Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan returned empty handed from his four-day visit from China on November 5. The high profile visit, at the invitation of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, was affected by the Tehreek Labbayk Pakistan’s nationwide agitation against the exoneration of Asia Bibi by the country’s Supreme Court.
Khan and his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) raised high expectations in the country before the China visit. The party projected that Khan would get six billion dollars from Beijing as he had successfully managed from Saudi Arabia. The PTI also predicted that Khan would arrange more financial assistance and concessions than his predecessors were able to obtain from China. However, the visit proved to be a routine affair, where 16 agreements were signed but no major financial assistance was promised.
Pakistan is currently passing through a severe economic crisis and needs a bailout package. But its ‘all weather friend’ declined to immediately come to Islamabad’s rescue and said more talks were required before financial assistance could be granted.
Saudi Arabia’s financial assistance will not be enough to tide over the crisis, hence Pakistan will now have seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has already placed stringent stipulations, including on details of Chinese loans and details pertaining to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Pakistan’s foreign office apparently could not gauge the Chinese mind correctly. President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders were unhappy with numerous statements issued by Khan and his cabinet ministers criticizing the CPEC.
PTI leaders said the Nawaz Sharif government had intentionally overlooked the interests of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under CPEC projects. Cabinet ministers also said the CPEC should be reviewed as Pakistani interests were not fully safeguarded. CPEC is an important segment of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a dream project of President Xi. China was also angry that the Khan government was not defending CPEC, while the Nawaz government projected it as a great project, which would bring prosperity across Pakistan.
Beijing signaled its displeasure at the beginning of the visit by sending the transport minister to receive Khan instead of a top level person. His meetings with Premier Li and Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou were also not very successful as both made it clear that they could help only according to their capabilities. China is passing through a difficult phase because of the ongoing trade war unleashed by the US.
Analysts claim that the Pakistani delegation was not well prepared with adequate data and information before Khan’s China visit. However they say that Islamabad will now have to return to the IMF for assistance, which will be less detrimental than a loan from China.
Beijing understands the importance of Islamabad as a strategic ally against India. Besides troubling India, Pakistan is also helping China in eliminating Uighur Muslims in the Xinxiang Autonomous Region (XAR), who are fighting for a separate homeland. Despite being an Islamic country, Pakistan never raises the issue of suppression of Uyghur Muslims in international forums and has helped China in Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) conferences. Pakistan also supported China when the South China Sea issue was raised in Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meetings. China will continue to help Pakistan, but it wanted to give a strong message to Khan’s government that Beijing should not be taken for granted and his ministers should be careful while issuing statements against China or its projects in Pakistan.
Although Khan returned from China without any promise of financial assistance, the joint statement issued after the visit made it clear that the relationship between India’s two main rivals will remain on a strong footing.
The joint statement clearly appreciated Pakistan’s offer to settle all pending issues with India through peaceful negotiations without any mention of cross-border terrorism originating from Pakistan. The statement clearly outlined that China did not support India’s admission in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) nor would it support a UN ban on Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar.
The Chinese stand on the CPEC also remains the same. Hence India must remain prepared to face both enemies, as they are working on the lines of the ancient adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.