Forging a New Path for Pakistan-China Relations – Analysis – Eurasia Review
By Arif Rafiq*
When a suicide bomber killed three Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver several weeks ago in Karachi, China-Pakistan relations were already strained by Pakistan’s economic turmoil and political instability, as well as rivalry wider between the United States and China.
The attack – claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army, a secular and ethnic Baloch separatist organization seeking to secede from Pakistan and eliminate China’s economic and diplomatic footprint in the region – could be an inflection point in the relations between the two strategic partners.
The new Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif reacted quickly, to visit Chinese Embassy in Islamabad a few hours later to express solidarity. But Beijing was furious. An op-ed in the state-run Global Times newspaper “strongly calls for[ed]’ better protection for Chinese citizens and entities in Pakistan and warned that those who target Chinese nationals will be hit hard.
Beijing’s anger is not entirely unprecedented. He reacted similarly last year when terrorists hit a convoy carrying Chinese engineers to a dam construction site in Dasu. Islamabad had to pay $11.6 million in compensation to the families of Chinese engineers killed or injured. Previous incidents also include a complex attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi and a suicide bombing targeting Chinese engineers en route to the Saindak mine in Balochistan.
Attacks on Chinese nationals and facilities by ethnic separatist and jihadist terrorist groups have increased since the launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015. With the Baloch separatists’ main adversary, the Pakistani state, their partner the closest is an effective pressure point to target. Underlying these attacks is the belief that Chinese investments in extractive and port projects in Balochistan are not just exploitation, but could also strengthen Pakistani state control over the province.
The persistence of these attacks may suggest to some that Beijing’s overseas economic and strategic expansion may be deterred by violence. And Beijing’s perceived inability to secure its nationals overseas is likely an affront to domestic nationalist voters. As a result, China appears to be pressing Pakistan to take greater kinetic action against the perpetrators of the Karachi attack and to step up the already considerable safety net for Chinese nationals.
Islamabad has directed considerable resources and manpower to protect Chinese nationals in the country, even raising a military force of 15,000 personnel to secure CPEC projects. But terrorist groups have exploited gaps in security arrangements for Chinese nationals in Pakistan, targeting those with less restrictive security outside the CPEC framework. Islamabad’s brutal response to the Balochistan insurgency over the past two decades has only served to widen its reach among the educated Baloch middle class. What Balochistan ultimately needs is a political solution.
But Chinese pressure could aggravate Pakistani security services’ bad instincts to push for an exclusively military response. And the additional security deployment ultimately increases the effective cost of development projects in the country, borne by the Pakistani taxpayer.
Security threats are not the only challenge for China-Pakistan relations. The new coalition government in Islamabad must also deal with Beijing’s growing aversion to lending to high-risk countries like Pakistan. And although Beijing has signaled its willingness to roll over short-term loans to prop up the rupee, China’s political banks are unwilling to dig deeper into the Pakistani quagmire.
Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s public attempts to balance China and the United States could also reinforce Beijing’s reluctance to fund major infrastructure projects in Pakistan. In March, Bajwa said Pakistan had turned to Beijing as an arms supplier only because it had been rebuffed by the West, insinuating it was a partner of last resort. This could have been seen as an affront to China, especially as increasing bilateral military cooperation has proven vital to Pakistan’s national security.
Curiously, the Sharif government is behaving as if these new constraints on Chinese funding do not exist, with senior Pakistani government officials declaring their intention to get expensive projects back on track – like the US$9.2 billion project. to revamp Pakistan’s main railway line. .
Although Sharif is seen as an “old friend” of China and his development-oriented pragmatism makes him sympathetic to Beijing, China is unlikely to turn the taps on full blast – given Pakistan’s growing debt, attempts at geopolitical rebalancing by military leaders and global political uncertainty.
A more cautious approach for Islamabad would be to focus on lower-cost projects that can have a more immediate impact where it matters most to Pakistan, including improving agricultural productivity and boosting exports, which are essential. for Pakistan to embark on the path of sustainable and rapid development. economic growth. Under Khan’s government, exports have reached a record high and with the entry into force of the second phase of the bilateral free trade agreement in 2021, exports to China have also increased significantly.
Rather than incur billions in additional debt, the Sharif government should refine its near-term efforts to take advantage of the bilateral FTA and produce export-quality goods for China’s huge consumer market. She may have no other choice – if insecurity persists, the coming years could see a lighter Chinese footprint in Pakistan.
*About the author: Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum