What do a Communist state and an Islamic Republic have in common? Not much, perhaps, and yet in the fast-changing world of international relations, China and Pakistan have managed to maintain a strong friendship from the 1960s onward. Today, despite its growing isolation on the international stage, Pakistan can still counts on China as its closest ally. Particularly as the country’s troubled relation with the United States seems to deteriorate by the day, China has emerged in the eyes of many Pakistanis to the image of a peaceful, supportive neighbor. As a recent survey has shown, 81 percent of Pakistanis view China favorably, second in this special chart only to China itself. Recurrent protestations of friendship and reciprocal approval seem to reinforce this view, as do public announcements of triumphal development projects such as the China-Pakistan economic corridor, the Gwadar Port, and other initiatives.
On a different note, however, some analysts have pointed out that the waters beneath the surface of this relation might, in fact, be much more agitated than the public displays would suggest. In particular, it has been argued that the alleged presence of Uyghur militants in North Waziristan, which Beijing hold responsible for several terrorist attacks on its soil, might represent a source of tension between the two countries. In this sense Mushahid Hussain, head of the Defense Committee of the Pakistani Senate and chairman of the Pakistan China institute, in a recent interview seemed to imply that Chinese pressure played some kind of role in the ongoing military operation in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, where several ETIM militants are allegedly based. And yet, in this as in other public statements by Pakistani and Chinese officials, always the “convergence of interest” between the two countries, and a mutual appreciation of each other’s efforts, are underlined. The issue of Uyghur militants in Pakistan, moreover, seems of little concern for Pakistan’s general public, rather concerned with an Islamist threat in its own country and with the US’s activities along its borders.
Recently, however, a few stories show a different side to this relationship, one that is not always considered when it comes to the heights and depths of the two countries’ “all-weather” friendship. The first is the story, widely reported and discussed in Pakistan, of the Chinese government banning Xinjiang officials from fasting during Ramadan. The news sparked an array of surprised and angry responses, but also a more interesting debate on the value of Pakistan’s friendship with China. Many, like Rafia Zakaria for Dawn, have called out Pakistan’s hypocrisy in its relations with China, accusing the country of being eager to stand up to injustices committed against Muslims only when those are not perpetrated by its “friends.” In a late – and rather paltry – move, the Pakistani government eventually adopted a public stance, in which it allied itself, once again, with the Chinese government. Asked about the issue, Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam was reported as saying that “The Chinese have clarified that there is no such ban on fasting and that they respect the freedom of religion,” adding that these reports were just rumors and factually incorrect. Few, however, seemed convinced by those words.
The other two news items, on the other hand, didn’t attract much attention either within Pakistan or abroad, perhaps because they originated from the remote (geographically and politically) Gilgit-Baltistan region, near the Chinese border. The first was reported by Pamir Times, a small internet blog established in 2006, which has rapidly become the most important online news portal in Gilgit-Baltistan. The article, entitled “Locals in Gojal Valley demand more responsible behavior from Chinese workers” raises an important issue for many inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan, where many Chinese workers are involved in construction projects, such as the realignment of the Karakoram Highway. As I had the chance to hear personally during my fieldwork in the area in 2013, many locals accuse the Chinese workers of not respecting the local cultures, of selling alcohol, causing incidents and, at times, of not bringing anything to the local economy. As I was often told in the region, if the Chinese workers’ attitude was to be taken as an indicator of the quality of China’s friendship, then Pakistan shouldn’t really trust its “all-weather” ally.
The second bit of news, first reported by an even smaller internet blog, Sost Today, was on the other hand centered on the Sost Dry Port “drama,” as Pamir Times defined it. The Dry Port was set up in 2001 in Sost, Pakistan’s border town along the Karakoram Highway, to facilitate and enhance trade relations with the People’s Republic of China. The administration of the Dry Port is for the 60 percent in the hand of the Chinese Sino-Trans Company, and for the 40 percent in the hand of local investors, a situation which had led to numerous scandals in the past. On this most recent occasion the Dry Port was closed by its Chinese administrators demanding protection of the “interests of Chinese” in a note posted on the sealed gates. The note, allegedly, followed a brawl which saw the new Pakistani chairman of the Dry Port assaulted by – or assaulting, it’s still not clear – a Chinese official in his office. The incident, although it remains quite murky, signals a certain tension between the two parties, and seems to point toward well-established mutual accusations and suspicions. The Express Tribune, running the story a few days later, significantly titled it “bad for business,” a concern that seems shared by many in the area.
In the course of my fieldwork along the Karakoram Highway, in both Xinjiang and Pakistan, I was often confronted with similar issues. Some Chinese traders and officials were eager to highlight the laziness and inefficiency of the Pakistanis; while on the other side many Pakistani businessmen despised the Chinese for cheating and for their arrogance. On a more general level, the situation appeared complex and multi-layered. For many Pakistanis, China remained a trustworthy friend*. For others: it is another external power that simply aims at using Pakistan for its own advantages. For many, at least in Gilgit-Baltistan, it appeared as a necessary evil, an economic power with the ability to develop infrastructure and trade, yet with the potential to eventually lead the whole region toward unpredictable, and negative, future outcomes.
On the ground, then, the trope of “China-Pakistan friendship” seems more complex than anything revealed by the official statements of the two governments. As these recent news items suggest, Pakistani’s favorable attitude toward the PRC should not be taken for granted. On the other hand, it could be argued that for as long as Pakistanis see the United States as the overarching cause of almost all of the country’s problems, China’s position is not likely to change. And yet, as Germany and the United States have recently demonstrated over the espionage row, even a long-lasting friendship can abruptly take a turn for the bad. Maybe it’s time for somebody to start worrying about the possibility of losing a friend.
Alessandro Rippa is a Ph.D. student in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He recently concluded a year of ethnographic research on the Karakoram Highway between Xinjiang and Pakistan. You can follow Alessandro on Twitter @AlessandroRippa.