The China agenda

Published October 28, 2018
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

NEXT week, Prime Minister Imran Khan will visit China, Pakistan’s primary strategic partner.

The visit will take place at a critical moment in global politics. A new Cold War has been declared by the US against China and Russia. The world order established after the Second World War is being dismantled by the Trump administration. The US and other major countries no longer feel constrained by international law from the unilateral use of force, pressure and intervention against smaller states. The global trade regime is being torn apart. The financial system is under stress.

In these turbulent times, Pakistan’s relationship with China provides an essential anchor for its security and foreign policy and the foundation for its socioeconomic development. China meets Pakistan’s defence requirements; it is building Pakistan’s infrastructure; it is a bulwark against aggression by India and bullying by the US.

There is need for more vocal Chinese support to Pakistan on its core security challenges.

Although Pakistan-China relations are rock solid, in the current geopolitical circumstances, when both Pakistan and China confront threats and pressure from their adversaries, it appears essential to elevate their strategic partnership to an even higher level.

The prime minister’s visit to China was preceded a few weeks ago by that of Pakistan’s army chief who is reported to have discussed the further development of defence and security cooperation between the two countries at very high levels in Beijing. The decisions for intensified security cooperation will no doubt be affirmed by the prime minister and Chinese leaders.

The two countries need each other’s support on the political challenges they face at present. China will expect Pakistan’s support on its maritime disputes in the South China Sea, on the One China Policy and Taiwan, and on the separatist threat from Uighur extremists in Xinjiang.

Given the concerted Indian and US pressure and threats against Pakistan, there is need for more vocal Chinese support to Pakistan on its core security challenges. China should condemn the threats of force and economic pressure on Pakistan; call for a peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in accordance with international law; and oppose all threats to disrupt the CPEC project. China’s contribution is also essential to promote a political settlement in Afghanistan including by support for its development and incorporation into the CPEC and Belt and Road network.

The prime minister’s agenda in China is likely to be focused on economic issues. Despite the most welcome Saudi financial support secured during the prime minister’s tactically smart participation in the Saudi investment conference last week, Pakistan still requires a generous financial injection from China. This may come in various forms: dollar deposits, soft loans, commercial credit, currency swaps and enlarged CPEC commitments. China can also positively influence the negotiation and approval of the IMF package sought by Pakistan.

The prime minister has been invited to China’s trade expo in Shanghai as a ‘guest of honour’ and will lead efforts to showcase Pakistan’s export and production capabilities.

Unfortunately, these capabilities are currently limited and must be enlarged through appropriate trade and industrial policies. China can play a crucial role in this process, for instance, through a conscious endeavour to relocate some of its non-competitive manufacturing capabilities and those facing new Western trade barriers to Pakistan. The joint development of Pakistan’s agricultural sector and export of agricultural commodities and processed goods to China also offer potential for expanding bilateral trade and accelerating growth and employment in Pakistan.

It appears essential for the prime minister to set at rest any doubts regarding Pakistan’s commitment to the CPEC. This is the ‘flagship’ of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). If the US and its friends, including India, are successful in sabotaging CPEC, it will constitute a major foreign policy setback for China and its leader as well as for Pakistan.

The BRI is vital not so much for China as for the developing countries. The World Bank has estimated that developing countries need an investment of over $100 billion in infrastructure annually. The US and the West are unwilling or unable to finance this; China is doing so. Western opposition to BRI is essentially a ‘dog-in-the-manger’ approach. Criticism of BRI as ‘debt diplomacy’ is a misplaced extrapolation of the West’s century-old strategy to ‘capture’ the resources and compromise the leaders of poorer nations. Chinese lending for government projects is provided on extremely soft terms.

All the projects under CPEC were selected by successive Pakistani governments. The Gwadar port, road and rail links, oil and gas pipelines, were identified during the Musharraf government. The power projects were added by the PML-N government. Most of these projects will help advance Pakistan’s industrialisation and economic expansion.

As already agreed, CPEC’s scope will be broadened in future. The Special Economic Zones can provide the avenue for rapid industrialisation and export expansion. CPEC can also incorporate ‘social infrastructure’: education institutions, healthcare facilities, garbage and sewage treatment plants, public amenities, housing projects, environmental protection projects.

Both Pakistan and China have expressed openness to third country participation in CPEC. Saudi investments in Gwadar will come alongside the CPEC projects. Some Western companies are already participating in and profiting from CPEC projects. General Electric has supplied turbines for three gas-fired power plants in the Punjab (whose ‘teething problems’ have delayed their start by almost a year). Four Thar Coal projects will also use GE turbines, hopefully, with better results.

It would be useful for Pakistan and China to establish a transparent and inclusive mechanism to accelerate CPEC implementation eg by prioritising CPEC projects, agreeing on terms of financing, overseeing timely execution and keeping the public and parliament informed.

The anticipated strengthening of the strategic partnership is not designed as an alliance against any third country (unlike the US-India relationship explicitly meant to ‘contain’ China). But the reinforced Pakistan-China partnership will enable both countries to more confidently confront the multiple challenges they face in an increasingly turbulent world. The Chinese pictogram for ‘challenge’ also means ‘opportunity’. It is thus that Chairman Mao declared: “There is great disorder under the heavens; the situation is excellent!”

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2018

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