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Soldiers from Pakistan and China after joint military exercises in Punjab Province. (file photo)
Soldiers from Pakistan and China after joint military exercises in Punjab Province. (file photo)

In elections being closely watched by China, Pakistanis are heading to the polls in a tight race defined by a teetering economy and growing security risks that could shape the future for billions of dollars of Chinese infrastructure projects for their country.

“Beijing has a lot at stake here,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, told RFE/RL. “China wants more stability in this relationship and in Pakistan as a whole, but there’s no guarantee that this election can deliver that.”

The February 8 vote in Pakistan takes place amid rising inflation and a weak currency, along with an escalating terrorism problem and simmering tensions with three of the South Asian country’s four neighbors. The crucial parliamentary elections also come amid intense political polarization after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was imprisoned on the eve of the vote.

With Pakistan becoming increasingly unstable, Beijing -- who has become one of Islamabad’s most important allies -- is worried about the future of its investments in the country of some 231 million people and ensuring the safety of Chinese workers who have increasingly come under deadly attacks.

Security officials examine a car following a gun attack on the vehicle, which was carrying Chinese nationals in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2021.
Security officials examine a car following a gun attack on the vehicle, which was carrying Chinese nationals in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2021.

While China is a vital economic lifeline for Pakistan, the South Asian country also serves as a strategic pillar for Beijing’s own ambitions by providing vital trade links to the Middle East through the Arabian Sea.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a collection of road, rail, energy, and other infrastructure projects worth more than $50 billion, has been a flagship within Beijing’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but political upheaval and security setbacks in Pakistan have seen the venture slow down and even stall in recent years.

Looking to breathe new life into CPEC, experts say Beijing would prefer a government led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who is currently the frontrunner from the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN).

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (file photo)
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (file photo)

“CPEC has lost momentum due to a reluctance from Beijing to invest over security concerns, plus Pakistan’s overall poor economic situation and China’s own slowdown,” said Kugelman. “China wants to get CPEC going again and Sharif is seen as someone who will work with them to that goal.”

A Tense Election

While China has a vested interest in the upcoming vote, Beijing also has a strong relationship with Pakistan’s influential military that Kugelman says gives it a sense of continuity amid the upheaval of the country’s electoral politics.

According to the global democracy watchdog Freedom House, Pakistan’s electoral process is considered “partly free.” While it holds regular elections, the country operates under a “hybrid rule” between the military and civilian government, and no elected prime minister has completed a full five-year term in the country’s history.

Looking at the February 8 contest, three major candidates announced plans to run in the parliamentary elections in the hopes of leading the next government as prime minister -- but only two are eligible.

Pakistanis Go To Polls Amid Political Turmoil And Fresh Militant Attacks
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Sharif, whose brother Shehbaz led the most recent coalition before acaretaker government took over in August, is seen as most likely to head the next government. A three-time former prime minister who recently returned from exile in the United Kingdom -- where he fled in 2019 after losing support from Pakistan’s omnipotent military and being charged with corruption. Experts say he’s since mended ties with the military and now has its backing.

Another top candidate is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who represents the center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). A former foreign minister, polls show Bhutto Zardari as unlikely to lead Pakistan’s next government, but he could act as kingmaker in parliament helping decide who becomes prime minister.

Although shown in polls as Pakistan’s most-popular politician, Khan is not on the ballot.

His term ended with a vote of no confidence after he lost the support of the military in 2022. He was arrested and sentenced to prison on corruption charges, a move that his supporters say is politically motivated. Islamabad’s electoral commission has banned Khan and many other candidates from his Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party from politics.

But while the PTI has been kept off the ballot, his supporters can still vote for Khan loyalists who are running as independents.

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This has prompted accusations that the military is interfering and raised concern that the results of the vote will not be respected. A recent survey conducted by Gallup found that some 70 percent of Pakistanis lack confidence in the integrity of their elections, which the agency said “ties previous highs” but “represents a significant regression in recent years.”

A Preferred Candidate?

Against this backdrop, China is seen as favoring Sharif as its preferred candidate to lead the next government.

The launch of CPEC overlapped with Sharif’s third term in office and his government forged closer ties with China as Beijing launched a wide slate of ambitious infrastructure projects across the country.

While CPEC grew into a centerpiece of the BRI -- viewed by many analysts as a strategic project aimed at building China’s global influence -- the investments quickly became intertwined with Pakistani politics.

Filippo Boni, a senior lecturer at the Open University in Britain who studies CPEC, says that Sharif directed the massive venture toward the Sindh and Punjab provinces in order to boost his party’s prospects during elections by providing investment to the politically important regions.

Similarly, he says Sharif pushed for CPEC’s early investments to go toward energy projects in the hope that ending the country’s electricity shortages could improve his reelection bid in 2018.

“Sharif and his brother were key figures for helping turn CPEC into a flagship for China,” Boni told RFE/RL. “The prospects of new projects being added to CPEC looks slim today, but with more trusted civilian leadership in place, maybe some of that could be reconsidered.”

When Khan succeeded Sharif in 2018, he expressed initial suspicion of BRI and CPEC, and raised concerns about the long-term implications of becoming too dependent on China. Khan’s government was critical of the preferential tax breaks given to Chinese companies and members of his cabinet even called for a pause on Chinese investment into the country.

Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan reviews a guard of honor during a welcome ceremony in Beijing during a visit to China in 2019.
Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan reviews a guard of honor during a welcome ceremony in Beijing during a visit to China in 2019.

Khan would later temper his criticism of CPEC and use the venture to shore up his own political base, choosing to establish a special economic zone in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province despite Beijing preferring different locations and feasibility studies showing other areas would perform better.

Despite the potential of CPEC, many projects have fallen behind schedule or so far failed to deliver on the promised results. This has led to the Pakistani military taking greater control through the 2019 creation of the CPEC Authority -- a government body authorized to oversee BRI projects in Pakistan -- and Islamabad is looking to cede further authority to the military to implement CPEC.

Khan’s tenure also saw a rise in attacks on Chinese personnel and interests, which Beijing became increasingly worried about and expressed concern to Islamabad that not enough was being done to protect its citizens in Pakistan.

“Khan’s early moves unsettled China and, even though they were walked back, this wasn’t forgotten in Beijing,” said Kugelman. “Khan is a populist who the Chinese see as unpredictable. Sharif, on the other hand, rarely asked questions or placed demands on Beijing.”

Looking For A Future

The elections offer little hope for near-term political stability, experts say, and Pakistan will continue to grapple with the political, economic, and security threats it's currently facing.

Boni says security threats in Pakistan, particularly over its own citizens, are one of Beijing’s top concerns moving forward and, along with the country’s unstable economic situation, could keep CPEC on the backburner.

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When caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar met with President Xi Jinping in China in October, he pushed for new investments. Xi responded by urging Pakistan to first take more steps to protect Chinese organizations and personnel working in the country.

“No matter who wins the elections, it’s going to be an uphill battle to manage the economy and deal with security threats,” Boni said.

He adds that Beijing continues to deepen ties with Pakistan’s military through new arms deals and military exercises, including large-scale naval exercises in November. China has also looked to prop up Pakistan with billions of dollars in economic aid in the last year.

“New civilian leadership could help stop [CPEC’s] slowdown, but there’s so much uncertainty for China,” Boni said. “The relationship with the military provides continuity, but it will take more to recalibrate the CPEC.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in February 2023. How much sway does China actually have over Iran and the Huthis? And would it even want to use it?
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in February 2023. How much sway does China actually have over Iran and the Huthis? And would it even want to use it?

Listen to the Talking China In Eurasia podcast

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Welcome back to the China In Eurasia Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

As Huthi rebels continue their assault on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the deepening crisis is posing a fresh test for China’s ambitions of becoming a power broker in the Middle East – and raising questions about whether Beijing can help bring the group to bay.

Finding Perspective: U.S. officials have been asking China to urge Tehran to rein in Iran-backed Huthis, but according to the Financial Times, American officials say that they have seen no signs of help.

Still, Washington keeps raising the issue. In weekend meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok, U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan again asked Beijing to use its “substantial leverage with Iran” to play a “constructive role” in stopping the attacks.

Reuters, citing Iranian officials, reported on January 26 that Beijing urged Tehran at recent meetings to pressure the Huthis or risk jeopardizing business cooperation with China in the future.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that China would want to bring the attacks to an end. The Huthis have disrupted global shipping, stoking fears of global inflation and even more instability in the Middle East.

This also hurts China’s bottom line. The attacks are raising transport costs and jeopardizing the tens of billions of dollars that China has invested in nearby Egyptian ports.

Why It Matters: The current crisis raises some complex questions for China’s ambitions in the Middle East.

If China decides to pressure Iran, it’s unknown how much influence Tehran actually has over Yemen’s Huthis. Iran backs the group and supplies them with weapons, but it’s unclear if they can actually control and rein them in, as U.S. officials are calling for.

But the bigger question might be whether this calculation looks the same from Beijing.

China might be reluctant to get too involved and squander its political capital with Iran on trying to get the Huthis to stop their attacks, especially after the group has announced that it won’t attack Chinese ships transiting the Red Sea.

Beijing is also unlikely to want to bring an end to something that’s hurting America’s interests arguably more than its own at the moment.

U.S. officials say they’ll continue to talk with China about helping restore trade in the Red Sea, but Beijing might decide that it has more to gain by simply stepping back.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. ‘New Historical Heights’ For China And Uzbekistan

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev made a landmark three-day visit to Beijing, where he met with Xi, engaged with Chinese business leaders, and left with an officially upgraded relationship as the Central Asian leader increasingly looks to China for his economic future.

The Details: As I reported here, Mirziyoev left Uzbekistan looking to usher in a new era and returned with upgraded diplomatic ties as an “all-weather” partner with China.

The move to elevate to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” from a “comprehensive strategic partnership” doesn’t come with any formal benefits, but it’s a clear sign from Mirziyoev and Xi on where they want to take the relationship between their two countries.

Before going to China for the January 23-25 trip, Mirziyoev signed a letter praising China’s progress in fighting poverty and saying he wanted to develop a “new long-term agenda” with Beijing that will last for “decades.”

Beyond the diplomatic upgrade, China said it was ready to expand cooperation with Uzbekistan across the new energy vehicle industry chain, as well as in major projects such as photovoltaics, wind power, and hydropower.

Xi and Mirzoyoev also spoke about the long-discussed China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, with the Chinese leader saying that work should begin as soon as possible, athough no specifics were offered and there are reportedly still key disputes over how the megaproject will be financed.

2. The Taliban’s New Man In Beijing

In a move that could lay the groundwork for more diplomatic engagement with China, Xi received diplomatic credentials from the Taliban’s new ambassador in Beijing on January 25.

What You Need To Know: Mawlawi Asadullah Bilal Karimi was accepted as part of a ceremony that also received the credential letters of 42 new envoys. Karimi was named as the new ambassador to Beijing on November 24 but has now formally been received by Xi, which is another installment in the slow boil toward recognition that’s under way.

No country formally recognizes the Taliban administration in Afghanistan, but China – along with other countries such as Pakistan, Russia, and Turkmenistan – have appointed their own envoys to Kabul and have maintained steady diplomatic engagement with the group since it returned to power in August 2021.

Formal diplomatic recognition for the Taliban still looks to be far off, but this move highlights China’s strategy of de-facto recognition that could see other countries following its lead, paving the way for formal ties down the line.

3. China’s Tightrope With Iran and Pakistan

Air strikes and diplomatic sparring between Iran and Pakistan raised difficult questions for China and its influence in the region, as I reported here.

Both Islamabad and Tehran have since moved to mend fences, with their foreign ministers holding talks on January 29. But the incident put the spotlight on what China would do if two of its closest partners entered into conflict against one another.

What It Means: The tit-for-tat strikes hit militant groups operating in each other’s territory. After a tough exchange, both countries quickly cooled their rhetoric – culminating in the recent talks held in Islamabad.

And while Beijing has lots to lose in the event of a wider conflict between two of its allies, it appeared to remain quiet, with only a formal offer to mediate if needed.

Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told me this approach reflects how China “shies away from situations like this,” in part to protect its reputation in case it intervenes and then fails.

Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, added that, despite Beijing’s cautious approach, China has shown a willingness to mediate when opportunity strikes, pointing to the deal it helped broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March.

“It looks like the Pakistanis and the Iranians had enough in their relationship to ease tensions themselves,” he told me. “So [Beijing] might be relieved now, but that doesn't mean they won't step up if needed.”

Across The Supercontinent

China’s Odd Moment: What do the fall of the Soviet Union and China's slowing economy have in common? The answer is more than you might think.

Listen to the latest episode of the Talking China In Eurasia podcast, where we explore how China's complicated relationship with the Soviet Union is shaping the country today.

Invite Sent. Now What? Ukraine has invited Xi to participate in a planned “peace summit” of world leaders in Switzerland, Reuters reported, in a gathering tied to the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

Blocked, But Why? China has suspended issuing visas to Lithuanian citizens. Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis confirmed the news and told Lithuanian journalists that “we have been informed about this. No further information has been provided.”

More Hydro Plans: Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Energy and the China National Electric Engineering Company signed a memorandum of cooperation on January 24 to build a cascade of power plants and a new thermal power plant.

One Thing To Watch

There’s no official word, but it’s looking like veteran diplomat Liu Jianchao is the leading contender to become China’s next foreign minister.

Wang Yi was reassigned to his old post after Qin Gang was abruptly removed as foreign minister last summer, and Wang is currently holding roles as both foreign minister and the more senior position of director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Office.

Liu has limited experience engaging with the West but served stints at the Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog and currently heads a party agency traditionally tasked with building ties with other communist states.

It also looks like he’s being groomed for the role. He recently completed a U.S. tour, where he met with top officials and business leaders, and has also made visits to the Middle East.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.

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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.