Reassuring words from Beijing . . .
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan wrapped up a four-day visit to Beijing on Sunday, during which he used the opening of the Winter Olympic Games to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. For Khan, the most important outcome of the visit was a joint statement signalling China’s renewed commitment to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, a flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The project has been plagued by cost overruns and local opposition, including around the vital port city of Gwadar. Another sore spot is that Chinese infrastructure projects and Chinese nationals in Pakistan have been targeted in recent years by terrorist attacks.
Seeking economic relief . . .
Pakistan is facing a tough balancing act between economic and security concerns, and between the interests of its major international partners – China, the U.S., and Afghanistan. To Islamabad’s disappointment, this week’s joint statement did not mention Chinese pledges of new funds for CPEC. Beijing has grown frustrated with Pakistan’s inability to repay loans for existing projects, perhaps reflected in the recent slowdown in Chinese investment. Meanwhile, some in Pakistan have been alarmed by the high cost of some CPEC projects and the debt it has incurred. Islamabad is also hoping to seek another source of economic support from the IMF and World Bank. For that, it will need Washington’s blessing, given the latter’s clout within both institutions.
The Taliban connection . . .
Islamabad’s biggest card to play in getting in the good graces of Washington and Beijing is its presumed leverage over the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Both superpowers want the Taliban to moderate its most extreme tendencies regarding the rights and freedoms of women and girls, and to break with terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. But Islamabad’s influence over its Afghan ally is believed to have waned. Indeed, the Taliban has mostly defied these international demands, despite the incentives of diplomatic recognition and economic and humanitarian assistance. One ‘carrot’ that came out of Khan’s trip to Beijing was the possibility of extending the CPEC project to Afghanistan. To bring that to fruition, Islamabad will need to find a way to play a constructive role vis-à-vis its problematic neighbour.
- Crisis Group: Pakistan’s hard policy choices in Afghanistan
- The Diplomat: China and Pakistan reiterate support to each other’s core interests
- The Diplomat: Will Beijing heed Pakistan’s request for loans?