China’s newly appointed foreign minister, Qin Gang, made his first visit to Pakistan on May 6 and 7. In a joint press meeting in Pakistan with Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Qin stated that stability was a prerequisite for development. As Pakistan’s good neighbor, friend, and partner, he said, China advised political forces withing Pakistan to build consensus, maintain stability, and focus on improving the economy and people’s livelihoods.
His very public censure was unusual given China’s historic emphasis on “abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country.” This is a principled stance, which Chinese officials hold up as differentiating their diplomacy from the United States and other Western countries. Such sensitive topics were usually discussed privately with Pakistan.
China’s relationship with Pakistan is based on realpolitik, and so as long as China’s interests are accommodated, Beijing will engage with whoever is in charge. Qin’s advice, therefore, should primarily be seen emanating from China’s concerns with Pakistan’s economy and its effect on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). His words were published by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of CPEC discussions. The fact that these comments were missing in the joint statement published with Pakistan perhaps reflected the Pakistani government’s sensitivity.
Qin’s words were interpreted by supporters of the ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan and his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), as backing their call for national elections. For others, they served as a reminder of 1971, when Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had advised Pakistan’s rulers to quietly settle political issues with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his political party, the Awami League.
However, the arrest of Khan by the Rangers – a paramilitary force – just three days after Qin’s comments led to speculations regarding China’s role. In particular, the timing of Khan’s arrest was raised by some on social media. Two days after Qin’s visit, the Pakistan Army’s media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), had issued a warning to Imran Khan to stop maligning its serving officers without evidence. He was arrested the following day, while attending a corruption case against him at Islamabad High court.
The next 48 hours saw Pakistan descend into chaos as Khan’s supporters went on a rampage against the military, attacking installations and even some officers. Security deteriorated to the point that the military had to be called into two provinces and mobile internet services suspended. The situation stabilized only when Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the release of Imran Khan. The contrast to Qin’s friendly advice for stability in Pakistan could not have been more complete.
Sameer Lalwani has written about increasingly close relations between China and Pakistan’s military in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling it a threshold alliance. Yet analysts such as Arif Rafiq think otherwise, claiming Pakistan’s military was worried about complete U.S. withdrawal from the region after leaving Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s general were, Rafiq argued, resorting to desperate means to garner Washington’s attention. Likely ignoring the advice of diplomats, he said, third parties were being used to convey the danger of Pakistan falling into China’s “debt trap,” something which he believed could risk endangering China’s goodwill toward Pakistan.
In September of 2022, Washington had approved a $450 million upgrade package for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, reversing its ban on arms sales to Pakistan. Allegedly it was not done to appease Pakistan’s military but to show India the United States’ displeasure at its purchase of Russian oil during the Ukraine war.
Given these developments, it is understandable that China was keen to hear from Pakistan’s newly appointed Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Asim Munir, when he visited the country for the first time. They wanted to know his opinion on CPEC projects, security for Chinese nationals, as well as the political upheaval inside Pakistan. His visit, which came a week before China’s foreign minister’s trip to Pakistan, raises questions regarding what reassurances he may have provided, which led to the very public chastisement of Pakistan’s political forces.
For CPEC’s success, China needs broad-based support from political parties inside Pakistan. Apart from initial concerns raised by Khan and his party shortly after they were voted into power, CPEC more or less has received that support. This includes the current ruling alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif from the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N).
This alliance fractured when the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), another major party in the group, chose not to synchronize their decisions with the PML-N and moved away. The PML-N and PPP according to Asma Faiz, have been at loggerheads with each other over their relations with the military establishment to gain power. It is only their opposition to the PTI that so far has kept them in a working relationship. This is another factor behind Qin’s appeal for consensus building and focusing on getting the economy on track.
Equally important for CPEC, Xi Jinping’s chosen flagship project in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is support from China’s domestic audience. With the announcement of CPEC in 2013, Chinese government officials began to emphasize Pakistan’s reliability in media. They began to refer to Pakistanis as 巴铁 (ba tie) or Pak iron brothers, to the extent that Tehmina Janjua, Pakistan’s first female foreign secretary, had to remind them that “steel sisters” were equally invested in good relations with China. Chinese businesses and citizens could hence feel reassured their investments and interests would be safe with “iron” Pakistan and backed by their government.
As CPEC centers its 10th year, the event could have been marked with another visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and inauguration of projects such as the New Gwadar International Airport, built with a Chinese grant. Instead, Chinese officials were left chasing after their Pakistani counterparts on behalf of Chinese energy companies, to ensure due payments of around $1.5 billion. Chinese power plants inside Pakistan were also struggling to purchase spare parts as the State Bank of Pakistan had restricted availability of foreign exchanges, partly due to the stalled International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal. Mobile phone manufacturing projects, including those part of CPEC, had also halted inside the country for the same reason, with several Chinese engineers having reportedly left Pakistan.
And then Chinese workers in Pakistan, who were already under duress due to rising terrorist attacks, suddenly found themselves facing a new threat in the country involving Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and disgruntled Pakistani workers. With the devastating consequences of the floods last year in Pakistan, and the IMF bailout deal failing to proceed constructively, Pakistan’s economy was in a freefall – and threatening to take Chinese companies and workers with them. All the while, China was in no mood to carry Pakistan’s burden entirely on its own, choosing to extend loans rather than write them off completely.
Leaked official documents in the media, including those from Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, suggest a struggle inside Pakistan between those who want to appease the United States and other Western countries versus those who wanted to fully commit to Pakistan’s “real strategic” partnership with China. According to former Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan was being kept financially afloat because of China’s decision to roll over even commercial loans during the IMF saga.
Yet, a Pakistani federal minister, speaking to local media, portrayed this help as a threat against Pakistan in comments clearly aimed at Western powers. Pakistanis are also raising questions regarding relations with China in light of the changing world order. This is despite Chinese assistance both by the government and private donors during Pakistan’s summer floods of 2022.
Throughout his Pakistan trip, China’s foreign minister mentioned Pakistan’s inclusion in Xi’s new agendas, the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). Chinese officials in Pakistan had also been busy raising awareness about the GSI and GDI and what they mean for Pakistan, such as the three poverty alleviation projects in Balochistan. These expansive agendas are in addition to plans to expand CPEC to Afghanistan, and connect with the Central Asian republics, as reiterated at the fifth China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in Islamabad.
However, Pakistan’s deteriorating economy, a rise in terrorist attacks on Chinese nationals, coupled with an unstable polity that appears to be divided over relations with China, has given Beijing reason to doubt its ambitions for the relationship. That concern is the backdrop for Qin Gang’s words of caution to Pakistan’s political forces.