China-Pakistan: « divergences » without consequences?

28 mai 2019

“A friendship higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the Arabian Sea’‘;  »a bilateral relationship sweeter than honey[1] », »stronger than steel[2] »… On both sides of Beijing and Islamabad, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between these two neighbours in the early 1950s, it is customary to handle superlatives and compliments without looking at the measure…

A privileged diplomatic lightning conductor and Pakistan’s major trading partner[3] – among other qualities…-, the People’s Republic of China of President Xi Jinping seems, however, in spring 2019, to show some tangible signs of tension if not irritation, distilled, as often in the former Middle Kingdom, in a more or less subliminal way, but difficult to miss…

On 1st May, the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee added Pakistani citizen Mohammed Masood Azhar to its (long) list of international terrorists (global terrorists) and entities covered by Security Council Resolutions 1267/1989/2253, after China finally declared itself in favour of this inclusion, which it had blocked on several occasions in the past[4]. A reversal of jurisprudence that occurred during the recent visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to Beijing[5], who was invited to participate in the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF; 25-27 April).

In what was perceived on the Islamabad side as a lack of respect if not a message of obvious clarity, after touching the ground of the Beijing International Airport, Imran Khan was not welcomed when the plane got off by his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang, or by one of its ministers, but, far from the usual protocol, by the Deputy Secretary General of the Beijing Municipal Committee, Mrs Li Lifeng… The features of the former national cricket glory clearly showed disappointment; or rather a poorly concealed wrath…

At the protocol level, this treatment of (dis)favour has been extended to the official shots immortalizing this Beijing Forum; thus, in the photo[6] of the banquet gathering in the Great Hall of the People the 36 foreign Heads of State or Government participating in the celebrations, do not look for the Pakistani Head of Government in the immediate perimeter of the host, President Xi Jinping: the « first rows » are occupied by V. Putin, the Sultan of Brunei, the Egyptian President al-Sissi, the Chilean and Portuguese Heads of State, Aung San Suu Kyi… We find much further away, all dressed in black with a seemingly fatalistic bearing, Imran Khan…

In office since the summer of 2018, would the 22nd Pakistani Prime Minister personally bear the brunt of Beijing’s mood? What could this irritation feed? It is true that the Chinese authorities have long looked at him with scepticism, especially since he was in opposition; was he not indirectly involved in the postponement of the first visit to Pakistan by Chinese Head of State Xi Jinping in 2014[7]? Before taking office, had he not expressed some reservations about the opportunity of the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the cornerstone of Beijing’s belt-and-road initiative (BRI)? His wish to reduce the CPEC format[8] was not received with much enthusiasm in the Chinese capital….

Since then, a series of distinct events has fuelled a gap, a certain unease, weakening the Islamabad – Beijing axis. Claimed by separatists (Baloch Liberation Army; BLA) hostile to the Chinese presence in Balochistan, the attack on a luxury hotel in Gwadar[9] on May 11 (five dead) raised (once again) Beijing’s concerns about the Pakistani authorities’ ability to ensure the safety of Chinese nationals and their investments in this sensitive province. A month earlier, some 15 individuals (security personnel in particular) had already lost their lives in an attack near Gwadar[10]. « Can Pakistan Protect CPEC? » asks The Diplomat[11] magazine in recent days. As a reminder, in November 2018, the Chinese consulate in Karachi was attacked by three BLA militants, killing four people.

Still on the subject of Gwadar, Beijing’s criticism of the Pakistani government also concerns the growing involvement of the Saudi presence and the volume of its investments there. Last January, the Saudi Minister of Energy announced during a trip to Gwadar:  »Saudi Arabia wants to stabilize Pakistan’s economic development by establishing an oil refinery and a partnership with Pakistan in the CPEC ». An investment of 10 billion dollars[12] in addition to another significant « accounting gesture » made a year earlier by Riyadh (financing of oil imports to the tune of six billion dollars); interested generosity which, not surprisingly, does not seem to be precisely to the taste of the Chinese authorities…

This unusual feverishness in Sino-Pakistani relations is also evident in the very sensitive military sphere; on 23 April 2019, the Chinese navy celebrated its 70th anniversary by organizing a major review of its fleet in Qingdao (Shandong Province; east of the country). Festivities to which about ten countries were invited, deploying some twenty ships alongside Chinese ships; Russia, Vietnam, Thailand but also India took part in this gathering, which was as much a defence as a diplomatic event. But not Pakistan, whose absence was widely commented on[13]. Could this be the most telling display of Beijing’s displeasure? Have the Himalayan peaks suddenly become less peaking?


[1] Words from the Prime Minister N. Sharif at his reception in Beijing by his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang in July 2013.

[2] Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani speaking during the visit to Islamabad (December 2010) of his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of China – Pakistan diplomatic relations.

[3] In 2018, the People’s Republic of China was the leading import partner of Pakistan (27% of the total) and the third-largest export partner.

[4] ‘’Moving Beyond the Listing of Masood Azhar’’, Sujan R. Chinoy, IDSA (New Delhi), 16 May 2019.

[5] ‘’Breakthrough in Azhar case struck during Imran Khan’s China trip: Pak media reports’’, The Times of India, 2 May 2019.

[6] ’’China looks West for Belt and Road allies amid Asia pushback’’, Nikkei Asian Review, 27 April 2019.

[7] By being the backbone of a major popular anti-government mobilization (contesting the result of the last parliamentary election).

[8] One example is Pakistan’s withdrawal from the costly Diamer-Bhasha dam project ($14 billion), considering the financing proposed by Beijing too harsh for Pakistan’s already drained finances.

[9] Open to the Arabian Sea, this deep-water port is located near the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. It is also the arrival point of the CPEC, this 3,000-kilometre-long corridor stretching from Kashgar (Chinese Xinjiang).

[10] ‘’With economic corridor’s viability on the line, Beijing searches for an answer to Pakistan terrorism’’, South China Morning Post, 18 May 2019.

[11] ‘’Can Pakistan Protect CPEC?’’, The Diplomat, 20 May 2019.

[12] ‘’Saudi investment in Pakistan stokes tensions with China’’, Nikkei Asian Review, 28 January 2019.

[13] “Indian naval ships arrive for Chinese Navy fleet review, Pakistan to miss’’, The Economic Times (Inde), 21 April 2019.
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