Actually, the visit to Pakistan by Chinese President Xi Jinping represents a third attempt, and the two previous ones illustrate the issues that both countries face. Yet the main problem between these two close friends, East Turkestan, has not shown up, though it remains the main challenge to what is not only a close relationship, but one that is growing closer. When President Xi cancelled the Pakistan leg of his visit to South Asia last August, it was because of the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf sit-in in Islamabad. Xi’s security detail nixed the visit, thus illustrating one of Pakistan’s problems: political instability. It is not the frequent change of governments that bothers China so much, as the fact that the process involves so much upheaval. Imran was thus given one of the sit-in’s great successes, though the restriction so placed on Mian Nawaz Sharif’s ability to conduct foreign affairs did not force him to resign as the PTI wished.

There was talk that Xi would come to Pakistan in time for the March 23 parade, at which he would be chief guest, the first foreign dignitary to be accorded this honour. By coming in April, he ensured that all he would do is address Parliament, a special honour, but by no means unique. This was to balance India having had US President Barack Obama as Chief Guest at its Republic Day parade on January 14. However, Xi did not play, even though China and the US have developed differences apparently because of the Chinese dispute with Japan over the Spratly Islands, even though developing economic rivalry is the underlying reason. Just as the US is ‘pivoting East’, China is expending its own presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China passed up on the opportunity to snub the US. It would not have been a snub, but with the US counting Pakistan as a close ally in the War on Terror, a Chinese President as chief guest at Pakistan’s Republic Day parade would have been seen as one. This is so especially as the Pakistani establishment has been projecting China as an alternative to the US. It assumes that China is as hostile towards India as Pakistan. The US on the other hand is not, having been kept off India because of its cosying up to the USSR in the Cold War. However, now that the USSR has collapsed, and the more pro-US BJP is in office, India is chumming up to the US. Pakistan needs an ally, and looks to China. China looks askance at India because of its longstanding border disputes with them, and the fact that China fought a war with India in 1962 makes it look to Pakistan, which fought two after that. The US also used Pakistan’s closeness to it for its own rapprochement with it, which culminated in President Nixon’s 1972 visit there, but for which groundwork had been laid by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who feigned illness for a day on a visit to Pakistan, but actually went to China, in July 1971.

While India has moved away from the USSR and its successor state, Russia, Pakistan as well as China have been growing closer to it. The means for that is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is the preferred vehicle of the two for the War on Terror. Both have got valid domestic reasons to be interested in it, apart from any interest in Afghanistan and its stability. Russia has not overcome its problems in the Caucasus, notably Chechnya, while China has problems in its primary link with Pakistan, the Xinjiang province. The latter’s Uighurs have produced a sizeable contingent of mujahideen, who have fought in Afghanistan during the Afghan jihad against the USSR, primarily for training. The Islamic Uighur Movement includes those committed to ousting the Chinese, and Pakistan’s handing over of Uighur militants to the Chinese authorities has shown its good faith to China.

Those hand-overs are behind the goodies that President Xi brings in the shape of $46 billion in investment. Apart from the hand-overs, there is also the reality that China can only now afford to splurge such sums. The money will be spent on power projects, as well as on infrastructure for the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor. While $12 billion are to go on railways, highways and pipelines linking Xinjiang to Gwadar, almost thrice as much, $34 billion, are to go to power projects. Apart from ending Pakistani energy woes, it also provides Chinese companies with a lot of work. More importantly, it means that China makes Pakistan a more attractive investment destination. Also, it means that Pakistan and China are tied together as they have never been before.

The origin of the relationship, defence, makes a step forward on this visit. PAF has long worked with China, with its off-the-shelf purchases of F-7 fighters reaching the point of joint development of the JF-17 Thunder. Now, it seems, it will be the Pakistan Navy’s turn, with eight submarines costing between $5 billion to $6 billion to be bought. Not only will this enable the Navy to replace an ageing submarine fleet, but if there is an agreement to let China build a submarine repair station at Gwadar, with visiting rights for Chinese submarines, it will allow China a submarine presence in the Indian Ocean. That will make India very insecure. China will not mind, and nor will Pakistan. As the stationing of submarines grows in importance for nuclear powers, especially if they have developed missile launch capabilities, this presence will be of vital importance in times to come.

A sign of the times is China’s role in Afghanistan, after the US entrusted it with the endgame following its own troop drawdown. This reflects its growing political clout following its economic growth, and shows that it has won in the ‘Great Game’, which was aimed partly at containing it, and is one of the engines of its interest in Kashmir. Normally thought of as an Indo-Pak dispute, it is not often enough realized that because China bordered Kashmir, including a section not demarcated, it is actually a trilateral issue.

The visit served to highlight for Pakistan not so much the strengths of its relationship with China, as the problems it faces in always seeking powerful allies. Now that it feels abandoned by the US’s warming up to India, it would like to raise the Chinese bogey. However, China is mending fences with India, as symbolized not just by Xi’s visit to India last year, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China next month. What happens if India and China come together? The aspirations of Pakistan’s people cannot be met unless they are an integral part of something bigger than themselves. What? That only time will tell. The reason why Pakistan was created has not been completed. But the answer does not lie in China.