The Boao Forum for Asia in the Chinese province of Hainan is often touted as Asia’s answer to the World Economic Forum at Davos. The three-day forum, which concluded on Wednesday, was an opportunity for China to demonstrate its soft power. Most of the speeches at the Boao Forum touched on the One Belt, One Road initiative by which China is expanding its economic reach throughout Asia. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi devoted much of his speech at the opening ceremony to speak of the benefits of OBOR, particularly the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. He pointed out how under CPEC Pakistan has added 10,000MW to the country’s national grid, created thousands of new jobs and developed the Gwadar Port, all of which contributed to the economy growing at 6 percent in the current fiscal year. President Xi Jinping was similarly effusive about Pakistan in his meeting with Abbasi on the sidelines of the forum. Once again, the focus was primarily economic with President Xi promising further cooperation in development projects. But such close economic ties always come with a political component. For China, the purpose of OBOR is to ensure it stays ahead of India as the superpower in Asia while competing with the US on a global level while Pakistan needs a powerful ally to keep India at bay.
It was telling that the official Foreign Office statement of the meeting between PM Abbasi and President Xi explicitly included Xi’s assurances that China would safeguard Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This was an indirect reference to India, which is accused of creating unrest in Balochistan. The task for Pakistan at the Boao Forum was not just to be on the defensive about Indian meddling but to also go on the offensive and point out the continuing human rights abuses in Kashmir. Abbasi, in his meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, raised the issue of the brutal Indian occupation and called for UN resolutions on the disputed territory to be honoured. Just a few days before this meeting, Guterres had mentioned that Pakistan wants UN involvement in Kashmir. However, opposition from India meant that the international organisation essentially couldn’t do anything. Meetings such as this one, even if they do not lead to direct UN action, at least ensure that the issue of Kashmir is kept alive internationally. The strengthening of political and economic ties with China at the Boao Forum also served the purpose of ensuring that Pakistan has powerful allies which can help it push its foreign policy agenda.