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Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping in front of Chinese and Pakistani flags
EPA-EFE/Madoka Ikegami/pool

Beijing Olympics: why Pakistan is sending one athlete and eight ministers to the winter Games

There may be a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics by a number of western countries, including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, but Pakistan is sending a high level delegation. The prime minister, Imran Khan, and seven of his ministers were at the opening ceremony of the Games. It’s a sizeable group when you consider that Pakistan’s team comprises just one athlete: alpine skier Muhammad Karim.

High on the agenda during Khan’s four-day trip are meetings with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and premier, Li Keqiang, on a number of bilateral matters, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Khan is also likely to meet with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

The dynamics and symbolism surrounding Khan’s trip to Beijing – his fourth since becoming PM in the summer of 2018 – provide important insights into wider international, bilateral and domestic trends.

First, the visit signals Pakistan’s ever-closer alignment with China. The importance of this relationship to Pakistan was suggested by the visit, in March 2020 by Pakistani president, Arif Ali Alvi, who was only the second high-ranking foreign official to visit after the COVID-19 outbreak. Pakistan has also maintained a diplomatic silence over China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.

Pakistan's team at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022.
Lonesome skier: Pakistan’s Olympic athlete, skier Muhammad Abbas, and team officials at the opening ceremony. EPA-EFE/Jerome Favre

By attending the inaugural ceremony of the winter Games in apparent defiance of the western diplomatic boycott, Pakistan is signalling a progressive shift in its foreign policy away from Washington and towards Beijing. This falls in with the current regional alignment which arranges China and Pakistan’s close ties against the backdrop of a strengthening India-US partnership.

Islamabad-Moscow axis

A meeting between Khan and Putin during the visit is also on the cards and it would be indicative of the growing Pakistan-Russia entente over the past decade. Since 2011, contacts have intensified through a number of high-profile visits from both civilian and military leaders. In 2014, the two countries signed a defence agreement, followed in 2016 by the “Druzhba 2016” (Friendship 2016) joint military exercises, which have been repeated annually since.

Khan and Putin spoke on the telephone in mid-January – their second conversation in four months – to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Their meeting during the Winter Olympics will be another opportunity to discuss this shared area of concern.

Economic ties and CPEC

Meanwhile, both Pakistan and China are keen to project an image of the CPEC as a success, especially given it was framed as the “flagship project” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With investments in the range of US$25-30 billion (£18-22 billion), including the strategically located port of Gwadar, what happens in Pakistan sends important messages regarding the wider BRI across Asia.

CPEC’s progress has been patchy since 2018. The 10th meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee – the chief decision-making body of CPEC – was postponed for two years because of a deteriorating security situation in Pakistan and because of the COVID pandemic. The meeting was eventually held in September 2021.

An orange metro train travels on an elevated rail in Lahore, Pakistan
Pakistan’s Orange metro line at Lahore, a key component of the CPEC project. Iftekkhar via Shtterstock

Beijing’s confidence in Pakistan’s security environment was not helped by an attack in July 2021 at the Dasu hydropower project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northwest Pakistan, in which ten Chinese nationals were killed and 26 were injured. The project is being built by construction giant, China Gezhouba Group, with funding from the World Bank.

So Khan and his delegation will be keen to deliver a message that all the necessary security measures have been put in place to ensure the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan (there is already a “Special Security Division” of the Pakistani Army exclusively dedicated to CPEC projects).

Pakistan recently agreed to pay US$11 million in compensation to the families of those killed and wounded in the attack, removing a major diplomatic bone of contention between the two countries and after which work on the project resumed.

Tangible outcomes

There is also a further economic point to Pakistan’s Olympics diplomacy. It has been reported that one of the primary aims of the visit is to seek a rollover of US$4 billion in Chinese loans and to increase the size of a US$4.5 billion trade finance facility.

Similarly, Pakistan is keen to attract Chinese investors in the power sector, an area that was mostly the focus of the first phase of CPEC’s implementation, and that has somewhat taken a backseat after Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party came to power in mid-2018. The development of Special Economic Zones and the relocation of Chinese industries to Pakistan will also be discussed.

There may be little chance of Pakistan’s one-man team securing any gold medals during the games, but it will be interesting to see what Khan and his delegation will be able to take back from Beijing – both in terms of CPEC investments as well as bilateral economic ties more generally.

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