Pakistan is Drifting Away from China
The purportedly “iron-clad” relationship between China and Pakistan is showing signs of strain. There seems to be a saturation point or perhaps a temporary halt in the bilateral relations. China has been keeping a low profile in Pakistan for some time now, and under the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government, Islamabad’s foreign policy has become more United States-centric. Moreover, it has been over a month since Beijing has appointed a full-time ambassador in Islamabad, following the departure of the previous ambassador, Nong Rong, in mid-January. Last week, China unexpectedly declared that it would “temporarily” close down the consular section of its embassy in Pakistan, citing “technical issues.” But most notably, Pakistan Army Chief General Syed Asim Munir has not visited China since his appointment in November 2022.
“Until further notice, due to technical issues”, in a notice shared on its website on February 13, Chinese embassy in Islamabad said, “Consular Section of the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad will be temporarily closed from February 13, 2023, In the meantime, the Chinese government has issued a warning to its citizens in Pakistan, urging them to exercise extreme caution due to the country’s security situation. In the notice, the consular department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs cautioned its citizens that they may face a significant security risk while in Pakistan. This notice is extremely embarrassing for Pakistan, which claims its relationship with China is “higher than the mountains, sweeter than honey”.
Moreover, the consular section at the Chinese embassy has shut down at a time when Pakistan is on the verge of a financial default. Pakistanis are rushing to foreign embassies in Islamabad to desperately receive visas in order to leave the country. China remains a favourable destination for Pakistanis considering close historical ties between the two countries. The consular section shutdown is also a sign of growing frustration in China over the incompetence of Pakistani state authorities to complete financial projects on time and provide safety to its nationals. Chinese citizens have been the top target of different militant groups operating in Pakistan.
The economic aspect is also a significant factor contributing to the ongoing tensions between China and Pakistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) data shows that China holds approximately USD 30 billion of Pakistan’s total external foreign debt of USD 126 billion. This amount is three times more than Pakistan’s IMF debt (USD 7.8 billion) and surpasses its borrowings from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank combined. Most of this debt has been accrued under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Both the IMF and United States have on several occasions expressed their concerns about Chinese debt to Pakistan. In a meeting with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in September 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Pakistan to seek debt relief and restructuring from China. Similarly, during his recent trip to Pakistan, US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet expressed his concerns about Chinese debt and debt owed to China, stating, “We have been very clear about our concerns not just here in Pakistan, but elsewhere all around the world about Chinese debt, or debt owed to China.”
From a political standpoint, the PDM government led by Shehbaz Sharif is placing greater emphasis on improving ties with the US and other Western nations. Since assuming office in April 2022, Foreign Minister Bhutto-Zardari has visited Washington and New York on multiple occasions for long ‘official’ tours. Following the historical low in US-Pakistan relations under the previous Imran Khan government, the current PDM coalition government is making proactive efforts to strengthen its ties with the US, spearheaded by Bhutto-Zardari.
Furthermore, Islamabad believes that Beijing has reached its saturation point regarding financial assistance to Pakistan and is now seeking some sort of return, which seems unlikely in the near future. Therefore, Pakistan is turning to the West to exert pressure on the IMF to resume the financial bailout programme. Beijing is apprehensive that Washington is attempting to drive a wedge between China and Pakistan. The deepening rivalry between China and the US regarding the Taiwan issue, strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region, and tensions over supply chains have put Pakistan under immense pressure to pick a side. Although Islamabad maintains that it remains the most dependable partner of Beijing, recent developments between the two countries suggest otherwise and imply a ‘pro-US’ inclination in Pakistan under the PDM government.
Another indication of the growing differences between Pakistan and China is the unexplained delay in Pakistan Army Chief General Asim Munir’s visit to Beijing. To date, Munir has visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, but not China.  Curiously, he spent five days in the UK, and rumors were rampant that he secretly visited the US, which the ISPR officially denied. It is evident that Munir and the current government are not giving enough priority to Chinese economic interests and the safety of its citizens and are instead focusing more on improving relations with the West.