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How China connects

Updated May 11, 2017

THE comments were made to an Indian audience, but they are of profound relevance here in Pakistan. In a recent speech to a think tank, the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, who has also served as ambassador to Pakistan, invited India to join the One Belt, One Road project and reassured New Delhi that for all of China’s close ties with Pakistan, China seeks stable and prosperous ties with India too. Mr Luo’s comments come ahead of a major OBOR summit in Beijing, which India has declined to attend, and build on recent attempts by China to align India’s so-called Act East policy with OBOR. For Pakistan, there are vital lessons to be drawn from the Chinese overtures to India. First, China’s policy of putting trade ahead of disputes, and not just verbally emphasising but working practically for regional connectivity, is something that Pakistan must seriously consider emulating. Second, Pakistani policymakers’ reflexive argument that China is Pakistan’s friend first in South Asia ought to be reconsidered in the light of the very sensible formulation by Mr Luo of a ‘China first’ policy — national interest rightly trumping the more irrational hopes of even close allies.

There continues to be a great deal that divides India and China. The intensive military build-up by both countries, for example, may have extra-regional dimensions, but the simultaneous economic rise of China and India has hawks in each country worried about the ambitions of the other. Yet, rational voices in China and India have prevailed and pulled the countries into closer, near-irreversible economic ties. In setting out a long-term vision for China-India relations, Mr Luo, surely speaking with the explicit approval of Beijing, suggested four initiatives, three of which are economic in nature and only one — “strive for an early harvest of the border issue” — pertaining to past conflict. Contrast the forward-looking, economy-focused message of China with Pakistan’s relations with three of its four neighbours in recent times. True, officially Pakistan does endorse regional connectivity, but in practice it has only embraced CPEC; connectivity with other neighbours is being spurned for ever-more-militarised borders.

Mr Luo’s comments are also a warning against giddy notions inside Pakistan that CPEC has solidified Pakistan as its greatest, and possibly only, ally in the South Asia region. With a simple but frank phrase, “China first”, Mr Luo demolished not just expectations that China will automatically side with Pakistan in its disputes with India but also drove a stake through hyperbolic assertions that CPEC and Pakistan’s ties with China will help achieve a fair and just settlement on Kashmir. Indeed, policymakers here should be thankful to Mr Luo and his superiors in Beijing for their clarity — and for offering Pakistan a template to follow. A ‘Pakistan first’ national security and foreign policy could help reduce the many situations of conflict this country finds itself in regionally.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2017