Photo: Parker Song/Reuters
Photo: Parker Song/Reuters

Xi Jinping skips a parade in his honour

China is showing growing prudence in dealing with Pakistan, especially as it relates to India and the US

Pakistan’s national day military parade—held after a gap of seven years, with primeval chest-thumping pomp and circumstance—was targeted at two audiences: domestic and international. For the former, the parade aimed to boost the morale of its beleaguered armed forces and traumatized populace that have been battling endless domestic terrorist violence. For the latter, the presence of China’s supremo Xi Jinping as chief guest coupled with the display of Pakistan’s deadly arsenal—much of it of Chinese lineage—was to show off Islamabad’s powerful allies and ability to threaten adversaries.

The exclusively military parade (there were no cultural or regional floats) substantially achieved the first objective, though the loud cheers for General Raheel Sharif, seen as Pakistan’s chief counterterrorism proponent, compared to the more subdued applause for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif might signal the growing disenchantment with civilian-led democratic processes.

In contrast, Xi’s failure to turn up for a parade partly organized in anticipation of his visit by China’s all-weather friend reflects Pakistan’s lonely position, compelling explanations from Beijing to justify Xi’s no-show notwithstanding. The ostensible reason that Beijing offered was that Xi would be tied up with over a fortnight-long session of the National People’s Congress (NPC). The NPC session was followed by the Boao Forum for Asia, which Xi inaugurated on 26 March on Sanya Island. Both of these events were already on the calendar when Xi was first invited. In fact, China’s ambassador met Pakistan’s army chief at the end of February to work out the details of the visit.

Instead, there are at least four other reasons that might have convinced Xi to politely decline the invite of its closest ally. First, given Pakistan’s deteriorating internal security situation there were concerns whether Xi’s security could be ensured. After all, one of the reasons for the national day parade not to be held in the interregnum was the real fear that indigenous militants and terrorists would target it. This was the reason that Xi cancelled his planned visit to Islamabad in November 2014.

Second, summits are also about signing significant agreements and advancing business. Although there are several bilateral agreements, worth $34 billion, in the pipeline, Beijing is not convinced that the political instability in Islamabad will allow Prime Minister Sharif to deliver on them.

Third, given the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Beijing in May, there might also be some hesitation in China that the optics of its top leader witnessing a military parade with India’s sworn enemy would not go down very well in Delhi. Clearly, Beijing does not want to go out of its way to queer the pitch for Modi’s maiden visit if it is avoidable.

Finally, as the Pakistan military parade and the invitation to Xi was organized as a response to the successful US-India Republic Day summit, there was every possibility that Xi’s presence might have created the impression of a burgeoning China-Pakistan alliance against the US (in addition to India). This is a portrayal that Beijing would abhor, even if Islamabad were tempted to create it.

Besides, with all the kerfuffle over US allies joining China’s Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank, Beijing is likely to be cautious about being perceived as setting up an overt anti-US military alliance. None of this is to suggest that the China-Pakistan alliance is weakening; simply that it is a client-state relationship rather than one between equals. It also reflects China’s growing prudence in dealing with Pakistan, especially as it relates to India and the US.

Xi’s no-show in Islamabad creates a good opportunity for India and China to recalibrate their relationship, and also for India and a stood-up Pakistan to renew their engagement in realistic terms.

W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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