EXPECT the diplomatic equivalent of a love-in now that China’s president, Xi Jinping, has landed in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, for a two-day visit. When the two countries’ statesmen talk about their “all-weather friendship” they can sound as if their speechwriters must moonlight as writers of slushy romantic fiction: the relationship, if they are to be believed, is “deeper than the deepest ocean”, “higher than the highest mountain”, “sweeter than honey”, etc, etc.
It is true that they have stuck by each other through thick and thin, and that China has dealt with whatever government, elected or not, has been thrown up by the vicissitudes of Pakistani politics. And on this trip, Mr Xi travels with a promise of lavish Chinese investment in much-needed infrastructure.
He is to sign agreements fleshing out a “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”, which is to stretch from a Chinese-built port at Gwadar in Pakistan’s southern province of Balochistan to Kashgar in China’s western region of Xinjiang, and to cost an estimated $46 billion. It will involve road, rail and pipeline links.
The two countries have also agreed to co-operate on natural gas, coal, and solar-energy projects that should provide 16,400 megawatts of electricity: roughly doubling present generating capacity, and tackling one of the country’s most serious economic bottlenecks—and a big source of the government’s unpopularity.
China has also helped Pakistan build six nuclear reactors. This help comes despite Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme, which it pursued to deter its nuclear-armed neighbour, India.
It all sounds too good to be true from Pakistan’s point of view, and it probably is. As a recent book by Andrew Small (“The China-Pakistan Axis”) makes clear, economic interactions between China and Pakistan have a history of ending in disappointment. Gwadar was opened with great fanfare in 2007 but remains something of a white elephant. And even the strongest symbol of Chinese-Pakistani economic co-operation, the Karakoram Highway—the “eighth wonder of the world”, climbing to over 15,000 feet (4,500 metres)—has been impassable since 2010, when a landslide blocked part of it, and is not expected to be cleared until this September.
One serious problem for Gwadar has been the instability that plagues Balochistan. Among Pakistan’s many insurgencies is a Baloch-nationalist one, which at times has attacked Chinese targets.
Islamist extremism is an equally serious irritant. China has been vexed by terrorism stemming from the grievances of its Uighur minority, a mainly Muslim group in Xinjiang, to the point where it regards it as the most pressing threat to domestic security. The issue has dominated its relations with Pakistan, especially since a horrific knife attack at the railway station in the south-western city of Kunming last year in which 29 people were killed. Some Uighur militants have fought in Afghanistan (22 were held in Guantánamo bay). Nothing suggests they can stage attacks in China. But China wonders why Pakistan’s army has not simply eliminated them.
Some saw a snub in Mr Xi’s failure to make his first visit to Pakistan last month when he had been invited to attend a military parade marking its national day; Barack Obama had attended India’s equivalent in January. China wants to get on with India too, and is playing host to its prime minister, Narendra Modi, next month.
Nevertheless the perennial benefit for China of the friendship with Pakistan has been to strengthen its hand against India, thus keeping a potential rival for influence across the region bogged down in local difficulties. That is not likely to change any time soon. And Pakistan would be an even greater strategic asset if the “corridor” succeeds in providing its economy with a massive boost.