You might expect the largest Chinese embassy to be in the United States, the world’s biggest economy. Or in Japan, China’s most powerful neighbor. Or, given the growing sympathies between China and Russia, it might be headquartered in Moscow.
Instead, it is in Pakistan. The new embassy was inaugurated on February 13 in the presence of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who described China’s new diplomatic mission as a “symbol of friendship”. No further details were offered to the public, but the number of exclamation marks dotting the Foreign Ministry’s report seems to prove that a certain amount of excitement was part of the enterprise.
According to the official version of the event, “Wang Yi said that the five-starred red flag, won by martyrs with their blood, carries the Chinese nation’s tradition of unremitting efforts for self-improvement and opens up bright prospects for us, and it will wave in the heart of every Chinese forever!” Furthermore, “as a symbol of the special friendship between China and Pakistan, it will definitely play its due role in China-Pakistan all-weather friendly relations!”
Hype aside, the fact that China’s largest embassy is now in Islamabad says a lot about Beijing’s interest in South and Central Asian affairs. The two countries have been long-standing allies and are currently trying to establish a China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will link the port of Gwadar on the Pakistani coast to the western province of Xinjiang with railways, roads and pipelines for gas and oil. The project is meant to be an important part of China’s New Silk Road initiative, as Beijing calls its plan for investments across the Eurasian Continent. In November, Reuters reported that in the coming six years Beijing will back energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan with $45.6 billion.
Some of the projects that China is supporting are nuclear. The Wall Street Journal wrote in 2014 that China was in talks with Pakistani authorities to get three nuclear power plants worth $13 billion. Earlier this month Wang Xiaotao, vice-minister of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), confirmed what had already been rumored a year before: much to the chagrin of international observers who believe that the deal will undermine non-proliferation, Beijing is backing the construction of six reactors.
Besides economic cooperation, there is also a geopolitical side to the story. The Chinese government is troubled by separatism in the tumultuous province of Xinjiang, which shares a long and porous border with Central Asia. What worries Beijing is the possibility that a crisis triggered by instability in Afghanistan could spill over on Chinese soil, making matters even worse.
As journalist and author Ahmed Rashid wrote on the Financial Times in January, “of particular concern to China is the national security threat in its northwestern ‘autonomous region’ of Xinjiang, which has seen a recent surge in riots and terrorist attacks. Some Islamic radicals belonging to the Uighur ethnic group have trained with the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beijing would like to ensure that such militants gain neither training nor protection within Taliban-controlled territory in the future.” This problem is worsened by NATO’s gradual retreat from the region, which could leave a power and economic vacuum behind.
Islamabad’s help is fundamental to work out a political solution to the Afghan problem. The war in Afghanistan is deeply influenced by what happens in Pakistan and fighters operate across the border. In other words, in order to tackle its own problems – real and potential – China needs to have the Pakistani authorities as much as possible on its side. And that might be precisely what Mr. Wang had in mind last week, when he told the press that “Pakistan has always played a unique and irreplaceable role in dealing with the issue of Afghanistan. In future, both China and Pakistan are willing to strengthen communication and coordination with Afghanistan and work with the international community to make unremitting efforts to realize the successful transition of Afghanistan.”