Imran Khan’s romance with next-door neighbour Xi Jinping in light of the Uyghur crisis

  • Imran Khan remains silent on the Uyghur issue.
  • Pakistan is heavily reliant on Chinese investment through the CPEC.
  • Points to a possible trend of “debt trap diplomacy” under Xi.
source: India Today

Why is Imran Khan in romance with Xi Jinping?

Answer: Money talks and Pakistan relies on China for economic survival. 

China and Pakistan have enjoyed almost 70 years of camaraderie based on strong economic relations and a mutually beneficial political alliance that acts as a strong front against their biggest rival, India. Since the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015 and Imran Khan’s ascension to power in 2018, the relationship has continued to flourish. With increased China-India tensions, a closer US-India alignment, recent developments in Kashmir, and the COVID-19 pandemic, China acts as a big brother to Pakistan in a geopolitically strategic region in the world.

In an interview with Axios on Sunday, June 20th, Khan defended Chinese domestic policy during a line of questioning about human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur population in northwestern China. Despite Pakistan having the second-largest Muslim population in the world, Khan proved his loyalty by asserting that China has been a great ally to Pakistan and answering that they were discussing this matter in private. 

With this interview, Khan became the most recent leader in the Muslim community to remain silent on the Xinjiang Crisis, pointing to the blossoming romance between Khan and Xi.

What does Imran Khan want?

Answer: To maintain Pakistan’s strong alliance with China amidst a global pandemic and the growing US-India alliance.

As the Prime Minister of a country facing internal security challenges related to religious extremism and external threats due to its geopolitical position, Khan is facing substantial governance difficulties. Khan is constantly having to find a balance between these security challenges and managing Pakistan’s economy, which has been experiencing a decline for years. Khan relies on Xi to assist on many of these issues. Coined a “one window shop,” China is Pakistan’s largest investor, trading partner, military supplier and has a geostrategic role in balancing out India. 

Facing high inflation and ballooning international debt predominantly to China, Khan looks towards the CPEC to revive the Pakistani economy and bring in much-needed infrastructure investment. The cornerstone of Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), the economic corridor has pledged $62 billion of Chinese investments toward infrastructural projects in Pakistan aimed at addressing the country’s weak energy sector. Building roads, railways, electrical grids, power plants and ports, the CPEC has contributed vastly to the transformation of Pakistan from an emerging economy to a mature one. 

Although the Khan-Xi relationship is stronger than ever, Khan receives ample backlash from western governments for his support of Xi’s domestic policies, viewing him as a Chinese pawn in the CPEC. Pakistan’s relationship with the US and EU, although large markets for Pakistani goods have not developed into deeper partnerships in part due to Khan’s anti-west sentiment and tendency to support extremist Islamic groups. 

Although Khan is a vocal supporter and advocator of Muslim rights, he believes that the strong Chinese partnership is too precious to lose. His being outspoken about islamophobia in the western world, condemning the use of “blasphemy” and calling for a united lobbying action against western governments, is never directed towards long-term friend, China. On the contrary, since assuming office in 2018, Khan has shown his unfaltering support for President Jinping, reciting that the “mutually beneficial” relationship is too strong to break. 

The most pressing reality is that Pakistan desperately needs infrastructural improvements offered by Xi and the CPEC, even if the agreement terms are widely in China’s favor and have amounted to unsustainable Pakistani debt. 

What does Xi Jinping want?

Answer: To expand global power by challenging the US and India through its alliance with Pakistan. 

Pakistan is a contested area for US-China relations as it marks a fight for global dominance between the two superpowers. Xi has been trying to leverage Pakistan’s prime geopolitical position by deepening economic ties through the CPEC. Pakistan is geostrategically important because it is situated between India, China, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf which has the opportunity to vastly influence Indo-Pacific geopolitics. Xi is looking to use its relationship with Pakistan to counter threats to its domestic stability, including the US-India alliance, and to lead the country to its glory as a world power. With the PRC’s centennial anniversary being celebrated this week, Pakistan remains one very central piece to the puzzle.

Xi is looking to make China the new economic hub of the world by creating an above-ground and maritime route that would connect Asia with Europe and Africa through the BRI. The CPEC is a central cog in the system as Xi’s plan is to build up Pakistan’s infrastructure through ports, railroads and highways and once it has been completed, China can use this for efficient access to the Indian Ocean and central Asia. Thus, China, being highly dependent on oil traveling through the Straits of Malacca, is also benefiting from the diversification granted by the CPEC.

Chinese investments in regional infrastructure projects through the BRI have created a set of strategic hubs and ports that have the potential of being militarized. The Gwadar port in Pakistan is one of them. This dual-use serves not only to increase regional security but also to drive out US influence in the region. Xi is looking to create a China that will shape the global environment in accordance with its own interests and vision, no longer lagging behind the Western world. 

Xi is also looking to contain India, a threat to China’s stability and security in the region. Xi is positioning China through its geostrategic investment projects in the region, giving direct access to strategic maritime trade routes. With control of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, the Payra port in Bangladesh, and the Gwadar port in Pakistan, the Chinese navy is able to access India from every side. Furthermore, Xi is using its economic leverage over Pakistan to press the country to exert more power over the contested area of Gilgit Baltistan of Kashmir in order to prevent Chinese investments in disputed areas from being perceived as illegitimate. 

What is Xi Jinping doing?

Answer: Using the CPEC to gain leverage in his relationship with Khan in order to become more strategically relevant. 

It is true that the CPEC has been lucrative for Pakistan. Creating approximately 70,000 jobs, Chinese funding and cooperation have helped to build better transportation systems, improve electricity supply, as well as strengthen the country’s connectivity through installing Huawei fiber optic cables. Despite such success, the CPEC has been widely accepted as being badly brokered under the previous Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by disproportionately favoring China and causing more corruption in Pakistan

Besides a failure of many CPEC projects, including an overcharged deal for power plants, a lack of commercial ships stopping in the crown jewel Gwadar port, and an economically unfeasible metro system project, unfavorable contractual terms in the CPEC have even implicated successful infrastructure projects. China has forced Pakistan to buy electricity from coal, wind and hydroelectric power plants at a higher price in order for China to gain a return on investment, all the while having to pay back the debt that Pakistan cannot afford. Thereby placing China in a constant position of leverage. With ballooning debt, a weakened currency, and a high inflation rate, The CPEC is leaving Pakistan behind and more indebted to China. 

Pakistan’s overreliance on China has resulted in almost 50% of the country’s foreign debt originating from China. Khan has been looking for a favorable decision from Jinping to restructure $3 billion in liabilities. However, Xi has a history of playing hardball when it comes to debt repayments, using debt diplomacy to seize state assets, much like the partially Chinese-funded Hambantota Port Development Project of Sri Lanka

Who is winning?  What about you?

Answer: Increasing Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific region is likely to result in increased support for the Chinese regime.

Khan’s interview comes at a time when more western governments are stepping forward and calling the ongoing Xinjiang Crisis a genocide. For years China has been accused of cracking down on minority Muslim populations through its discriminatory policies aimed at population control. Now China is suspected of detaining 2 million Uyghur Muslims in what Chinese officials deem “re-education” centers across the province of Xinjiang. 

The Xinjiang Crisis is not only localized in the northwest province of China. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a large migration of Uyghurs from China to Pakistan as a safe haven from Chinese treatment. However, under Khan, Pakistan has taken an active role in identifying and rounding up Uyghur men and women on behalf of China, showing that Khan’s loyalty to China has crossed national borders. 

With China’s growing dominance dampening US influence in the Indo-Pacific region, Xi is seeing a growing group of loyalists, meaning we might see more countries defending China against western voices of human rights violations.  Leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey have already weighed up the benefits of maintaining a Chinese economic relationship and have shown public support of the Chinese government when it comes to human rights. In a sense, Xi is moving away from using “debt trap diplomacy” only as a means to obtain strategic returns on economic projects towards accepting silence as a currency. 

Arielle Combrinck

Research & Analysis Member