Is Xi’s Visit to Pakistan the Beginning of a Lasting Friendship?
Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded his two-day visit to Pakistan on Tuesday. Projects worth $46 billion were signed with the two countries elevating their ‘all-weather’ relationship, described as being ‘sweeter than honey’ to an ‘all-weather strategic cooperation partnership.’
With Xi’s visit postponed more than once over the last year, the Nawaz Sharif government left no carpet unrolled to highlight the importance of his visit. Pakistani fighter aircraft escorted the Chinese President. The visiting dignitary was accorded the rare privilege of addressing a joint session of the legislature and Xi was conferred with Pakistan’s highest civilian award: Nishan -e- Pakistan.
Fifty one agreements and MoUs were signed covering a wide spectrum from energy, transport infrastructure, trade and economic facilitation, climate change, marine research to people-to-people contact.
The core objective will be to advance Xi’s ambitious vision of a land and maritime connectivity project (the Belt and Road Initiative – BRI) that will link the Pakistani port of Gwadar to Kashgar in western China.
Can China realize this tantalizing objective given the domestic political contestation and related internal turbulence that envelops the Pakistan- Baluchistan-Xinjiang region?
The Xi visit could be perceived as an audacious attempt to use the economic and fiscal weight of Beijing to bear on a bilateral relationship. Xi linked the envisaged Sino-Pak economic cooperation with security. “Our cooperation in the security and economic fields reinforce each other and they must be advanced simultaneously,” he said. In return, Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif noted: “I assured President Xi that Pakistan considers China’s security as important as its own security.”
This sub-text wherein China and Pakistan reinforce their security and economic cooperation with an element of simultaneity has to contend with the reality of the spread of radical jihadi ideologies and their myriad non-state entities scattered through the region.
Concurrently the internal situation in Baluchistan (where Gwadar is located) is far from stable and the local inhabitants have long resented the jack-boot of the Pakistani military and are struggling for an elusive political autonomy.
While commendable for sheer scale and geographic scope (the BRI will encompass Asia, Europe and Africa), it is not yet proven that the vast fiscal investment and selective political engagement will lead to a realization of Beijing’s objectives. Both Myanmar and Sri Lanka and recent Chinese experience in these nations are instructive about the limits and fragility of such certitude.
Specific to Pakistan and the Xi visit – the central issue is how Beijing will harmonize Rawalpindi’s investment in terror as an instrument of policy with the normative ‘responsible global power’ image that China now wishes to exude.
The answer to this conundrum will have a crucial bearing both on the rise of China, the reality of a prosperous and secure Afro-Asian region and Modi’s visit to Beijing in May to review the uneasy Sino-Indian relationship.
These issues were discussed inconclusively in April 1954 at the first Bandung conference in Indonesia. Perhaps some indications will be discernible in the 60th anniversary commemoration event at Bandung on April 24, where both the Chinese President and the Japanese Prime Minister will outline their vision of Asia and the 21st century.
The current Xi yatra is part of this aspirational lattice.