Pakistan’s “all-weather” friendship with China is a regular irritant for India: it has underpinned, for example, a longstanding Chinese veto on UN sanctions against Masood Azhar — now removed — as well as economic projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
In fact, it is not uncommon to hear discussions of India’s preparedness for a “two-front” war scenario.
But has Pakistan’s relationship with the Chinese, described by their leaders as “sweeter than honey”, come to haunt it amid the growing coronavirus epidemic?
Airline after airline has cancelled service to China — the source of the outbreak — but Pakistan said this month it would resume flights. The decision “was questioned by medical experts in the country, where investment in health care has been woefully lacking for decades”, an AFP report said.[India, on its part, has not announced an outright ban on travel to China but cautioned against it, and cancelled visas for all foreigners travelling from China.]
As well, Pakistan has so far not announced plans to evacuate students from Wuhan city, where the novel coronavirus was first detected.
On the other hand, India and several other nations have flown hundreds home.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, said on Wednesday he had asked government authorities to “do everything possible” for students in Wuhan and expressed solidarity with China. The health minister, Zafar Mirza, echoed Chinese pledges when he said Beijing would take care of Pakistani students like its “own children.”
But this much is clear — Pakistanis are unhappy.
Zargul_Zubair (@ZargulBaloch5) February 9, 2020
In social media videos, students have made emotional appeals to be rescued. “Yeah, Pakistan is friends with China. But they’re willing to sacrifice their youth for that so-called friendship,” said one young man.
Another, who filmed Indian students being evacuated, said, “Shame on you, Pakistan government. Learn something from India.”
Pakistani student in Wuhan shows how Indian students are being evacuated by their govt. While Pakistanis are left there to die by the govt of Pakistan: pic.twitter.com/86LthXG593
Naila Inayat (@nailainayat) February 1, 2020
One particularly moving story, reported by Reuters, is of a PhD student whose father “begged him to come home” the day before he died, aged 80.
Why has Pakistan not taken more decisive action to help its citizens in China? A recent New York Times analysis offers one explanation. It says Islamabad, being “the weaker” of the two allies, “may be under pressure to keep its citizens in China so as not to embarrass Beijing.”
Earlier, a Foreign Policy report observed: “One can imagine why it would be difficult for Pakistan to continue to ban flights to and from its biggest arms supplier and investor.”
There is some good news for Pakistan, though.
Three of its nationals have recovered from coronavirus infections and have been discharged, China announced this week.
The virus is a cousin of the pathogens causing SARS and MERS, and causes a disease — Covid-19 — that has killed over 1,300 people till date, almost all of them in China.
For Pakistani students toughing it there, what the future holds is unclear.