Belt and Road

The ‘iron brothers’

Beijing sanguine over Pakistan leadership change


Shehbaz Sharif: a BRI fan?

When pollsters measure international approval levels for China there is one country which consistently takes the number one slot – Pakistan.

In the most recent Gallup survey in 2018, 73% of Pakistanis had a positive view of the Beijing leadership, and that was after a sizeable dip triggered by reports over mounting infrastructure debt and the persecution of Muslims in western China.

The fact that Pakistanis hold China in such high esteem is important because, once again, Pakistan is in political transition following the ousting of Prime Minster Imran Khan in early April. 

It means that despite the change of guard, relations with Beijing will continue as normal, just as they have done under previous prime ministers. As the Global Times pointed out, all political parties in Pakistan support strong ties with China.  “China has solid and friendly ties with all groups in Pakistan, including the military and all parties whether they are in or out of office,” an expert quoted in the article said.

China’s friendship with Pakistan is a strange one. On paper they are not well suited at all – one being an Islamic republic modelled on the British parliamentary system and the other being a one-party Communist state which – according to international media allegations – has interned large numbers of Muslims in Xinjiang (Beijing has repeatedly denied this).

But a shared enmity towards India in the 1960s brought them together and they have gradually morphed into “all weather friends” or “iron brothers” as the official rhetoric goes.

In February, even as Khan’s premiership was starting to look tenuous, Beijing invited him to China as a special guest at the Beijing Winter Olympics. In the joint statement on their Strategic Cooperative Partnership Khan noted that good relations with Beijing were the “cornerstone” of his country’s foreign policy. Perhaps in a nod to Khan’s impeding removal (via a parliamentary no confidence vote), the statement noted that “close strategic ties and deep-rooted friendship” between Pakistan and China were “timeless”.

So why is it that Sino-Pakistani relations are so strong given the glaring lack of cultural overlap or deep historic ties?

The answer is simply realpolitik – the two nations saw they could be of strategic use to one another back in the 1960s when China went to war with India, and over the years the two sides have found other ways they can benefit each other – the most recent example being the creation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as the flagship of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

“Now Pakistan is a central part of China’s transition from a regional power to a global one,” says Andrew Small, an academic who has written extensively about Sino-Pakistani relations and China’s early decision to help Islamabad gain nuclear capabilities.

For Pakistan, CPEC is seen as a ticket out of the instability and chronic economic weakness that has plagued the country since its inception in 1947 – even though the debt accrued as result is the subject of internal concern. 

Such criticism is played down in Pakistan at Beijing’s request. And while Khan was careful to praise China while he was in office – last year he even posited that the Chinese system of government might be better than Western-style democracy – Beijing never quite forgave him for questioning CPEC projects before he was elected in 2018.

In fact, reading between the not-too-narrow lines, Beijing seems perfectly happy that the former cricketer has gone and that he has been replaced by Shehbaz Sharif – brother of three-times Pakistani prime minister and overt Sinophile Nawaz Sharif. Under Sharif “cooperation between the two countries could be even better” the Global Times suggested, pointing out that his brother was prime minster when   the CPEC was first launched.

Interestingly Sharif is also seen as an improvement within Indian government circles too because under Khan relations deteriorated.   

“The family has always been an advocate of better ties with India. Shehbaz’s elder brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have striven to build and maintain a better relationship with India,” the Indian TV channel Times Now wrote on its website.

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