As a Pakistani journalist, China has always been of great interest to me. In recent years, I have had the opportunity to explore the country twice. Each time one visits China, it looks different and more developed compared to the last time. Many parts of the country are still changing rapidly.
Pakistan’s most populous city, Lahore, is similar in that respect. In Lahore, in contrast to Pakistan’s other cities, there are roads, tunnels, buses, underpasses and other infrastructure, which look like they might have been designed in China’s capital, Beijing. It also seems that Pakistan wants to copy China at a broader level, following the investment – the largest in Pakistan’s history – in the multibillion dollar project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
While exchange between China and Pakistan has surged following the announcement of the CPEC, the bond in fact dates back to the formation of Communist China, which Pakistan acknowledged. At the time, Pakistan’s inclination was towards the West, and anti-communism. Nonetheless, explains Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Masood Khalid, “Our friendship with China is tradition. Our amicable ties with China have been developing over the years.”
Officially, in China and Pakistan, there is much talk of this friendship, despite the absence of any significant shared culture, history, cuisine, customs, or traditions. The difference between Chinese and Pakistani lifestyles is stark. But the bilateral friendship does not revolve around such things. “My first home is Xinjiang; my second home is Beijing; and my third home is Pakistan,” claims Erkenjian Tulahong, a senior Communist Party official in Hubei province. “In 2005, I visited Pakistan as a young leader, where I was warmly welcomed. That is why I have special feelings for Pakistan.” Pakistani officials might go one step further, and call China their second home.
Interacting with Chinese government officials, professors, and students in various provinces in China, I encountered little knowledge of Pakistan and its people. Speak with ordinary Chinese, and they find it difficult to say anything about Pakistan beyond the fact that China and Pakistan are friends. More educated Chinese can cite three things related to Pakistan: China-Pakistan friendship, CPEC, and the Gwadar port project.
Yet interactions between the two countries have been on the rise over the past couple of years, with regular contact between officials on trade, economic ties, military cooperation, and other mutual interests. “China-Pakistan relations currently show extremely positive signs, which is why we are interacting with each other on a regular basis,” says Khalid. “In the near future, we are confident that ties between the two countries will develop further, which is in the great interests of the two countries.”
Still, there are very real gaps in the bilateral relationship, most notably people-to-people contact. As much as Chinese and Pakistani officials try to learn about each other, ordinary Chinese and Pakistani understand very little about each other. There is very little grass-roots involvement in the relationship, and little educative interaction.
The architect of Pakistan-China relations was Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the late 1950s. Later, the mantle was taken up by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was partial to wearing Chairman Mao-style caps.
Today, China has emerged as a major power in Asia with a dynamic economy. Its regional influence has expanded exponentially. In the meantime, the United States has been tilting ever closer to India, as U.S.-Pakistan ties become ever more frayed. This context has opened the door for stronger Pakistan-China relations. “Today, geo-strategically and geo-economically, our relations with China are remarkable,” asserts Khalid. “We have to be grateful to China for whatever help it is providing to Pakistan.”
My discussions with Chinese professors revealed concern about the growing ties between the United States and India, believing that it was part of Washington’s efforts to curtail Chinese influence in the region. For instance, they point to “Indo-Pacific,” a term currently in fashion after U.S. President Donald J. Trump used during his recent visit to China. “Instead of using the term ‘Asia-Pacific,” the U.S. deliberately prefers ‘Indo-Pacific” to antagonize China,” said a Chinese professor of South Asian studies.
Chinese academics are also curious about worsening U.S.-Pakistan relations under Trump. The U.S. president is increasingly taking a tougher line, with a new policy that appears to punish Pakistan for its perceived failures in Afghanistan. Asked one Chinese professor in Sichuan: “So, in these circumstances, what is Pakistan going to do? Are ties between the U.S. and Pakistan likely to worsen in the coming years? How can Pakistan amicably resolve and reverse Trump’s tougher line?”
Much about the China-Pakistan relationship remains unclear. Beyond the mantra of friendship, few dimensions to the relationship are obvious. There are several reasons for this, it seems. There is an official line with little scope for anything else, especially anything that might be perceived as critical. There are several reasons for this.
First, the press in China is tightly controlled. Chinese newspapers reflect the policies of the state of China. English-language dailies offer very little insight into China, its society, or its diplomacy for non-Chinese readers. Everything you read is what the state of China wants you to read.
Thankfully, the press in Pakistan is somewhat more open. A wide range of topics can be discussed and debated, including relations with China.
In fact, China Radio International it has a full-fledged set up in Pakistan, with a program in Pakistan’s official Urdu language. But while that furthers China culturally, politically and economically in Pakistan, it does little to present Pakistan’s point of view inside China. In general, the media of both countries have done little to inform ordinary Chinese and Pakistanis about the relationship.
I was visiting China with a delegation of Pakistan’s Balochistan government. Chinese officials showed considerable interest in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by landmass. Because CPEC is also based in Balochistan, China is set to increase its engagement in the province at all levels. For this reason, delegations from Balochistan are regularly invited to visit China. For their part, government delegates from Balochistan view CPEC as a game changer, and a very real opportunity to develop the province. “Through CPEC, we hope to further improve our ties with China,” saids Passand Khan Buledi, a senior government official from Balochistan. “In this regard, students from Balochistan should also be encouraged to study in Chinese universities.”
The heart of CPEC is Gwadar, which is situated in Balochistan. It looks set to boom on the strength of Chinese investment. “There is considerable potential in Balochistan that needs to be unearthed and harnessed,” according to Buledi. Yet there is also a deep sense of deprivation among the general population in Balochistan, who also seem largely uninterested in the unfolding development. The apathy can be explained by the conviction the locals will see little benefit from Chinese money.
Chinese already have a presence in a few districts of Balochistan, where they are working on a number of projects. To date, the projects have done little to improve local living standards. Take Gwadar, where there is no drinking water, and locals must depend on water tankers. Instead of addressing basic issues like this to win the hearts and minds of the Baloch people, they are further being disillusioned and alienated.
China: A New Magnet for Pakistani Students?
China is an increasingly popular destination for Pakistani students. In the past, students would only look to China for medical and engineering studies. Things are different now. Around 22,000 Pakistani students are studying at Chinese universities, pursuing not only medicine and engineering fields but also the social and natural sciences. One university I visited had 60 students from Pakistan, with 30 doing doctorates.
These numbers are expected to grow. With full scholarships frequently on offer, China is becoming a more accessible destination for Pakistanis than the West. For the Pakistan government, this is not an unwelcome trend. For one thing, when Pakistani students go to Europe and America for their studies, they often do not return. Those who go to China do tend to come back home, and contribute to Pakistan’s development. For the bilateral relationship, the growing student numbers can obviously deepen engagement over the long term.
One concern is that most of the Pakistani students in China are from the major cities in Pakistan, with relatively few from the lesser developed areas. For instance, China might be developing a port of Gwadar, in Balochistan, but it is hard to find people from that region studying in China. Giving opportunities for people from poorer parts of Pakistan to study in China might be able to bring back the skills that could help these regions benefit from Chinese projects. The onus is on the Pakistani government to provide financial support to give students from places like Balochistan the opportunity to study in China.
Relations Under Xi Jinping
China-Pakistan relations under the tenure of Chinese President Xi Jinping are widely seen as having strengthened considerably. Numerous bilateral agreements have been concluded during his presidency, most notably CPEC, announced during his visit to Pakistan.
In recent years, China has also bolstered its military relations with Pakistan. There is regular exchange among military officials. And at the highest levels, when India invited former U.S. President Barack Obama to attend India’s Republic Day in 2015, Pakistan extended its own invitation to Xi.
More than politics, Xi’s concerns seem focused on trade and development. China and India fought a war in 1962, and were more recently embroiled in the Doklam standoff, yet they enjoy robust economic ties. Indeed, China does more trade with India than it does with Pakistan. This level of practicality is a hallmark of foreign policy under Xi.
During my trip, a Chinese told me, “You know, we are businessmen. So, we visit Pakistan for the same purpose. But unfortunately, when we are in Pakistan, we have to visit places under stringent security.
He goes on to ask, “Why do we have to have all the security? We want freedom of movement in order to meet people, not security. That is our main concern. Because we are businessmen.”
Undoubtedly, Chinese are concerned about the security situation in Pakistan. China has only recently warned its citizens about possible threats in Pakistan. This is alarming for Pakistan, which is aware of its obligation to provide safe environment for all foreign visitors, including Chinese nationals, and understands that security is a prerequisite for development and investment.
Although security forces in Pakistan claim to have disrupted the network of militants groups in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, the militancy has yet to end. In Balochistan, Chinese nationals have been killed by militants. In Sindh, a Chinese engineer was targeted in a roadside bomb in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh province, while on his way to Port Qasim, but fortunately escaped unhurt. In this context, China’s recent warning to its citizens about possible threats is unsurprising. The militants are still active, and Pakistan must do much more to make sure Chinese and other nationals can visit in safety.
Thankfully, the environment for Chinese and foreign nationals in Pakistan’s most populous and developed Punjab province is safe. They can roam freely, as well as can interact with people with ease. For these reasons, Chinese investment is mostly directed toward Punjab.
As we have noted, people-to-people contact between Pakistan and China is extremely limited. At the grass roots level, their people know little or nothing about each other. Explained a Chinese professor at Sichuan University, “This is all because of one reason: security. Chinese cannot openly and freely interact with their Pakistani friends for that reason. So there is no substantial engagement between them, which is why they are not fully aware of each other. If there were no security issue, then the people of the two countries could better understand and intermingle with each other.”
Pakistani officials are well aware that security is essential for all foreign nationals, including Chinese. That is why security forces have been pushing back on militants, including Uighurs in North Waziristan. For this reason, Chinese complaints about Uighur militants have dwindled in recent years.
Since the attack on the Army Public School in 2014, in which 132 children were slaughtered by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP), Pakistan’s security establishment has stepped up its fight against militant groups nationwide. As a result, peace is being restored in some parts of the country that were once no-go areas. But is the peace temporary or permanent?
Clearly, a peaceful Pakistan will have positive repercussions both domestically and abroad, helping to attract investment and development for mutual benefit. As for China, Pakistan’s ambassador Masood Khalid is confident on the question of the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan. “The state of Pakistan is providing security to Chinese nationals, and they (Chinese) are satisfied with that.”
The ambassador may be right about the claim of providing security to Chinese nationals in Pakistan. However, that is not the question. The question is: When can Chinese move around Pakistan without security?
Muhammad Akbar Notezai works with Pakistan’s daily Dawn.