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Pakistan seeks China's help as it shows solidarity on coronavirus

Some experts skeptical on Beijing's ability to help out Belt and Road partners

Volunteers stand with hand sanitizer and masks, to offer to people, as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, from a stall setup by an NGO for awareness, at the premises of the St John Cathedral in Peshawar, Pakistan on March 15.    © Reuters

KARACHI -- Pakistan's President Arif Alvi visited China last week to express solidarity during the coronavirus crisis, as well as to seek Beijing's help with Pakistan's battle against the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. Diplomatic experts are closely watching how far China can go in helping out one of its major allies in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Alvi told Pakistani wire service APP that he was visiting China to show solidarity with the people and the leadership of China while they were successfully fighting the coronavirus outbreak. In the joint statement issued by both countries after his visit, Alvi acknowledged that China's efforts have won time and set a model for the rest of the world in combating the epidemic.

During the visit, Alvi met Chinese President Xi Jinping and discussed in detail Pakistan's plans to battle the spread of the virus.

"We also need to get technical help from [China] for the biggest health crisis Pakistan is going to face. Their experience is unique. Six hours of exhaustive meetings took place. Signed many MOUs for #iFightCorona," Alvi posted on Twitter.

Xinhua, China's state news agency, said Xi praised Pakistan's support for China at the beginning of the epidemic, referring to Pakistan's upper house passing a resolution in support of China in February. Xi also announced that China is willing to make contributions to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Pakistan.

Pakistan's coronavirus crisis is growing, as confirmed cases surged to 799 as of Monday. Given Pakistan's limited resources to deal with the crisis, Pakistan agreed to the terms of a $588 million loan from the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.

China has also committed to providing more than 30,000 coronavirus PCR testing kits, protective clothing and face masks, said Yao Jing, Beijing's ambassador in Pakistan, in an op-ed published in leading English daily newspapers in Pakistan.

Experts believe Pakistan needs much more from China in technical assistance and medical supplies to cope-up with the ongoing crisis. Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, believes that Islamabad will have to hope that its friendly and generous gestures to China will pay off because the stakes are high.

Kugelman believes that Beijing can be helpful in offering not only medical supplies but also medical personnel to help an overworked and fragile Pakistani medical system. "Given that [China] is scaling up its assistance to hard-hit countries like Iran and Italy. I imagine we can expect it to help its close ally Pakistan as well," Kugelman told the Nikkei Asian Review.

China will provide what it can, keeping in mind its need to maintain enough supplies to fend off a possible second wave of coronavirus infections, he cautioned.

Mohan Malik, a professor of strategic studies at the National Defense College of United Arab Emirates, agrees that Pakistan can expect Beijing's help due to the support showed by Islamabad during the crisis. "Pakistan and Cambodia were two countries that chose not to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan to express solidarity with China in its hour of need," he told Nikkei.

Malik, however, questioned the ability of China to help Pakistan substantially. "The magnitude of the twin crises -- health and economic -- will sharply constrain China's actual ability to assist Pakistan and other countries along the Belt and Road [Initiative area] in combating the disease," he said.

During Alvi's visit, both countries signed memorandums of understanding on science and technology and agriculture under the paradigm of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a major part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Islamabad and Beijing vowed to continue progress on the CPEC projects despite hiccups caused by the coronavirus. According to the joint statement, both sides hoped that 10th meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee -- principal decision making forum of CPEC -- will be held soon.

Krzysztof Iwanek, head of the Asia Research Centre at War Studies University in Warsaw, expects China's economic support for Pakistan to grow to some extent. "Now China appears to have its worst stage of the coronavirus epidemic behind it, and Pakistan may have the worst stage ahead of it, Beijing is in a good position to discuss the terms of its future economic support for Pakistan," he told Nikkei.

However, he expressed skepticism on Pakistan's expectation of China increasing its economic support and investments. He maintained that China will not want to commit to a large on-the-ground presence of Chinese laborers and other nationals in China until Pakistan is out of the woods with COVID-19. "Pakistan should not expect forward movement on new -- or even current -- CPEC projects, or with fresh Chinese investment in Pakistan until the coronavirus crisis has subsided."

Malik agreed with this assertion. "If anything, the BRI -- President Xi's signature initiative -- may well turn out to be a major casualty of the coronavirus pandemic," he added.

He also believes that Beijing will want to turn the health crisis into a diplomatic opportunity by offering some assistance to enhance its global stature. He believes this approach by China might not be very effective. "The looming global recession and long-term economic costs of the pandemic borne by countries such as Italy, Iran or Pakistan and others would also limit any short-term diplomatic gains for China," he said.

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