Home Xi Jinping in Pakistan: Read Between the Lines

Xi Jinping in Pakistan: Read Between the Lines

Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must surely be reassuringly relieved. A Chinese President finally managed to visit Pakistan in nine years, after all. This could well have been President Xi Jinping’s second visit to Islamabad had things gone as planned in September 2014 when Xi undertook his maiden visit to the South Asian subcontinent. Initially scheduled to include Pakistan along with the already finalised visits to Sri Lanka and India, much to Islamabad’s embarrassment, as political anarchy unfolded within Pakistan, visibly gripping the entire capital city of Islamabad, China, for the first time, took a considered decision of omitting Pakistan from Xi’s travel itinerary.

As much as denied by Pakistan, and underplayed by China, the cancellation was read as a strong rebuke by Beijing to its “all-weather ally”, sending a concealed message to Islamabad that it needs to get its domestic act together. As both sides seemingly went into a damage control tizzy, Chinese Foreign Ministry reflected this interpretation in a posted statement saying, “...in view of the current political situation in Pakistan, the Governments of China and Pakistan mutually agreed to postponement of the state visit of President Xi Jinping to Pakistan, which was scheduled to take place later this month”.

It was not as facile a decision to arrive at with intense backdoor activity taking place before arriving at the final decision of dropping Pakistan from Xi’s South Asia tour. Xi Jinping’s security delegation visited Islamabad many weeks before his scheduled trip, in order to assess and review the security situation and went back unconvinced with the security arrangements. The mass street protests in Islamabad, stretching till Karachi, led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party and Islamic cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehreek, declared that they no longer recognised the legitimacy of Pakistan’s present Parliament.

As the mass protests mounted, Pakistan appeared a nation under siege. The government in Islamabad failed to convince Xi's security delegation that everything was in control and went on to suggest the alternative option of Lahore as the host city for Xi Jinping. Much to Pakistan’s chagrin, and a considerable blow to the government, Xi’s security team did not give clearance to Lahore either following a detailed scrutiny. It comes in as no surprise therefore that in the recently concluded official state visit from April 20-21, 2015, Xi Jinping met with prominent leaders across Pakistan’s political spectrum, including Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari, PTI Chairman Imran Khan, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Farooq Sattar, Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) head Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) leader Liaquat Baloch and Awami National Party’s (ANP) Afrasiab Khattak. Interestingly, Baluchistan’s Chief Minister, Abdul Malik Baloch also met with Xi in Islamabad.

It is essential to recall the above-cited phase of political uncertainty, and unrest, that seems to have caved in temporarily, however, Pakistan’s security situation continues to remain on tenterhooks. As the political and socio-economic condition progressively deteriorates, the Chinese President’s decision to hold discussions with these prominent leaders across the political spectrum on the “country’s situation” needs to be reviewed cautiously. In fact, it only goes on to reveal a rather vulnerable facet of China’s relationship with Pakistan, deep beneath the cacophony of the “All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership” as announced in the joint statement earlier this week.

It more than lucid that Beijing needs Islamabad, firstly, to ‘manage’ South Asia’s security balance and regional shift in Beijing’s favour. There was an additional emphasis on “maintaining close communication and coordination” within regional mechanisms including the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) among others, with Pakistan supporting China in “elevating its relations with SAARC”. The Chinese bid to enter the SAARC forum, obliquely, is only too well known, and SAARC being mentioned twice in the joint statement, echoes this intent. The objective of making the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) an important milestone of  the “Silk Belt and Road” has begun with Chinese companies investing $ 22.5 billion in coal-fired, hydro, wind and solar energy projects in Pakistan (most crucially in the PoK region), with China’s government providing concessional loans for infrastructure projects. This invlovement has both, strategic and politico-diplomatic aims, as China conveniently provides quasi-diplomatic support to Pakistan’s position on Kashmir.

Secondly, Beijing’s needs Pakistan to attempt checkmating the US rebalance in Asia and the Asia-Pacific – this message reverberates in the following text of the joint statement: “Pakistan-China relationship had acquired greater strategic significance against the backdrop of complex and changing international and regional situations.” Comparisons of Chinese investments of $28 billion to the $31 billion foreign aid in security and economic funds provided by the US to Pakistan since 2002 started doing the rounds soon enough.

Third, and most significantly, China wants Pakistan to rein in radical/fundamentalist backing or support from within to like-minded groups and/or individuals in China’s restive Xinjiang province. This issue continues to remain a hanging sword for the Chinese government and brings to focus Beijing’s prime concern vis-à-vis maintaining internal security and crackdown against separatism and extremism in the Muslim-majority, far-western Xinjiang region. The joint statement released soon after the visit, specifically mentions the need for the two nations to “work together to combat the East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM). This can be referenced to an earlier statement published in state-controlled Global Times by Pan Zhiping, director, Institute of Central Asia at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, “...located in the southern part of Xinjiang, Hotan is close to the border with Pakistan... Due to their affinity in religion and language, some Uyghur residents there are at risk of being influenced by terrorist groups such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement.”

It seems incongruous that on the one hand China “commended Pakistan’s major contribution to the international counter-terrorism efforts”, while on the other, just two months earlier, in February 2015, China accepted India’s initiative for a united pitch for bringing “perpetrators, organisers, financiers and sponsors of terrorist acts to justice”, at the 13th trilateral meeting of Russia, India and China (RIC). Seeking an early conclusion of the India-moved resolution on Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in the United Nations, Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj averred that the purpose of the UN convention was to punish those who support terrorism and not just its actors – thereby implying that the noose on Pakistan to come clean on its stance on terrorism just got tightened further. Swaraj was joined by her Chinese and Russian counterparts, Wang Yi and Sergey Lavrov, respectively, and subsequently, New Delhi, Moscow and Beijing jointly called for the early conclusion of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), a resolution aimed at addressing gaps in the international legal framework against terrorism.

What stood out, perhaps most noticeably, in a first of its kind positional shift, was that China did not attempt to defend Pakistan against accusations of sheltering, financing, or supporting terrorism. Notwithstanding the fact that a spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry avoided providing any direct answers on the subject, Beijing’s refusal to defend Pakistan in the face of direct questioning marks a departure from the past, when the Chinese government chose to refuse condemning its ally, Pakistan. In this backdrop, the latest joint statement issued by the RIC foreign ministers is a rebuff to Pakistan, only reaffirming that comforting statements on Sino-Pak relations remaining steadfast can no more become the face saver to the damage done on Pakistan's international image and that of China coming to its rescue every now and then.

The author is Senior Fellow at CLAWS. Views expressed are personal.

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Dr Monika Chansoria
Senior Fellow & Head of China-study Programme
Contact at: [email protected]

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