China and Pakistan are in a bond they can’t break

Pakistan’s new government has hardly had the time to settle down before facing challenges on a number of fronts—a polycrisis of sorts.

Last week, militants attacked the Turbat naval base and killed a soldier; all the five militants were killed. Freedom fighters from the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack, the second one on a military facility in a week. The BLA had earlier attacked Gwadar, the port in Balochistan being developed by China with an adjacent industrial zone—the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the infrastructure projects China is funding as part of its $62-billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Two Pakistani soldiers and eight BLA fighters were killed.

The China connection in both these incidents is evident—Turbat hosts the Chinese drones used to target Baloch freedom fighters and Gwadar, where China has invested in mineral extraction, is seen as exploitation of the province.

More recently, some militants rammed an explosive-laded vehicle into a convoy ferrying Chinese engineers near the town of Besham in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, killing five. The engineers were working on the Dasu dam, which has run into substantial local opposition. No one claimed responsibility for this attack.

Chinese engineers have earlier been attacked in various parts of Pakistan. In 2021, nine Chinese were killed in a bus bombing in Dasu. In November 2018, the BLA claimed an attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, killing four in a hotel used by Chinese nationals. In June 2020, the BLA claimed responsibility for another attack on the Karachi Stock Exchange, where Chinese companies have heavily invested.

These attacks angered China. Its foreign ministry asked Pakistan to “thoroughly investigate the incident as soon as possible, hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice”. Pakistan’s President and PM condemned the attacks and asserted that nothing can disturb the bilateral ties. Both sides have reiterated their ‘iron brother’ bond. China’s foreign ministry condemned terrorism without reflecting on the fact that it routinely blocks attempts at the UN to designate Pakistani terrorists.

Pakistan’s military stated that the sensitive projects are being targeted “as a conscious effort to retard our progress and sow discord between Pakistan and its strategic allies, most notably China”. It also blamed “foreign elements”, a euphemism that includes Afghanistan and India.

CPEC is a crucial pillar of China’s BRI. So the mounting security challenges are unlikely to deter it from exiting. China’s strategic interest is to access the Arabian Sea through CPEC and Gwadar, with an added dimension of using Gwadar as a military logistics base. China is trying a similar model, albeit on a smaller scale, in the Maldives—setting up bases to monitor the Indian Ocean. It has partially succeeded in Sri Lanka, with the long-term lease of Hambantota port.

The China-Pakistan strategic convergence is based on China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia, which requires it to contain India. Pakistan is a valuable proxy for this, as also for minerals and sea access. For Pakistan, India is the foremost threat. Hence, the enemy’s enemy becomes a friend. Pakistan also needs investment in energy and infrastructure, for which China’s deep pockets can help. China knows it may never recover its investments and Pakistan knows it is unlikely to be able to pay back. Hence, the two are locked in an embrace both cannot quit.

The recent attacks will likely sour the mood during PM Shahbaz Sharif’s upcoming visit to Beijing. It was under former PM Nawaz Sharif that the CPEC became a reality during 2013-2017. Pakistan has few options, since its earlier patrons have not loosened their purse strings to bail out its economy. Pakistan’s economy is dependent on IMF doles, a tap that the US can turn off, constituting a significant leverage that the American administration uses. The other factor is the deep state—the Pakistan army is deeply invested in buying Chinese military hardware, co-producing certain items, and managing CPEC projects with their embedded opportunities for personal aggrandisement.

During Imran Khan’s tenure as PM, the bilateral ties were soured by Imran’s questioning of the CPEC’s ways of operating. This irritated China and the army. Before the 2018 election, Imran’s party had called for scrutinising and renegotiating the terms of the CPEC loans. A popular perception in Pakistan is that the CPEC does not help common people and benefits only the elite. The reality that the army sets the foreign policy agenda and economic priorities makes Pakistan’s civilian leaders fall in line or suffer the consequences, like Nawaz earlier and Imran later.

The China connection helps Pakistan leverage its ties with the US, too. Pakistan’s foreign minister recently stated his country was seriously considering reopening direct trade ties with India, which Pakistan suspended unilaterally in 2019 following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. The FM is unlikely to have made this statement without clearance from the deep-state minders. Pakistan may expect some quid pro quo from India, but concessions will not be on the menu in an election season. The first step Pakistan should consider is to restore diplomatic ties at the high commissioners’ level.

But there seems to be a growing constituency in Pakistan for restoring direct trade with India for its own economic interest. India-Pakistan trade did not stop in 2019, but got diverted via Dubai and Singapore, adding significant transportation costs. No concrete move has been made yet, and Pakistan may just be testing the waters and ward off pressure from international donors.

This prospective move would hit an immovable wall if Pakistan puts any prior condition such as restoration of Article 370 on the table. India will surely demand a terror-free region. The ceasefire along the LoC was renewed in 2021, but period infiltration has not stopped. PM Narendra Modi has congratulated Sharif via social media on becoming PM, which the latter acknowledged.

The inevitable question is how long Sharif’s unwieldy coalition will last. Meanwhile, an old dilemma persists—whom to talk to in Pakistan? I recall an American diplomat telling me, “When we want anything done in Pakistan, we talk to the army.” India has tried this option unsuccessfully. Hence, there are hardly any new options for an election-bound India.

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