Though the interests of the two countries are increasingly intertwined due to CPEC, the question still remains as to what Pakistan should be able to expect from its “iron brother” on an international diplomatic stage.
The relationship between China and Pakistan is almost as old as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) itself and significantly Pakistan was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with PRC in 1950. Whilst relations between the neighbouring countries have remained largely positive over the years, the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2013 means the alliance between the two countries has entered a golden age. Indeed, China’s current investments in CPEC stand at around $62 billion and the project is expected to reinvigorate Pakistan’s economy. No wonder then that just two months after the establishment of CPEC former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif famously described the alliance in glowing terms as “sweeter than honey” and “higher than the Himalayas”. However, just last month a statement from the BRICS summit that China hosted in Xiamen threatened to undermine this warm rhetoric and the “all weather friendship” between the two countries.
On September 4th, a BRICS declaration against terror groups included, among others, Lashkar e Taiba, Jaish e Mohammed and the Haqqani Network. All three groups are based in Pakistan. This declaration came just three days after Chinese Foreign Minister spokesperson Hua Chunying told a press briefing that Pakistan’s counter-terrorism effort was not an “appropriate topic” for the BRICS summit. Granted, the Xiamen declaration neither explicitly named Pakistan nor made any overt comments about Pakistan’s ability to deal with terrorism, yet the very mention of these three groups opened Pakistan to speculation about its effectiveness in dealing with terrorism in its own backyard. Such a declaration, ostensibly endorsed by one of Pakistan’s closest allies at a high profile international summit, undoubtedly dealt a heavy blow to Islamabad.
This particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s televised address on August 22 which included comments on Pakistan’s role in the war on terror. In the aftermath of President Trump’s address, China hastened to defend Pakistan’s efforts in combatting terrorism and the “great sacrifices” the country has made. China was again quick to clarify its position following the BRICS declaration and to convey that there was “no change in Chinese policy regarding Pakistan”. Indeed, when Pakistan foreign minister Khawaja Asif visited China just a few days after the BRICS declaration, in a joint press conference between him and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Yi applauded Pakistan’s hard work, commitment and sacrifices during the war on terror.
More recently, following US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Islamabad on October 24, China again expressed its support for Pakistan on the terrorism issue with a foreign office spokesperson telling reporters that “the international community should fully affirm the counter- terrorism efforts of Pakistan”. The global pressure on Pakistan with regard to combating terrorism is monumental and shows no signs of abating. Whilst China has largely positioned itself as a protector and buffer for Pakistan against such pressure, the BRICS summit was a sobering departure from past precedent.
However, the purpose of this piece is not to speculate as to why China changed its position in Xiamen, which has already been addressed, but rather to highlight a break with China’s usual robust support of Pakistan. It seeks to provide a more nuanced understanding of the China-Pakistan friendship that is so often described with hyperbolic rhetoric. Though China’s actions by no means constitute a dramatic betrayal of Pakistan, its perceived inconsistency on the terrorism issue, which one expert termed a “really big mistake,” at the very least raises important questions for the Pakistan-China relationship, particularly as it ushers in the CPEC era.
The BRICS episode should not be dismissed as China merely bowing to international pressure. Nor should it be regarded as a calculated move because past precedent reveals that China has withstood similar pressure on many previous occasions. However, it should serve to stimulate further thought and discussion as to where the balance is between the “all weather friendship” that Pakistan and China claim to enjoy and the extent to which they will go to protect their own interests.
Though the interests of the two countries are increasingly intertwined due to CPEC, the question still remains as to what Pakistan should be able to expect from its “iron brother” on an international diplomatic stage. Ultimately, it would appear that a crack has emerged on the surface of the all weather friendship and while motions have been made to hastily repair it, it remains to be seen whether it will re-cement or develop further fissures as time goes on.
Ayesha Ahmed is a researcher at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs.