is a critical element in that it provides the road link from China and Pakistan through an area that India claims to be Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. To that end, China’s interest in BRI and CPEC is a sensitive subject in India and China’s friendship with Pakistan a pain in the neck.
Originally billed a $ 42-billion project, the CPEC has of late got stuck in internal problems in Pakistan. The Covid-pandemic lock down led to logistical troubles. Thereafter, China’s financial problems caused fiscal bottlenecks. Subsequently, a regime change in Pakistan saw the project nearly put on the back burner. Several projects under the CPEC also ran into trouble because of the opposition by local communities. The project got into further trouble when some Chinese nationals were killed in Karachi and other places in Pakistan. Shehbaz during his brief visit to Beijing had a lot to explain to Xi Jinping about the health of the CPEC project.
The Chinese state media recently sought to put the bilateral relationship in a fresh perspective, post Xi’s third term. It quoted Xi as saying: “China views its relations with Pakistan from a strategic and long-term perspective, and Pakistan has always been a high priority in China’s neighborhood diplomacy.”
China is ready to work with Pakistan to elevate the level of all-round strategic cooperation, speed up efforts to build a closer China-Pakistan community with a shared future in the new era, and inject new impetus into their all-weather strategic cooperative partnership, according to Xi. Xi stressed that China commends Pakistan’s firm commitment to advancing friendship and cooperation with China, and expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s support on issues vital to China’s core and major concerns. China will continue to firmly support Pakistan in safeguarding its sovereignty, territorial integrity, development interests and dignity, and in achieving unity, stability, development and prosperity, the Chinese president said.
With reference to the CPEC, the media says Xi wants to make “CPEC an exemplar of high-quality Belt and Road cooperation”. The report says:: “It is important to accelerate the construction of auxiliary infrastructure for Gwadar Port to unleash its role in driving interconnected development in the region, Xi said, hoping the two sides will work together to create conditions for the early implementation of the upgradation of the Main Line-1 (ML-1) and the Karachi Circular Railway project. ‘Pakistan is welcome to export more quality agri-products to China,’ Xi said, adding that China will work with Pakistan to expand cooperation in digital economy, e-commerce, and photovoltaic and other new-energy technologies, and take solid steps to advance cooperation concerning agriculture, science, technology and people’s livelihood.
Given the current Pakistan government’s positive disposition towards China’s projects, Beijing is intent on helping out Islamabad as much as possible. Xi is quoted as saying: “China will continue to do its best to support Pakistan in stabilizing its financial situation. China supports its provinces with a strong industry in pairing up with Pakistani partners to advance industrial cooperation, and hopes the Pakistani side will provide a sound business environment.”
This is interpreted to mean what China may have conveyed to Pakistan during Shehbaz’s visit – that Xi Jinping would like to see Pakistan doing more to facilitate the “facilitate advancement of BRI projects”. That Xi has taken seriously reports of violence, even killing of Chinese nationals on Pakistani soil, is aptly indicated by the Chinese media that quotes the president as saying: “I am highly concerned about the safety of the Chinese people in Pakistan, and hope that the Pakistan side will provide a reliable and safe environment for Chinese institutions and personnel working on cooperation projects there.”