For decades, Pakistanis have believed that China was Pakistan’s “all-weather friend.” The relationship has been based, since the 1960s, on a shared interest of keeping India in check. More recently, China has been gradually replacing the United States as Pakistan’s principal source of hard currency loans and investment. But when Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Beijing recently, he discovered that China was not willing to offer Pakistan the unconditional love that Pakistan seems to want from its foreign patrons.
Khan had hoped to get a Chinese commitment to help in propping up his government’s shaky finances. Pakistan is on the verge of another balance of payments crisis, with dwindling foreign currency reserves. Unable to expand exports or even curtail imports, successive Pakistani governments have borrowed their way out of such crises in the past. Khan has been trying to reduce the amount Pakistan would need to draw from the IMF by seeking short-term financing from “friendly countries.”
Saudi Arabia agreed to deposit $3 billion in Pakistan’s State Bank and defer payments for oil purchases up to another $3 billion to ease the pressure on Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves. The money has not yet come in and even when it does, it would be akin to a friend putting money into your bank account to make the account look healthier than it is. But Khan and his inexperienced team have few choices, so any relief, or announcement thereof, is better than none.
During his China visit, Khan expected the announcement of a similar dollar figure by the Chinese, alongside agreement to delay some of the expensive projects in the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). He did not get either. For the first time ever, headlines in Pakistan’s media spoke of a Pakistani leader’s China visit being “a failure.”
Instead of agreeing to renegotiate terms of existing infrastructure projects, the Chinese reminded Pakistan’s prime minister of the importance of abiding by contracts. Although 15 memorandums of understanding were signed relating to different sectors, the Chinese refused to go beyond reiterating their friendly sentiment towards Pakistan without committing themselves to dollar and cent specifics.
China will probably still assist Pakistan but at a level much less than anticipated or desired by the government. Apparently, the message from China was that Pakistan’s leaders need to examine and remedy their perennial governance problems. China does not want to be in a situation where its support is taken for granted in Islamabad, while Pakistan’s leaders refuse to change their own behavior or policies.
The Chinese had obviously not taken kindly to adverse comments about CPEC made by Imran Khan and his ministers in the run-up to Pakistan’s elections. Their reticence during Khan’s visit seems to be part of their decision to communicate their displeasure. But there is more to the emerging wedge between China and Pakistan than pique over negative election campaign statements.
China wants its relationship with Islamabad to be based on pragmatic considerations and wishes to avoid the bitterness that comes from unfulfilled, unrealistic expectations.
Pakistan’s elite has a long track record of locational narcissism—the belief that Pakistan’s geostrategic location is enough for major powers to consider it an indispensable ally. The United States poured in $43 billion into Pakistan’s economy and military over six decades, only to be frequently disappointed at Pakistan’s reluctance to accommodate American strategic concerns.
In recent years, most Americans have reached the conclusion that Pakistan’s strategic priorities in relation to Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India are somewhat inflexible. While Islamabad was willing to cooperate with the West tactically during the Cold War, it could not be the partner the U.S. wanted it to be in subsequent years. The falling out between the erstwhile allies has been rancorous.
China seems eager to develop its partnership with Pakistan in a different direction. Unlike the United States, leaders in China do not have to openly discuss their concerns and displeasure. But they have been sharing them with Pakistan’s leaders for years and their snubbing of Imran Khan has come only after realizing that doing so might be necessary to be understood.
From China’s perspective, it was useful to prop up Pakistan as a rival to India in South Asia. Tying down India in a sub-regional rivalry along its western border was meant to ensure that India would be unable to challenge China as the emerging preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific. But creating a secondary deterrent for India through a nuclear-armed Pakistan was never meant to be the end-all of Chinese policy.
Pakistan, on the other hand, not only takes its competition with India seriously but also considers it to be more important than any other strategic consideration for itself or its allies. Pakistan deems India an “eternal enemy,” with which it is neither willing to trade nor expand relations until resolution of outstanding disputes.
Pakistan’s unending asymmetric warfare with India has embroiled it in supporting the Taliban and assorted Jihadis in Afghanistan and Kashmir. India’s hardliners have also not helped in altering the course of India-Pakistan relations but the net result of unending conflict in the region has been to undermine Pakistan’s democratic and economic evolution.
China does not share Pakistan’s pathological fear of India. For China, India is a potential strategic rival but also a major trading partner. China-India trade last year amounted to $84 billion, several times higher than the $15 billion in commerce between Pakistan and China.
It is one thing for Beijing to help Pakistan confront India in an effort to increase India’s costs in South Asia; it is quite another to have to underwrite Pakistan’s economic and other failures as the price for maintaining an irritant for China’s principal Asian challenger.
China’s relatively blunt message to Imran Khan must be seen as part of its effort to explain to Pakistan’s leaders that it wants to help Pakistan help itself—not to support their ideological defiance forever or to constantly defray the cost such defiance afflicts.
CPEC was China’s way of building dual-purpose infrastructure, one that could increase Pakistan’s economic potential while giving China’s military access to West Asia and the Gulf region. But China expects Pakistan’s leaders to implement the plans the two sides have agreed upon, not constantly renegotiate deals.
Beijing also wants a more efficiently run Pakistan, with less influence and interference of Islamist extremists and Jihadis. China does not care as much for the rhetoric about ending corruption, a staple of Khan and his backers in the Pakistani establishment, as it wants political and economic stability.
A China aspiring to be a global power realizes that dependent nations are useful springboards for projecting its power. But China wants Pakistan to be dependable before being a dependency.