On 16 March 2020, Pakistan’s President, Dr Arif Alvi embarked on two-day state visit to China. After Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen and Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga, Dr Alvi was the third top world leader who visited China since the outbreak of deadly epidemic known as COVID-19. While commenting on this visit from his official twitter account, President Alvi stated that the purpose was to show solidarity with all-weather friend China in stressful times, appreciate their outstanding efforts to contain Coronavirus & for taking good care of students in Wuhan.
China and Pakistan tout their relationship as “all-weather” friendship which has withstood the test of time. Since the epidemic, the level of cooperation between the two sides has once again proved their long-held claim.
In a meeting with Alvi at the Great Hall, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated, “Facts have proved once again that China and Pakistan are true friends who share weal and woe and good brothers who share each other’s joys and sorrows.”
Alvi also met with Premier Li Keqiang and Chairman of National People’s Congress Li Zhanshu.
During his stay in China, President Alvi also held video conference talk with Pakistani students from 14 universities in Wuhan/Hubei. In the past, parents of stranded Pakistani students accused the government for neglecting them. Dr Alvi stated that even those students were disturbed earlier, they considered that non-repatriation in retrospect was in their interest. They got good support from Chinese government and Pakistani embassy. Pakistan also received technical help from China and signed MoUs relating to fight against COVID-19. At the end of the visit, the two countries issued a joint statement.
Right from the beginning of the crisis, Pakistan expressed political support to China. Earlier, Dr Alvi had written a letter to President Xi Jinping appreciating his government’s fight against COVID-19. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also held a telephonic conversation with Xi and appraised China’s efforts and expressed his country’s support. In return, Xi told to Khan that China and Pakistan were all-weather strategic partners with a tradition of mutual assistance. He thanked Pakistan for its solidarity with China and donations of medical assistance despite its own difficulties.
At the time of outbreak of the COVID-19, nearly 28,000 Pakistani students, the third highest number in the world, were studying China. Among them, 500 were in Wuhan. Even though, there was internal pressure, Pakistani government decided not to evacuate their students from Wuhan. The decision was claimed to be in solidarity with China for the greater good of people in Pakistan and the world at large, so as to control the spread of the disease. It proved to be a step in right direction. As no other case of infected Pakistani student was reported. And those four students who were infected, were fully recovered in Wuhan.
Both houses of Pakistani parliament, the lower house the National Assembly and the upper house the Senate, passed separate resolutions in support of Chinese government and its people in fight against epidemic. On 15th March 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a video-conference of the members of South Asian Association for Regional Conference (SAARC) to devise a common regional strategy, Pakistan’s representative to the conference Dr Zafar Mirza, the special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan, suggested to include China in the initiative as well.
Exchange of medical supplies was another feature of their cooperation in the context of the outbreak of COVID-19. In the early days of the emergence of disease, Pakistan sent a medical package of 300,000 medical masks, 800 hazmat suits and 6,800 pairs of gloves to China. In the following weeks, another contingent was dispatched. The amount of supplies from Pakistan was of moderate scale compared to for example offers from South Korea, given Pakistan’s limited resources and immediate dispatchment, Pakistan’s support gained wide appraise in Chinese social media. The spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying stated in online briefing, “As China fights the outbreak, Pakistan has stood firmly by us, maintaining flights and pooling medical supplies all over the country to help China. We are deeply grateful and touched by such trust and confidence.”
During the second week of March cases of Corona virus suddenly increased in Pakistan. By 31 March 2020, there were 1775 confirmed cases, 23 deaths and 53 who were fully recovered. Pakistan closed all its educational institutions observed partial lockdown in the country.
According to Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza, out of all the cases reported in Pakistan, not a single patient had a travel history to China. On the other hand, four Pakistani students from Guangzhou who were infected were fully recovered in Chinese hospitals. Most cases in Pakistan were linked to travel to Iran.
As a gesture of support to Pakistan that lacked sufficient medical facilities to cope had the large number of cases emerged, reciprocated with medical and financial assistance. By the end of March, a number of shipments carrying medical equipment had arrived from China to Pakistan.
As China’s attention focused on handling the Coronavirus, some analysts speculated it might slow down the development of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). At the highest level, the China and Pakistan reiterated to continue the project without any affect. Xi in his telephonic conversation with Pakistani Prime Minister reiterated to take the Pakistan-China economic partnership with CPEC as the strongest link. Both sides reiterated to hold 10th meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) via video-conference soon to push forward CPEC projects. The JCC is the highest body consisted of members from the four Pakistani provinces and NDRC from that monitors the progress of CPEC.
Finally, Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to visit Pakistan in June-July 2020. The two countries finalizing the date and other arrangement. If it finally takes places, this be Xi’s first major oversea visit since the outbreak of Coronavirus. Although the outbreak of this deadly epidemic disease has affected the world at large, but this did not affect China-Pakistan relations.
Dr Ghulam Ali is faculty member at the Department of Political Science, School of Marxism, Sichuan University of Science & Engineering, Zigong, PR China.