Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was in China for a two-day official visit last week, the first foreign head of government to arrive in Beijing since Xi Jinping took on a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party late last month. During this trip, Sharif met with Premier Li Keqiang and other officials including top Chinese legislators. The two sides signed a number of intergovernmental cooperation agreements in areas including economy, trade and investment, e-commerce, digital economy, culture, law enforcement, and security.
During his meeting with Sharif, Xi underscored the importance of Pakistan in China’s neighborhood diplomacy and said the two countries “are good friends, good partners and good brothers.” He went on to add that the two “supported each other and forged ahead, demonstrating an iron-clad friendship” and that China is all set to “elevate the level of all-round strategic cooperation… and inject new impetus into their all-weather strategic cooperative partnership.”
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) came up in Xi’s discussions with Sharif. Xi stated that China and Pakistan, through the Joint Cooperation Committee of CPEC, will further accelerate CPEC development, bringing in “greater efficiency, and make CPEC an exemplar of high-quality Belt and Road cooperation.” Xi added that it is of importance that they “accelerate the construction of auxiliary infrastructure for Gwadar Port” in order to bring about greater development and interconnectedness in the region. Xi also talked about how China will push the development and upgrading of a number of internal developmental projects including ML-1 (a high-speed rail project Main Line-1 from Karachi to Peshawar worth $9.8 billion) and the Karachi Circular Railway project.
Sharif, for his part, emphasized the importance of “deepening Pakistan’s all-weather strategic cooperative partnership with China” as a “cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the national consensus of Pakistan.” He went on to express his full confidence in China and Xi’s “extraordinary vision” to “lead China toward even more remarkable achievements and create an even brighter future for the world.” He thanked China for all the COVID-related assistance as well as the support extended to Pakistan following the devastating floods. Sharif said that Pakistan extends complete support for Xi’s Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative and that the “Pakistan-China friendship is unbreakable.” Soothing to Xi’s ears, Sharif reiterated Pakistan’s strong support for the One China policy and its firm backing for China’s position on Beijing’s core issues including Taiwan, Xinjiang, South China Sea, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
Sharif also met with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, who expressed similar sentiments about the nature of bilateral ties. He assured the Pakistani prime minister that China stands ready to work with Pakistan in all the different developmental projects across domains including ports, transportation, energy, industry, and social livelihoods. But he also stated that the “Pakistani side needs to take the negotiation and signing of the Enhanced Version of the Work Plan on Protecting the Safety and Security of All Chinese Personnel, Projects and Institutions in Pakistan as an opportunity, and make every effort to ensure the safety and security of all Chinese personnel, projects and institutions in Pakistan.”
The security of Chinese citizens working on CPEC projects has been of concern to China for a while now. The 11th Joint Cooperation Committee of the CPEC that met recently agreed to augment the capabilities of Pakistani law enforcement institutions in order to prevent incidents of attacks on Chinese nationals that have hampered the CPEC projects implementation. Media reports that cite the draft minutes of the meeting say that “bullet-proof vehicles shall be used for all outdoor movements of the Chinese employed on projects.” China is also said to be assisting Pakistan is setting up a training center to train private security guards as well as law enforcement personnel in order for them to be equipped with “modern techniques and modules.”
Sharif also had a meeting with China’s top legislator, Li Zhanshu, during his stay in Beijing. Li appreciated Sharif’s visit to China soon after the conclusion of the 20th National Congress of the CCP, characterizing it as a sign of the “special friendship between the two countries.” Li also assured Sharif that China’s National People’s Congress will make all efforts to intensify cooperation with the Pakistani Parliament at all levels.
From a rhetorical angle, the visit appears to have been a success. But for all the right statements and claims of the unbreakable, iron-clad relationship between Beijing and Islamabad, there was very little substance to the trip. As one analyst put it, “This trip was more words and little action, and mostly about reaffirming Pakistan and China’s all-weather strategic partnership.” If Pakistan hoped for some relief for its crumbling economic and political situation, Beijing did not forgive the debts that Pakistan owes to China. According to Pakistani media reports, Islamabad made a plea to China “to rollover its $6.3 billion debt” that will be coming up between now and June next year. Of this, Chinese commercial loans account for $3.3 billion and the remaining $3 billion are SAFE deposits loans. The SAFE deposit loans were originally worth $4 billion, and China is reported to have rolled over $1 billion in July. In addition, Pakistan has over $900 million in bilateral Chinese debt that will be up for repayment in the current fiscal year. Meanwhile, Pakistan is putting forward a fresh proposal, seeking a fresh Chinese loan so as to make the repayment of the bilateral debt that is coming up during the fiscal year 2022-23.
According to the latest media reports, Pakistan appears to have got a bit of a breather, but it does not resolve the financial or debt-related issues for Islamabad. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar told the media that during Sharif’s visit to China, “the Chinese leadership promised to roll over $4 billion in sovereign loans, refinance $3.3 billion commercial bank loans and increase currency swap by about $1.45 billion — from 30 billion yuan to 40 billion yuan. The total worked out at $8.75 billion.”
On security and defense cooperation between China and Pakistan, the joint statement released after the visit highlighted the “trust and communication between the armed forces of the two countries.” The statement also highlighted their strong strategic defense and security cooperation as “an important factor of peace and stability in the region” and vowed to continue strengthening the high-level military to military engagements as well as augment their cooperation in areas such as training, joint exercises and defense technology. The two sides also reiterated their condemnation of all forms and manifestations of terrorism and criticized the politicization of the issue. Pakistan also brought up Jammu and Kashmir and updated the Chinese side on the current situation. China called for a peaceful resolution of the issue while taking into account the U.N. Charter, relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, and bilateral agreements.
Politically and strategically, Pakistan is significant for China. In fact, as Xi said, China approaches Pakistan “from a strategic and long-term perspective,” which means that Pakistan’s current economic and political uncertainties are unlikely to have any dampening effect on the bilateral relationship. As for Pakistan, even as it may be warming up to better ties with the United States, ties with China are here to stay.