Relations with Pakistan are unlikely to be affected, China said, after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from office by a historic No-Confidence Motion amid a major political crisis in the South Asian Nation.
Beijing has been closely watching the political situation in Pakistan, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Monday. “As Pakistan’s close neighbour and hardcore friend, we sincerely hope that all factions in Pakistan will maintain unity and work together to safeguard the overall situation of the country’s stability and development,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
“No matter how the political situation in Pakistan changes, China will unwaveringly adhere to its friendly policy towards Pakistan.”
Zhao’s comments came as the National Assembly, Pakistan’s Parliament, gathered on Monday afternoon to vote in the next Prime Minister, after a no-confidence vote late on Saturday ended Khan’s four-year run in office, making him the first Pakistani Prime Minister to be ousted in this way.
That role will go to Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the opposition alliance and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, and also the younger brother of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, after his sole rival dropped out of the race earlier in the day.
China-Pakistan relations have been one of the highest priorities for Beijing and a cornerstone of Islamabad’s foreign policy. Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping have often hailed the two countries as “iron brothers,” while in Pakistan, relations with China are often described as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the sea and sweeter than honey.”
Observers in China believe that the power shift in Pakistan would have little impact on bilateral relations, given that the neighbours have “maintained very stable relations and strong strategic mutual trust since the 1960s,” as Lin Minwang, a professor in South Asian studies at Fudan University, put it.
“China has good relations with Pakistan at all levels, including the military, political and social spheres,” Lin said. “No matter which faction comes to power in Pakistan, it will have little impact on China-Pakistan relations.”
Liu Zongyi, an associate research fellow with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, noted that, as the former Chief Minister of Punjab Province, Sharif had experience of handling issues related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive US$ 62 billion project under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
As Pakistan’s second-largest province, and its wealthiest and most influential region, Punjab hosts a number of CPEC-related projects, including the 1,320 MW Sahiwal Coal Power Project, the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park, as well as the under-construction Karot Hydropower Project.
Sharif’s election comes at a time when Pakistan’s debt-ridden economy is struggling to stay afloat in a crisis blamed on Khan’s mismanagement and soaring inflation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
It also comes as disputes between Khan and Pakistan’s powerful military continue to deepen on many fronts, including foreign policy. Pakistan spent many decades under military rule since gaining independence in 1947. Unlike Pakistani military elites who have long preferred a balance between the great powers, Khan had nurtured closer ties with China and Russia while being a vocal critic of US policy in the region.
Last week, Khan accused the US of planning to oust his government by backing the no-confidence vote against him, a claim that US State Department spokesman Ned Price denied. Days later, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told a forum in Islamabad that his country was seeking to expand relations with both China and the US.
Lin said Sharif may seek to repair Pakistan’s fraught ties with the US while looking for an improvement in the relations with India, especially over resolving the Kashmir territorial issue, but may have his work cut out for him as the next legislative election is due in October 2023.
“There is a big uncertainty over how tightly Sharif may hold power until the next General Election,” Lin said. “So far Khan has vowed to fight back, so Pakistan may face a certain period of political turmoil.”
However, according to Liu at the Shanghai Institutes, Pakistan like many other countries in the region is keen to not take sides, preferring rather to seek a balance between China and the US.
“Pakistan is also looking to play a more active role to bridge China and the US, like what it did in the 1970s,” Liu said.
He was referring to the period when Islamabad secretly opened up a communication channel between the US and China that eventually paved the way for top American diplomat Henry Kissinger’s secret meetings with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1971 and later for the normalisation of relations between Beijing and Washington.
“The US has leaned closer on India over the past years to push forward its Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China,” Liu said. “Now the US is asking Pakistan to do the same, which is unlikely [to happen].”
(South China Morning Post)