At a press conference in Islamabad on Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Qang expressed his country’s desire that Pakistan’s political leaders bridge their differences to advance economic development.
→ The context: Pakistan, a close partner of China since the 1960s and a major recipient of Chinese lending, has been in the midst of a political crisis since the removal of Prime Minister Imran Khan last year in a vote of no confidence. The conflict includes not just Khan and the current coalition government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, but also the courts and army. On Saturday, Khan once again accused a senior intelligence officer of being behind the failed assassination attempt on him last year. Today, the military’s chief spokesman shot back, describing his allegations as “baseless” and “unacceptable.”
Qin, who was in Islamabad for the fourth round of the China-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue, made his remarks in response to a question on how to move the Belt and Road Initiative-linked China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) forward.
→ The full quote:
“Stability is the premise of development, which is, in turn, rooted in security. As Pakistan’s good neighbor, good neighbor, and good partner, we sincerely hope that the political forces in Pakistan will build consensus, uphold stability, and more effectively address domestic and external challenges, so that they can focus on growing the economy, improving people’s lives, and bring the country on a fast track toward development rejuvenation.”
— Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang
→ Why this matters: Qin’s call for consensus and stability reflects Beijing’s growing anxiety that the dispute between former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the coalition government in Islamabad, and the army, could get out of control.
The bilateral joint statement issued after the dialogue also notes China’s “firm support” for Pakistan’s “unity, stability, and economic prosperity” — a similar formulation used by Beijing last year when Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited, and in reference to conflicts in Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
→ China is not the only country worrying about Pakistan:
Concern about the upheaval in Pakistan appears to be growing among Islamabad’s international partners.
Last week, Alfred Grannas, the German envoy to Islamabad, posted a tweet calling for “political dialogue” in Pakistan and prioritizing “stability” and the “greater good.”
→ An expert’s view on the big picture: Haiyun Ma, a professor of Chinese history at Frostburg State University, says Qin’s statement reflects a slight shift in Beijing’s stated position of non-interference. China, he says, is likely expressing in a “polite way” its concerns about the deteriorating relations between the army and Khan.
Pakistan is particularly important for China these days, Ma says, because countries in the Asia-Pacific, including Japan, the Phillippines, and South Korea, are tightening their embrace of the United States. Ma says, “stability and unity” in Pakistan “is decisive” for China to avoid containment in the evolving geopolitical and geoeconomic architecture in Asia.
→ What to watch out for: While Pakistan is no stranger to instability, the present crisis takes place in a vastly different geopolitical environment. Will China continue to maintain a hands-off approach? Or will it dip its toes in mediation?
As Paul Nantulya notes, Chinese mediation privileges regime stakeholders. But in the Pakistani context, that may be muddied by the fact that Pakistan’s power elite is divided on the question of relations with China. The previous army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa attempted to tilt toward the U.S., which Khan opposed. But since Bajwa’s departure, there are indications that there is some pushback on this from within the current government. China has also tried to build good relations with a broad spectrum of political parties in Pakistan.
So Beijing is unlikely to play favorites. In all likelihood, it will maintain a patient approach and hope that the Pakistanis don’t set their own house on fire.
Note: Ambassador Grannas of Germany subsequently reposted his deleted tweet with modified language. This article was updated with an embed of the replacement tweet. Here is a screenshot of the original.