The South Asia Channel

Premier Li goes to Islamabad

Premier Li goes to Islamabad

Despite the sweeping changes occurring across Asia, visits to Pakistan by the Chinese leadership remain remarkably routine affairs. Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Islamabad this week, his first since becoming premier in March, was no exception.

Step 1: Deck the streets with banners proclaiming "Long Live Pak-China friendship."

Step 2: Prepare a raft of agreements to be signed with fanfare; follow-through is another story.

Step 3: Shower timeless rhetoric on the "all weather," "higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey," "iron brother" friendship.

Step 4: Host meetings with the political and military leadership and address Parliament.

Step 5: Issue a joint statement weaving it all together.

Step 6: Prepare for post-visit op-eds praising relations (or the rare critique) in Pakistan and commentary elsewhere on Pakistan’s lustrous role in China’s "string of pearls" strategy in the Indian Ocean.

So, despite all of the standard pageantry, did anything interesting happen this time around? Six points come to mind.

First, in a conspicuous symbol of robust Sino-Pak defense cooperation, Li was escorted into Pakistani airspace by six jointly manufactured JF-17 fighter aircrafts. Between 2008 and 2012, Pakistan accounted for 55% of Chinese arms exports, pushing China into the ranks of the world’s top five arms exporters this year. Despite the logic of a close military relationship driven by historical (read India) and commercial imperatives, China’s state news agency has described Beijing as looking for "pragmatic" military cooperation with Pakistan — a reflection of growing asymmetry in both rhetoric and expectations, even in a sector of close collaboration.

Second, both China and Pakistan are in various stages of a leadership transition, which requires forging new personal ties in a relationship that has held steady across governments for sixty-two years. Pakistan was the second leg of Li’s first overseas visit (India was the first), and Li was the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan since general elections were held on May 11. Li’s visit notably included meeting with Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif, whose party prevailed in the polls but has yet to officially form a government.

Third, the issue of Uyghur militancy likely made its way into Li’s talking points. A video recently emerged showing young children firing weapons at a training camp, reportedly in northwest Pakistan, affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — a militant Muslim separatist group in China’s restive Xinjiang region which borders Pakistan. The veracity of the video aside, a rare strain in the relationship in recent decades has been such Uyghur militants lodged and training in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Although Pakistani cooperation has been forthcoming in eliminating members of the ETIM, a "common threat" according to the joint statement, the issue remains of concern to Beijing, especially as the broader region contends with how a post-2014 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will reorient a hydra of militant groups.

Fourth, the two countries inked a nebulous accord on a "China-Pakistan Economic Corridor" that underscores an oft-repeated yet largely thwarted desire to expand energy and commercial ties. In February, China acquired control over the Gwadar port in Pakistan’s own restive Baluchistan province, a deep sea port that China helped finance and develop in part to diversify its energy supply routes. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s economy remains crippled by an energy crisis that Li flagged as a priority area of cooperation. Such aspirations, however, remain captive to Pakistan’s chronic insecurity, examples of which shadowed Li’s visit. The National Crisis Management Cell directed a suspension of cellular service upon his arrival — a security measure to prevent the remote detonation of explosives — and the day before, a bomb blast in Karachi narrowly missed a bus of Chinese port workers, among the 13,000 in Pakistan who have been targeted before.

Fifth, Li’s two day visit in Pakistan was preceded by a three-day visit to India. Such scheduling matters figure prominently in the Indo-Pak dynamic, bedeviling many a trip to the region by senior U.S. officials. Yet Li’s port of embarkation and duration of stay does not seem to have generated much rancor in Pakistan — a sign of confidence in the countries’ relationship. Indeed, with Sino-Indian border tensions ramping up and inevitable friction between Asia’s two rising and neighboring giants, Li’s proposed "handshake across the Himalayas" to India may be genuine, given a robust annual trade of $60 billion. However, China will continue to reach out to Pakistan with the other hand.

Sixth, whereas prior joint statements have referred to the importance of Sino-Pak cooperation in the "region," the current statement refers specifically to the "Asia-Pacific region" – potentially implicating the U.S. rebalance to Asia. China has its work cut out across Asia, repairing fractured ties over border and maritime disputes that have created strategic space for the United States. Neighboring Pakistan provides a welcome reprieve for China from fence mending and hard-charging nationalism. Given a longstanding boundary agreement, agreements on maritime cooperati
on and boundary management, for example, were easily reached during Li’s visit. With voices in China calling on Beijing to increasingly look westward even as America tries to rebalance east, how Pakistan fits into the picture (a possible bridge with China?) is a question with which Washington must contend.

Li’s visit may have been high on pageantry yet the prestige China enjoys in Pakistan is unparalleled with a 90% approval rating. How it will exercise its influence and with what effect in Pakistan is a question that will become increasingly important as the U.S. scales back in South Asia. Perhaps the next trip will shed just a little bit more light (but don’t hold your breath).

Ziad Haider is an attorney at White & Case LLP and the Co-Director of the Truman National Security Project’s Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice and as a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter at @Asia_Hand.