China and Pakistan issued a joint statement Wednesday after Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. As expected, there was a heavy focus on the economic aspect of China-Pakistan relations, especially on the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Early reports of pending deals to construct the Gwadar International airport and to upgrade the Karakorum highway between Pakistan and China were confirmed with the official signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU), according to China Daily.
However, the official statements after the visit also revealed a growing concern within China about Pakistan’s ability to safeguard Chinese interests. Buried within the joint statement, China expressed its appreciation for “Pakistan’s commitment to ensuring the safety and security of Chinese citizens and investments in Pakistan.” Though couched in reassuring diplomatic speak, the inclusion of this sentence actually reveals the depth of China’s concern over the security of its people and investments. China would only ask for such a commitment if it believed “safety and security” were not a given.
The question of security has thwarted China-Pakistan economic cooperation before—as the Wall Street Journal reported, in 2011 a Chinese mining firm cancelled a $19 billion deal in southern Pakistan out of security concern. There have been several instances of Chinese citizens being kidnapped or even killed in Pakistan over the last decade. Balochistan province, the site of Gwadar port, is especially known as a hotbed of insurgent activity.
China’s concerns are broader than the safety and security of its citizens within Pakistan, however. With violence in Xinjiang province becoming more common, Beijing is increasingly worried about the role of organized terror groups, especially the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in planning attacks. ETIM organizers are believed to receive training and supplies in Pakistan, making counterterrorism an important aspect of Beijing’s relationship with Islamabad. As proof, China made sure that the formal joint statement included Pakistan’s recognition of ETIM as a terrorist organization.
According to Chinese-language report from CRI (reposted by Phoenix News), Hussain told reporters that Xinjiang’s stability and prosperity has important implications for Pakistan’s stability and prosperity. For the Chinese government, the reverse scenario is perhaps more concerning—stability (or lack thereof) in Pakistan could have a direct effect on security within China, especially in Xinjiang province. In the joint statement, Pakistan also reiterated its commitment “to support China’s efforts in combating the three evils of terrorism, extremism and separatism.” The million-dollar (or $20 billion) question is whether Islamabad is truly able to provide the level of security Beijing demands.
According to CRI’s article, Hussain had three goals in coming to China: to sign new economic agreements, to push for speedy implementation of already agreed upon economic projects, and to cooperate with China’s government on the “healthy and rapid development” of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. To summarize, Hussain’s top three priorities were the economy, the economy, and the economy. In general, Hussain’s attitude during the visit reflected the growing imbalance between China and Pakistan—China is the benevolent patron, while Pakistan brings lists of requests.
As an example, Hussain was especially hoping to secure Chinese cooperation to revamp Pakistan’s beleaguered energy sector. “The people of Pakistan will be grateful to [the] Chinese people and government for their help in energy sector,” Hussain reportedly said before leaving for Beijing. He didn’t leave empty-handed—in the joint statement, China promised Pakistan “its full support in helping the latter address its energy deficit.” Beijing promised to “encourage and support” investment in Pakistan’s energy sector by both state-owned enterprises and private companies. Should security concerns derail this cooperation, it would be disastrous for Islamabad, but of only marginal concern for Beijing.
China has made clear the terms of increased economic cooperation—a better security environment within Pakistan. Beijing’s tantalizing offers of investment, coupled with its traditional political support, will incentivize Islamabad to take these demands seriously. As Ahmad Rashid Malik, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, wrote for China’s Global Times, “If Pakistan overcame its security problems, China could increase its investments … The proposed CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] could attract huge investment from China, but Pakistan needs to make the institutional arrangements to back this up.”
It’s a big test for Hussain’s government. Should security concerns worsen, China has other economic routes to the west in the works—the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is only one part of a greater regional strategy. But from Islamabad’s perspective, there’s no easy replacement for the massive amounts of investment involved should the project fall through.