China-Pakistan: A Strategic Relationship in the Shadows

Guess who’s coming for dinner: Speculation about the on-again off-again visit to Pakistan by China’s President Xi Jinping, shaking hands with Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, left, in Beijing (top) need not raise questions about the two countries’ deep strategic ties; Pakistani children welcome Chinese navy ships

WASHINGTON:  The China-Pakistan relationship has inspired plenty of florid language, invoking “iron brothers” whose “all-weather friendship” is “higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the oceans.” Yet the public demonstrations of this closeness have often fallen short of the rhetoric.

The latest manifestation is the on-again, off-again visit by China’s President Xi Jinping. After being forced to cancel his trip last year due to anti-government protests in Islamabad, speculation has grown over why it has proved difficult to reschedule. This reached its peak during Pakistan’s National Day celebration in March, after Pakistani officials had initially suggested that Xi might be the guest of honor, a counterpoint to President Barack Obama’s glittering visit to India in January. Xi’s no-show elicited claims of a Chinese “snub.” This is a relationship where the public theatrics have generally been a poor indicator of the underlying substance. Not only have the most important facets of the relationship been difficult to capture in photo ops, they have often been those about which the two sides can say the least.

Xi’s maiden trip to Pakistan has proved unusually tricky to arrange. Originally scheduled for September, during his tour of South Asia, it was embarrassingly called off at the last minute after Chinese security officials decided that protests made it too difficult for the president to move safely around Islamabad. The visit now appears set for later in April, which may calm the rumor-mongering. But the intervening months have been rife with questions about why Xi, who has been everywhere from Cuba to the Maldives, has yet to visit China’s “all-weather friend.”