By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in The Diplomat June 7, 2012
Chinese and Pakistani officials often talk in lofty terms about the proximity of their relationship. “Higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey, stronger than steel and dearer than eyesight” is the official characterization, and Chinese or Pakistani researchers will often say how they are welcomed like brothers when they visit their respective countries.
A story last week in the Pakistani press, however, seemed to belie this, stating that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had declined to move a meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to Karachi, forcing the president to rapidly reschedule his trip to be in Islamabad to meet with Yang. Whatever the accuracy of this specific story, there has been a noticeable tenseness in relations between Beijing and Islamabad, indicating that things may not be as rosy as they are sometimes portrayed.
At an official level, it seems clear that both sides are eager to maintain a visible proximity. In the wake ofZardari’s visit to India earlier this year, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the press that it was “our best friend China….[who] advised us to promote trade relations with India.” And from a Chinese perspective, during a visit last December on behalf of President Hu Jintao during a ceremony to mark 60 years of “China-Pakistan Friendship” State Councilor Dai Bingguo declared: “It is believed that happiness, when shared by two, will be doubles, suffering, when shared by two, will be halved…[Pakistan is] an iron core” friend of China.
Yang added to this recently when he stated: “the China-Pakistan strategic partnership of cooperation, marked by all-weather friendship and all-round cooperation, has become an example for harmonious coexistence and friendly cooperation.”
But beneath the rhetoric, there have been a number of divergences from the official line. Back in August of last year, after an incident in Kashgar in which six people were killed, the local government issued a statement in which they said that an “initial probe” indicated that the leader of the plot had been trained in Pakistan. This was seemingly confirmed a month later when the Turkestan Islamic Movement (TIP) released a video showing the alleged leader, Memtieli Tiliwaldi, training at a camp they claimed was in Waziristan.
A subsequent investigation cleared Pakistan of responsibility, but the impression of Chinese concern over its South Asian neighbor was emphasized again when in early March, Xinjiang Chairman Nur Bekri highlighted the “countless” links between terrorists in the province and “neighboring country” Pakistan. This came after more than a dozen people were killed in another stabbing spree in Yecheng County, just south of Kashgar. And then in April, the Public Security Ministry released a wanted notice for six individuals who it referred to as having links to “a South Asian” country and being members of “East Turkestan groups.”
While the statements from the Xinjiang government likely reflected anger at a local level in the province, the statement from a central government ministry was a different thing, showing that this concern was something that extended beyond Xinjiang security officials. Xinjiang’s proximity to Pakistan and its restive Uighur Muslim population make it a prime candidate for links to extremists in Pakistan – stories in the Chinese press about the Yecheng incident emphasized the cities’ proximity to Pakistan – but usually the central government is wary of pointing fingers directly at Pakistan.
But beyond Xinjiang, we have also seen a retraction from Pakistan of Chinese official business interests. Back in September last year, Chinese coal mining company Kingho withdrew from bidding for a development in Thar, Pakistan. What was most striking was that when the firm talked to the press subsequent to the decision, the Wall Street Journal reported a company official openly stating that it was a result of the negative security situation.
Then, in March, the state owned Chinese bank ICBC withdrew its support from financing a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan. It did not specify why. And while China recently announced that it would buy out all other stakeholders in ownership of the Gwadar Port, it’s still unclear when the port is going to gain tractions. Completed in 2007 with largely Chinese funding, the port is advertised as a sign of Sino-Pakistan friendship, but languishes unused as other regional ports are moving to overtake it as potential seaports for Central Asia’s rich resources.
All of which paints a very different picture of the public face that China and Pakistan like to project about their friendship and alliance. Both governments clearly want to keep up good appearances. It is, however, increasingly clear that there is a high level of concern in China about Pakistan. In Xinjiang in particular they seem to have lost patience at Pakistani capacity to contain Uighur extremists travelling to train in Pakistan and then coming back.
Pakistan, for its part, is clearly aware of these problems. In the wake of incidents last year, Zardari visited Urumqi for the first China-Eurasia Expo. Preceding him was ISI head Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha who visited Beijing, presumably to discuss, amongst other things, problems in Xinjiang.
Whether this kind of contact will be enough, though, is unclear. Beijing may be Pakistan’s best friend, but even best friends can eventually lose their patience with each other.
Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.