The Pulse

Where Do China-Pakistan Ties Go in the Age of Imran Khan?

The Pakistan-China relationship is likely to maintain a familiar trajectory.

Where Do China-Pakistan Ties Go in the Age of Imran Khan?
Credit: Twitter via @ImranKhanPTI

As economic pressure mounts for Pakistan, it is becoming clear that the new government under Prime Minister Imran Khan will have to borrow $12 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ease pressure on dwindling foreign reserves and repay overseas loans. Pakistan is reeling from an economic crisis and the IMF is its savior of last resort. But there’s a twist in this tale. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that Washington would block an IMF bailout package for Pakistan if it is used to repay Chinese loans borrowed under the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pompeo underlined that U.S. taxpayer dollars were part of IMF funding and therefore the U.S. government would not allow a bailout package for Pakistan that could be used to repay Chinese creditors or the government of China.

In his victory speech, Imran Khan had declared, “Our neighbor is China, we will further strengthen our relations with it,” further arguing that “the CPEC project which China started in Pakistan will give us chance to bring in investment to Pakistan.” Beijing, for its part, had also welcomed the new government, hoping for political stability and economic viability. Soon after the elections, China had lent $2 billion in loans to Pakistan to keep its doddering economy afloat. All this has merely reinforced the growing reliance of Pakistan on China as a source of financial, diplomatic, and military support at a time when Pakistan’s ties with the United States have entered into their worst phase ever. Though in an ideal world Pakistan would like to balance the United States and China, Pakistan’s dependence upon China is only likely to grow in the future and Imran Khan’s government will have little ability to change that.

There is something not quite right about an interstate bilateral relationship when words such as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, and sweeter than honey” are used repeatedly to describe it. No other relationship depends so much on flowery language to underscore its significance as the China-Pakistan bilateral does. Khan’s predecessor Nawaz Sharif also made his maiden trip as Pakistan’s prime minister to China. At the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sharif said his welcome “reminds me of the saying, our friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey.”

To show China how seriously it is taken in Islamabad, Sharif introduced a “China cell” in his office to speed up development projects in the country. This cell was to supervise all development projects to be executed with the cooperation of Chinese companies in Pakistan. This was an attempt to address Chinese concerns about the shoddy state of their investment in Pakistan because of the lackadaisical attitude of the Pakistani government. Meanwhile, Beijing too needs the political and military support of the Pakistani government to counter the cross-border movement of Taliban forces in the border Xinjiang province.

Pakistan enjoys a multifaceted and deep-rooted relationship with China underpinned by mutual trust and confidence. Islamabad has prioritized close ties with China, and Beijing has provided extensive economic, military, and technical assistance to Pakistan over the years. In fact, Pakistan enabled China to cultivate ties with the West, particularly the United States, in the early 1970s, as Pakistan was the conduit for then-U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s landmark secret visit to China in 1971 and was instrumental in bringing China closer to the larger Muslim world.

China’s “no-strings attached” economic aid to Pakistan is appreciated more than the aid it receives from the United States, which often comes with stringent conditions, even though Chinese assistance is nowhere near what that provided by the U.S. gives to Pakistan. With the civilian government of Imran Khan set to be under intense pressure from the United States to do more to fight terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil, there are already calls in Pakistan to adopt a foreign policy which that considers China — and not the United States — to be Pakistan’s strongest ally and most significant stakeholder. China’s emergence as the leading global economic power, coupled with increased cooperation between India and the United States, has helped this suggestion gain traction.

But the Sino-Pakistani relationship remains fundamentally asymmetrical: Pakistan wants more out of its ties with China than China is willing to offer. Today, when Pakistan’s domestic problems are gargantuan, China would be very cautious in involving itself even more. Moreover, the closer China gets to Pakistan, the faster India would move in to the American orbit. Amid worries about the potential destabilizing influence of Pakistani militants on its Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China has taken a harder line against Pakistan. The flow of arms and terrorists from across the border in Pakistan remains a major headache for Chinese authorities and Pakistan’s ability to control the flow of extremists to China at a time of growing domestic turmoil in Pakistan would remain a major variable. As the Western forces move out of Afghanistan, Beijing is worried about regional stability and is hoping against hope that close ties with Pakistan will make it safer. The two states will continue to view each other as important partners, especially as India’s rise continues to aggravate Islamabad and cause anxiety in Beijing.