China-Pakistan relations and the Uighur crisis

China's President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People on 28 April 2019 in Beijing, China. [Getty]
6 min read
08 July, 2021
Analysis: Pakistan's silence on the repression of Uighur Muslims reflects its deep economic dependence on China after aligning with Beijing's international infrastructure strategy.

Endorsing China's narrative on the Uighur crisis, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan recently emphasised that he supports all of Beijing’s policies in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang.

“Because of our extreme proximity and relationship with China, we actually accept the Chinese version,” the Pakistani premier stated last week, upholding close ties between both countries on the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC).

Satisfied with the Chinese government narrative after being briefed by Chinese officials, Khan assessed that the actual conditions in Xinjiang were very different from what the Western media and governments describe.

 “Our interaction with Chinese officials, that version of what is happening in Xinjiang is completely different to the version of what we hear from the Western media and the Western governments,” Khan added.

"Endorsing China's narrative on the Uighur crisis, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan recently emphasised that he supports all of Beijing's policies in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang"

Only recently, Islamabad had risked trade ties and the prospect of foreign investment from the European Union (EU) when Khan launched a war of words with French President Emmanuel Macron last year.

He had accused him of “attacking Islam” after the French leader defended the magazine Charlie Hebdo’s right to republish images of Prophet Muhammad, deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

Khan also wrote to leaders of Muslim majority countries to request them “to act collectively to counter growing Islamophobia in non-Muslim states.”

Society
Live Story

Although considered by some as a brave stance in defence of Muslims worldwide at a time when the country was under economic pressure, Islamabad remains stubbornly silent about the documented oppression of Uighur Muslims.

And it is not the only Muslim country to adopt this stance. In fact, this is exactly what every country with deep strategic and economic ties with Beijing has done.

Several Muslim countries, and this includes some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states too, have a focal role in China's mega-project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Having major trade ties and business links with Beijing, these countries are not expected to diverge from the Chinese position on political issues.

uighur
Protesters attend a rally in Hong Kong in 2019 to show support for the Uighur minority in China. [Getty]

The crackdown on China's Uighur Muslims

Around 12 million in number, the Uighur Muslim minority mainly live in the north-western Xinjiang province, which is also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Human rights groups and Uighur activists have accused China of imprisoning more than one million Uighurs in re-education camps where there have been reports of forced conversions and the sterilisation of women.

There is also evidence that Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being used as forced labour. Several countries have accused Beijing of committing genocide while Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty say China has committed crimes against humanity.

"Not only does Islamabad have strategic ties with Beijing, but the flagship corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) passes through Pakistan, estimated to be worth $60 billion"

Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers have also finalised some punitive measures, including sanctions, over alleged human rights abuses by China. Shortly after, Beijing hit back with countermeasures and sanctioned 10 individuals and four entities.

Beijing denies the charges and has said the camps were created to combat militancy and separatist trends in the region. Only recently, an Amnesty International report described the conditions there as “a dystopian hellscape.”

Nevertheless, the China-Pakistan equation remains unaffected.

China and Pakistan's strategic ties

In the past, China-Pakistan ties were focused mainly on defence and political issues, but it was the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) established in 2013 that cemented economic relations.

Currently, not only does Islamabad have strategic ties with Beijing, but the flagship corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) passes through Pakistan.

Analysis
Live Story

Worth $60 billion, the CPEC is the only corridor out of BRI’s six corridors that is nearing completion. Having been launched six years ago, CPEC retains great geopolitical value as it symbolises the success of the BRI project globally until more corridors make progress.

Initially, the investment portfolio stood at $46 billion, then it was increased to $60 billion. However, only part of the amount has been invested by Beijing as the project has moved ahead slower than expected.

According to the latest reports, projects in the pipeline are valued at $28 billion while those being implemented presently are around $12 billion. Completed projects are worth $13 billion.

With Phase-II of CPEC about to begin, output-based development is still missing and there are less than 10 joint ventures between Chinese and Pakistani businesses to date. Bilateral trade with China has many hurdles as there are few direct flights between both countries and business visas are hard to get for Pakistanis.

MAP-Chinas-belt-and-road-initiative.jpg

But CPEC will eventually sail through, Filippo Boni, co-author of a study on CPEC for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL.

“[CPEC] has many problems, but it is still going ahead, China has invested money and credibility in Pakistan and progress on [CPEC] sends an important message about the wider state of the BRI.”

Beyond the economic cooperation between both countries, Imran Khan has also extolled the virtues of China’s governance system enforced by the CPC, described by many international observers as a one-party authoritarian state.

Calling it a “unique model” and a suitable alternative to Western democracy, Khan observed that, “In our society and in Western democracies, it is difficult to bring change as you are bound by rules and regulations, and the planning is only for five years.”

"Beyond the economic cooperation between both countries, Imran Khan has also extolled the virtues of China's governance system enforced by the Communist Party of China "

In the last six years, CPEC has enabled Beijing to extend its influence in Pakistan, and Khan’s ideological tilt towards China is in a way expected.

“We are starting to witness a transition that is much more proactive where China is trying to shape the government systems of countries,” Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, recently told RFE/RL.

“Not everything is being implemented yet, but we are seeing the building blocks for the future put into place”. 

Meanwhile, Pakistan and China’s immediate surroundings are undergoing a geopolitical shift as the US withdraws its forces from Afghanistan. Having left a vacuum, this space would most likely be taken up by China if Afghanistan remains stable.

Analysis
Live Story

There has been no high-level contact between Islamabad and Washington since the Biden administration took over. Senior American officials have simply contacted the civil or military leadership in Pakistan when needed. Under these circumstances, Pakistan would naturally depend more on China.

Notwithstanding this glitch, Islamabad will balance both Beijing and Washington as it does not wish to get crushed between two giants.

Interestingly, this was also the prevalent opinion at an important recent security briefing given to Pakistani parliamentarians by top military and intelligence officials.

According to a senior politician who attended the Parliamentary Committee on National Security held in Pakistan’s National Assembly recently, even though the “strategic reorientation” of foreign policy is expected, the military leadership would not like to appear “overtly pro-China.”

Ostensibly, the military and intelligence leadership have adopted a more “nuanced” approach on future ties with the US.

According to reports in the media, it was emphasised that while ties with China were strong and could not be sacrificed, a healthy relationship with the US would be maintained.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi