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Asia

China expands influence in 'economic colony' Pakistan

Xi Jinping's visit to Pakistan promises to boost the Islamic country's struggling economy, but experts warn there are many strings attached to Beijing's aid. Why does Pakistan need to be careful in dealing with China?

The fanfare and frenzy over Chinese President Xi Jinping's maiden Pakistan visit is extraordinary. It is certainly much bigger than any previous visit by a Chinese head of state to the South Asian country. Prior to Xi's two-day visit, which he described as a "homecoming," giant portraits of the Chinese leader were erected all over the capital Islamabad along with messages of an ever-lasting Sino-Pakistani friendship.

The Chinese leader's plane was escorted by Pakistani fighter jets, and he was received at the airport by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President Mamnoon Hussain, and Army Chief Raheel Sharif along with a host a ministers. Xi was given a full guard of honor on his arrival, on Monday, April 20.

So what is so special about Xi's visit? According to experts, Pakistan desperately needs economic aid and geopolitical support, both of which appear to be in jeopardy since the withdrawal of the US combat troops from Afghanistan and Washington's relative lack of interest in the region, particularly in Pakistan.

Boosting bilateral trade

Beijing seems more than willing to replace Washington. During his stay in Pakistan, the Chinese president will sign deals related to energy and infrastructure projects worth $46 billion, which are expected to spur Pakistan's underperforming economy and generate employment opportunities in the country.

Beijing is also likely to finalize an agreement to sell eight submarines to Islamabad - worth between $4 billion and $5 billion, according to media reports. Xi's visit is also set to boost bilateral trade, which grew to $10 billion last year from $4 billion in 2007.

(Front row, L-R) Pakistan's President Mamnoon Hussain, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif review a guard of honour after Xi arrived at Nur Khan base in Islamabad, April 20, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via Reuters)

Xi's 'homecoming:' Pakistani officials were on their toes

But Chinese investment in Pakistan doesn't come without a price. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing aims to expand its influence on Pakistan and across Central and South Asia in order to counter the US and Indian influence. The CPEC would link Pakistan's southern Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China's western Xinjiang region. It also includes plans to create a road, rail and oil pipeline links which would improve connectivity between China and the Middle East.

Analysts say that Pakistan is more than willing to support China in its regional ambitions and be a "client state", given that the US has very little to offer economically and geo-politically in the present circumstances.

"Pakistan knows that China is going to be the superpower in ten years. Islamabad is getting closer to Beijing and its alliance with Washington is slowly and gradually taking a back seat," Ali Shah, a Pakistani researcher in Karachi, told DW.

Economic dependence

"Although much of the language used to describe ties between the two sides can sound hyperbolic - 'all-weather friends,' 'deeper than the deepest ocean,' 'sweeter than honey' - it reflects the unusual nature of a secretive relationship that is the only real friendship that either side has," Andrew Small, a US-based China expert and author of the book "The China-Pakistan Axis - Asia's New Geopolitics," told DW.

"Founded on a shared enmity for India, the relationship has in some respects run deeper than formal alliances, especially when it comes to nuclear cooperation, and has been remarkably resilient over the dramatic economic and geopolitical shifts of the last few decades," he added.

For Pakistan, China has become more important than ever before, says development analyst, Maqsood Ahmad Jan.

Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in the Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan (Photo: Ishtiaq Mahsud, File/AP/dapd)

Islamist militants could impede China's economic projects in Pakistan

"Islamabad has no other option but to increase cooperation with Beijing and do what it says," Jan told DW. "Saudi Arabia can't be as big an investor as China, and US is unreliable. And the Pakistani government needs money urgently," he added.

Jan goes on to say that Pakistan has sold out to China for $46 billion. "I think the Chinese aid is not for free. Pakistan's economy is not that big, so Beijing will now take over most of our income-generating sectors."

But Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's minister for planning and development, believes the forthcoming economic deals with China would be beneficial for his country. "The real opportunity of this China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is that it changes the scope of the relationship from geopolitics to geo-economics," Iqbal told journalists, adding that the projects would have a "significant transformative effect on Pakistan's economy."

Jan, however, does not agree with Iqbal's assessment of Sino-Pakistani economic ties. "This will turn us into China's economic colony instead."

Security concerns

But the trickiest part in the Sino-Pakistani ties is the implementation of the proposed economic projects, which face the biggest challenge in the form of Islamist militancy and a protracted separatist insurgency in Pakistan's restive Balochistan province, which is key part of the CPEC route.

Balochistan map

Will Baloch separatists, who demand their share of the province's wealth, allow Islamabad to implement the CPEC?

China is also very wary of Islamist activities in its Muslim-dominated areas. Beijing believes the Taliban and al Qaeda, or groups affiliated with them, are instigating its Muslim population. China is certainly not in favor of an Afghanistan which is dominated by the Taliban, who it believes lends sanctuary to the Muslim Uighur separatist groups in the autonomous western region of Xinjiang. China has repeatedly asked Islamabad to use its influence over the Taliban to quell the insurgency.

On top of this, Chinese citizens have been targeted by the Taliban in Pakistan on numerous occasions. In 2013, three Chinese tourists were killed by the Pakistani Taliban on the mountainous region of Nanga Parbat, which presented was a huge embarrassment for the Pakistani authorities.

"Chinese investments have been constrained by Pakistan's instability and security threats to Chinese workers. By some measures, Pakistan has been the most dangerous place to be an overseas Chinese," said Small.

"There have also been tensions over Beijing's belief that Pakistan has not been as robust in dealing with Uighur militants operating from its territory as China would have liked - more members of China's terrorism 'hit list' were killed by US drones than by the Pakistani army. China has some fears that this reflects rising Islamist sympathies in Pakistan as a whole, including in the army itself," he added.

Journalist Asha'ar Rehman believes the issue of Islamist extremism won't completely damage the Sino-Pakistani ties. However, it is a mistake on China's part to think that by helping Pakistan economically, it can reduce the level of extremism in the country, he added.

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