AFTER VLADIMIR PUTIN, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, seen on the left in the photograph above, is arguably the highest-profile visiting world leader to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Pakistan is a strategically important interconnection between the two halves of The Belt and Road. Imran’s meetings with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang resulted in a lengthy statement affirming the importance of bilateral ties, with notable mention of joint commitment to the $64 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The corridor has been under attack by ethnic Baloch militants seeking independence for a vast, mountainous, mineral-rich region that straddles Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.
A low-level insurgency has been underway for two decades. Chinese nationals and infrastructure along the corridor have become favoured targets. At its northern end lies Xinjiang province with its onward connections to the energy markets of China and Central Asia, and at the southern, Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman close to the border with Iran and where China is developing a deep-water port and naval base.
The level of violence has flared up in recent weeks, with dozens of deaths of Pakistani military and militants. Attacks on army posts in Pakistan’s Balochistan province the day before Imran arrived in Beijing were better coordinated and more sophisticated than before. The timing is unlikely to have been coincidental.
Baloch militants greeted Imran’s return from Beijing with another attack on the provincial capital, Quetta.
Although Islamabad has got its latest bailout programme with the IMF, for $6 billion, back on track, Pakistan’s economy remains in a parlous state. It still needs Beijing’s money and China remains its key partner in a delicate four-way geopolitical dance also involving India and the United States.
Imran has also been battling with the Pakistani Taliban Movement. Both it and the Balochistan Nationalist Army claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing in Lahore last month.
The Pakistani prime minister will have had to reassure his increasingly nervous hosts that he is on top of the security situation. Tellingly, the first thing he did on his return from Beijing was to cancel a scheduled Cabinet meeting to visit Balochistan province to discuss the corridor and the security situation.