Written by Filippo Boni.

The turmoil in Islamabad since 14 August, where protests led by the cleric Tahir-ul Qadri and the former cricket player Imran Khan brought violence into Islamabad’s red zone, has plunged Pakistan into political chaos yet again. Despite the elections in 2013, an historic moment as for the first time in the country’s history power was transferred between two democratically elected governments, the situation has deteriorated dramatically over the last month. However, the domestic security environment in Pakistan’s capital represents only the tip of the iceberg as it raises concerns both in terms of governance and civil-military relations (with the army allegedly supporting and directing the protests from behind the scenes) and for the implications that the instability in Pakistan might have on the relationship with China.

Soon after being sworn into office, Nawaz Sharif put China at the core of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Beijing was his first official visit abroad as Prime Minister and, in 2013, Pakistan and China reached an agreement over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Against the backdrop of a volatile security situation, the postponement of the Chinese President’s visit to Islamabad, initially scheduled for mid-September, due to security concerns prompted by the situation in Islamabad, should not be overlooked by the Pakistani leadership.

The “all weather friendship” between Islamabad and Beijing has its roots in 1950 when the newly independent Pakistan was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Nowadays, the strategic partnership embraces the wide spectrum of inter-state relations, including the military, political and economic fields, the latter being the prevalent feature from 9/11 onwards. Despite official statements by leaders of both countries, which are always permeated by the “all-weather” rhetoric, digging beneath the surface reveals strains in the relationship, as Chinese concerns over the security situation in Pakistan have grown over the last few years. To better understand the current dynamics, two long-standing and crucial issues, which revolve around stability in Pakistan, must be addressed.

First, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has been identified by China as a major terrorist organization acting primarily in Xinjiang, which finds shelter and training in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In 2013, under the pressure of the Chinese government, Pakistani authorities have included the ETIM on the ‘black list’ of terrorist organizations. The operation Zarb-e-azb, launched on 14 June 2014 by the Pakistani Army in Waziristan, besides being focused on the Tehrik-i-taliban Pakistan (TTP), is also directed to fight the ETIM network in Pakistan. The terrorist threat emanating from the ETIM represents a concern for the stability in China’s Xinjiang and is of further importance in light of the implementation of the CPEC. This long-term project will link the port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Baluchistan, via road and rail, to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang, through a 2,000 km long route. The security of this commercial route is of vital importance to Chinese energy needs and it is therefore up to Pakistani authorities to ensure that the goods travelling along the CPEC will safely reach their destination in Kashgar.

Second, Chinese investments in Pakistan are arguably the pillar of the strategic partnership nowadays. 2013 represented a milestone in trade relations between Pakistan and China: the amount of trade between the two countries reached the peak of $12 billion (although it is heavily tilted in China’s favor), an agreement was reached over the development of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, and the management of the port of Gwadar was handed over from the Port Authority of Singapore (PAS) to the China Overseas Holding Company. Gwadar is key to China’s energy needs as it provides access to the Strait of Ormuz and to the oil rich Arabian Peninsula and it will benefit Pakistan too as the development of this warm water deep-sea port will bring investments in one of Pakistan’s poorest regions. However, the development of the Gwadar hub has been slow and inefficient because of the missing road and rail links with the northern parts of the country that border with China. In this context, the security of Chinese workers in Pakistan represents one of the major Chinese concerns. For instance, in 2004 two Chinese engineers working on the Gomal Zam Dam in South Waziristan were kidnapped and one died in a rescue attempt, significantly delaying the completion of the project because of the volatile security situation in the area. Another attack in 2004 was conducted in Gwadar itself and three Chinese engineers lost their lives. These episodes raised serious concerns among Chinese investors about the feasibility of investing in Pakistan.

In light of these issues, it is imperative for Pakistan to provide a safe and reliable environment for Chinese investments in the country. The ability of the Pakistani government to tackle these issues will determine the future contours of the relationship. For this reason, the current situation in Islamabad goes against Pakistan’s own interests and the postponement of President Xi Jinping’s visit is a bad sign.

These important points of strain notwithstanding, the “entente cordiale” between Islamabad and Beijing is of great importance for both countries. On one hand, Pakistan represents for China the shortest route to the Arabian Sea and thereby a potential energy hub as well as a key geopolitical partner to secure both energy supplies and to disrupt the ETIM which imperils the stability of Xinjiang. On the other hand, China is essential to Pakistan as it provides investments in an array of sectors that are crucial for Pakistan’s development, including infrastructure, military assistance and political support on the international stage, all very much needed by Pakistan in these difficult times.

Filippo Boni is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham researching Pakistan-China relations. He tweets @FilippoBoni1.

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