The Pulse

Is China Souring on Pakistan?

Recent Features

The Pulse | Diplomacy | East Asia | South Asia

Is China Souring on Pakistan?

The China-Pakistan joint statement issued during the visit of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is illuminating, both for what it says – and doesn’t say.

Is China Souring on Pakistan?

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (center right), accompanied by Chinese Premier Li Qiang, is presented with an honor guard at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China, June 7, 2024.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Pakistan

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif recently returned from an official visit to China. While there, he not only met President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Qiang, and other officials, but also members of China’s business community at the Pakistan-China Business Forum 2024 in Shenzhen.

According to Pakistani media, the prime minister gave a clear and strong message of commitment to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Sharif’s views on CPEC had been appreciated by the Chinese even during his time as chief minister of Punjab province. As a result of his quick delivery of CPEC projects in Punjab,  Chinese diplomats had given him the title “Shehbaz Speed.”

The importance of his trip, however, was not just to relay Pakistan’s commitment to CPEC but also to convince his hosts of Pakistan’s determination to address two important concerns that China had been consistently raising – namely, stability and security in Pakistan. Political instability in Pakistan had added to the country’s economic woes, and a deteriorating security situation inside Pakistan, with Chinese citizens increasingly targeted, was taking the shine off China’s “flagship”  Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

These issues appeared prominently in the 2024 China-Pakistan joint statement released at the end of Sharif’s visit in early June. We can glean additional insights about the relationship by comparing the most recent statement with three others: the 2018 joint statement issued after former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to China, the 2022 joint statement after the visit of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif when he had replaced Khan, and, lastly, the 2023 joint statement after interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar’s visit.

These statements, agreed by both governments, provide a window into some of the issues discussed privately between them. As such changes in these documents can shed light on any change in their priorities.

Stability and Bilateral Relations

The two mantras of “stability” and “security” were first raised by China’s then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang during his visit to Pakistan in May 2023. His visit had come nearly a year after former Prime Minister Imran Khan had been replaced by Shehbaz Sharif, following a vote of no confidence in Parliament. Stability, Qin explained, was a prerequisite for development while security was the foundation for strength and prosperity of a country. He publicly censured Pakistani officials with “friendly advice” to build consensus among themselves and to bring stability and development to the country.

After Qin’s visit, more political upheaval followed in Pakistan with the arrest of Khan and riots all over the country, now referred to by authorities as a “dark day.” Despite Chinese narratives of continued support for CPEC, political instability and security issues inside Pakistan appear to be taking a toll on relations between both countries.

China and Pakistan describe their relations as an All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership, which has weathered global challenges. For Pakistan, China is the cornerstone of its foreign policy, evident in all four joint statements examined. China, however, appears to have changed its view on relations with Pakistan, as evident from the 2023 joint statement onwards.

In both the 2018 and 2022 joint statements, China described relations with Pakistan as China’s “highest priority in its foreign policy.” But in the 2023 joint statement, as well as in the 2024 joint statement issued earlier this month, China-Pakistan relations for China are described as just “a priority in its foreign relations.” The adjective “highest” to describe Pakistan’s priority in China’s foreign relations has been omitted in recent statements.

This raises a whole host of questions. The fact the description has been published twice in successive joint statements suggests it was not a mistake. This then opens the possibility that China may have decided to downgrade relations with Pakistan from “the highest priority” to “a priority” in its foreign relations. It is perhaps a reflection of how, 10 years after choosing CPEC as the flagship BRI project, China now views its relations with Pakistan.


Other changes seen in the 2024 joint statement when compared to previous joint statements relate to security, such as the special mention of the suicide attack on Chinese engineers working on the Dasu Dam project. That reflects China’s serious concerns with Pakistan’s security provisions for their citizens inside Pakistan. Chinese officials wanted Pakistan to not only hunt down the perpetrators but also severely punish them for their crime.

Pakistan, after the 2024 Bisham attack, in which five Chinese engineers including a woman were killed, for the first time sacked security officials and police officers in charge of security for the convoy attacked. It has been suggested that after the recent suicide attack, China has been pressuring Pakistan to carry out a large-scale military operation against militants, which is being resisted.

While China may be focused on militancy inside Pakistan, Pakistan appears to be more concerned with what is happening inside Afghanistan as reflected in the 2024 joint statement. Although the statement spoke of cooperation and coordination between both countries on Afghanistan, it made no mention of support for Afghanistan’s development, as seen in the 2018 and 2022 joint statements. The 2022 statement issued during Sharif’s visit to China also mentioned extending CPEC into Afghanistan, but any such reference was absent from the 2023 and 2024 joint statements.

What the 2024 joint statement did do, however, was for the first time put the onus of responsibility on the interim (Taliban) government in Afghanistan to firmly fight against terrorism and not allow its soil to be used for terrorist activities. That reflected Pakistan’s recent security concerns about terrorist incidents planned inside Afghanistan and carried out on its territory – including attacks on Chinese nationals. Pakistan’s interior minister, in a press conference, had specifically asked the Taliban government to arrest and hand over the alleged masterminds of the Bisham suicide attack in which five Chinese engineers and their driver were killed.

It was interesting to note words such as “trust” and “cooperation” used multiple times for relations between the armed forces of China and Pakistan in the joint statements. The 2024 statement, however, also referred to how they had also developed close coordination with each other, perhaps referring to their joint military exercises. This closeness has led some to call China-Pakistan relations  a “threshold alliance.”


Some of the CPEC projects mentioned in the 2024 joint statement appear to have undergone minor adjustments. The early harvest project, the ML-1 railway project is still included (it was missing in the 2018 joint statement) but the Karachi Circular Railway, mentioned in the 2022 joint statement as an urgent requirement, was not. It was not included in the 2023 joint statement, either, reflecting its fall in priority.

Some see progress in the ML-1 project under Sharif as modest, with China only agreeing to advance the first phase. Sinosure, the Chinese state-owned insurance company that approves mandatory insurance for major CPEC projects, has been showing concerns about unpaid dues Pakistan owes to Chinese power companies working in the country under CPEC. Their financial concerns regarding current CPEC projects somewhat help explain the slow progress of the expensive ML-1 project and why the 2024 joint statement did not reveal a new major CPEC project. With Pakistan’s rising circular debt crisis hindering the country’s growth, new and costly projects would have to wait.

In the 2024 joint statement, third-party investment priority areas such as agriculture, IT, industry, science and technology are retained, but oil and gas, present in the 2022 joint statement, has been replaced with mining. What is also noticeable is the Chinese government’s assurance to encourage Chinese companies to actively invest in Pakistan’s offshore oil and gas projects. Similarly, the Chinese government promised to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Pakistan’s special economic zones, with a caveat that the projects fulfill market and commercial principles. In other words, such investments will be strictly business, with no special favors for Pakistan.

Joint statements released by China and Pakistan provide a good barometer for where CPEC may be headed. The 2024 joint statement emphasized an “upgraded version of CPEC” with eight major steps aligning with Pakistan’s “5Es Framework” – and yet there are no new major projects to show for it. But more importantly, the statements reveal the state of relations between both countries, such as the dropping of Pakistan from “the highest priority” to “a priority” in China’s foreign policy, both in 2023 and 2024. It appears Pakistan has yet to allay China’s concerns with stability and security for Chinese citizens inside Pakistan.