National flags of India and Pakistan. Photo: iStock

It appears that China is happy to see Imran Khan becoming Pakistan’s 28th prime minister. When Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party opposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2016, a worried Chinese envoy attempted to placate him. Now Prime Minister Imran Khan will have to ensure that he keeps the Pakistan Army generals happy, while ensuring security for the CPEC against terror attacks. This is likely as Pakistan tries to avoid a Chinese debt trap, while also bringing some transparency to the US$7 billion worth of loans, and seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Pakistan’s economic mess limits Khan’s choices. The country has spent 22 of the past 30 years under multiple IMF bailout programs, and three currency devaluations since December 2017, with its external debt and liabilities at 31% of the gross domestic product. Pakistan reportedly seeks a bailout from the IMF to the tune of $12 billion, but the US has warned that the bailout could amount to aiding China.

As PTI emerged as the single largest party in July general elections, observers noted that the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, donned a turban and paid obeisance at the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs on the Indian side of Punjab. He also witnessed a flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah-Attari (India-Pakistan border) and tweeted hope for “peace, friendship and cooperation” between India and Pakistan. Significantly, Luo is the same Chinese envoy who “threatened” India during the India-China standoff at Doklam at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan last year.

On August 22, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that Beijing was willing to play a positive and constructive role in easing India-Pakistan relations, being important to regional peace, stability and prosperity. Asked whether this suggestion was about China wanting to mediate, spokesman Lu Kang said, “I can’t give you a pre-judgment now, telling you, what area, and what time China will do what things. But it is clear that constructive role is any role that is conducive to advancing, consolidating and sustain positive momentum.”

Lu could have simply said “yes” without elaborating that his reference to “advancing, consolidating and sustain positive momentum” meant Chinese national interests.

But it is easy to understand China knowing what it publicly says it never does, and what it intends doing it never says. Significantly, the Chinese participation in multi-level talks to bring the Afghan Taliban to reconcile have been without results. Similarly, despite the ongoing  bilateral talks to stabilize Myanmar, China seems to have tightened its grip on them more firmly. China also proposed 2+1 India-China talks for similar reasons in June.

China’s eagerness for better India-Pakistan relations is primarily aimed at the success of the CPEC. It is China’s strategic highway to the Indian Ocean. China’s urgency is more because the world is getting wiser to strategic aims of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including a likely debt trap in a bid to control their policies, and aligning them with Chinese strategic interests.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has canceled some China-financed projects. Other countries are also becoming wary, backing away from or downsizing Chinese projects, while the European Union has become equally cautious. Troubled with China’s expansionist designs in the South China Sea, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has again threatened war with China.

While Duterte’s threat could be mere rhetoric, hiccups in China’s BRI are serious concerns. These delays upset President Xi Jinping’s timetable for the “China Dream” that is elevating China as a “Great Power.” More important, these adversely affect businesses in China and fuel unemployment, resulting in unrest. That is the reason Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on four-day visit to India in August praised relations with New Delhi, describing them as a friendship dating back to ancient times.

The underlying motive  is perhaps to lull India into joining the CPEC. But this goes against the basic fact that much of CPEC and even the BRI is being built in occupied or disputed territories over which India has laid a claim for decades. This could also explain why China is suddenly showing interest in linking up with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, since a China-Turkmenistan pipeline could be very costly.

But amid all the strategic moves that China is making, is it prepared to stop supporting Pakistan’s terrorism? Or stop blocking a global designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations? Chances are that China still sees Pakistan as its primary ally, and an invite to India to join CPEC or BRI is certainly not in the interest of lasting peace in the subcontinent.

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Prakash Katoch

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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