Imran Khan arrives in Beijing today for his second visit to China since taking over as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in August.
Pakistan has become a poster child for the “success” of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which is being celebrated again this week as more than 40 world leaders gather for a second conference in Beijing while rival India stands aloof.
India is objecting to the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — a key BRI project — that aims to connect the western China province of Xinjiang with Pakistan’s port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea, through a network of roads, railways and pipelines.
Money is being spent to upgrade the port and surrounding areas to boost its capacity.
Khan comes to Beijing, which has offered $US60 billion ($85bn) in infrastructure loans to Pakistan, at a time when he is also trying to finalise another bailout package from the International Monetary Fund to head off a balance-of-payments crisis.
The CPEC highlights one of the strategic aims of the BRI: providing China with another port and trade route access, reducing its reliance on goods transported through the Malacca Strait to its east coast.
At a time when the US has been looking to step up its influence in the Pacific, one of China’s rationales for BRI is to strengthen the trade routes on its western front.
One of the highways along the corridor goes through Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan, a territory India claims is part of Kashmir, thereby infuriating New Delhi, which has become one of the key holdouts (along with the US and Australia) in signing up to the BRI.
While Khan will be feted in Beijing this week — with his cash-strapped country eager for as much help as it can get from China — India is looking warily at BRI, which is boosting China’s ties with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Nepal, as expanding China’s reach in a region. “The designs of an even larger power on its doorstep is fuelling its fears of encirclement,” US geopolitical intelligence publisher Stratfor wrote in an assessment of the BRI last week.
“Worried that the initiative will grant Beijing undue influence in neighbouring capitals — and that new ports and highways could one day aid China in a military conflict — New Delhi is searching for ways to remain a step ahead of China’s activities in South Asia.
“India has scored a few important victories, but its quest for unrivalled dominance in the subcontinent is ultimately a long shot given the allure of Chinese largesse for the subcontinent’s smaller countries.’’
China’s growing ties with Pakistan, it noted, “remain rooted in their mutual desire to keep India off balance”.
The Belt and Road conference, which is also being attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, comes at a time when there are a growing calls in India for a boycott of Chinese goods after Beijing blocked a move to put a Pakistani militant leader on a UN terrorist list following a suicide attack in February.
China is insisting that the BRI is not a geopolitical exercise or one aimed at provoking territorial disputes, declaring that all countries are welcome to be part of its grand global trade vision.
While the Trump administration and other anti-China hawks criticise the BRI as constituting “debt-trap diplomacy”, the BRI’s grand plans for the China-Pakistan relationship will be highlighted this week as a potential jewel in the BRI crown, a sign that China’s grand plan can help lift a country out of poverty through spending on infrastructure and country-to-country co-operation.
The CPEC has made China the largest investor in Pakistan over the past five years.
Supporters in Pakistan argue that the CPEC represents the first time Pakistan has been offered practical help for projects aimed at boosting its economy and increasing its attraction as an investment destination.
Khan can look forward to a welcome reception in the Chinese capital over the next few days while India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi watches warily from afar.