Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan for two days on April 21, the first visit of a Chinese president to Pakistan in nine years. Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao reportedly said that this was the President’s first foreign trip this year, highlighting the importance Beijing placed on developing Pakistan-China relations in many strategic and economic areas.
The President reportedly committed $46 billion for infrastructure projects taking forward the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor plan which envisages improving road links and connectivity between China’s western Xinjiang region, all the way up to the Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea that China has helped finance and manage. (In response to China’s moves in Gwadar, India plans to upgrade and operate a deepwater port in Chabahar, Iran, which is located just 50 miles to the west of Gwadar). For Pakistan, the corridor is a cheap way to develop its violence-plagued and poverty-stricken Balochistan province, home to Gwadar.
The Pakistan-Chinese Economic Corridor project is a part of the Chinese “One Belt One Road” plan which focuses on bringing together China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe (the Baltic), linking China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea through Central Asia and West Asia, and connecting China with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Both China and Pakistan have common interests in containing the growing Indian influence in the Indian Ocean region. Both are time-tested and all-weather friends and China has consistently supplied arms and equipment to Pakistan over the years.
The Chinese president, while at a joint sitting of Pakistan’s parliament, described Pakistan as China’s “dependable” friend and firmly backed its territorial integrity. Given the state of bilateral relations, it is no wonder that he oversaw the signing of 51 agreements including energy, finance and science and technology and host of other areas.
China has strategic interests in the Indian Ocean where the interests and influence of India prevail. China and the United States are beginning to overlap to protect sea lanes, a part of Chinese maritime-silk route. It is here that the 21st century’s global power dynamics will be revealed, according to many analysts.
It was reported earlier that China had plans to sell eight submarines (worth $5 billion) to Pakistan and it was not known whether the deal was concluded during the visit. If the deal was done, it would represent a fairly blunt Chinese statement about its willingness to cooperate with Pakistan to challenge Indian maritime power.
It is reported that both sides addressed the issue of a joint China-Pakistan role in Afghanistan following the United States’ military withdrawal from that country.
On Beijing’s side, authorities are deeply worried about unrest in Xinjiang, which is home to the country’s Uighur Muslim minority group who has faced restrictions on religious and cultural practices. Beijing has linked violent attacks in Xinjiang to a group believed to have a stronghold in tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
It is reported that Pakistan has been providing China with intelligence and support in its fight against the organisation known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which is linked to violent attacks in Xinjiang. There are a considerable number of members of the group in Pakistan.
Hoo Tiang Boon, an assistant professor with the China programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, reportedly said that China’s motivation for promoting the Economic Corridor project was to boost economic development in Pakistan. If the Pakistan economy develops, then it would help reduce the problem of terrorism.
China is uncomfortable about the Indo-US alliance to dominate the region. Even though Pakistan received $31 billion from the US since 2002, most of which was allocated to improve security, the government of Pakistan was peeved at President Obama’s overlook of the country while he visited India for three days as Guest of Honour for India’s Republic Day on January 26.
With the emergence of China as an economic superpower in the region, the Chinese President’s visit demonstrates that China and Pakistan enjoy the best of bilateral relations and interactions in strategic and economic matters. It is reported that China with its foreign exchange reserves close to $4 trillion has embarked on “cheque-book diplomacy” providing funds to developing countries to consolidate its relations with them.