US on CPEC

Published January 23, 2020

HIGH-level engagements between the US and Pakistan on Tuesday resulted in some interesting outcomes. Meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan in Davos, President Donald Trump, who called Mr Khan his “friend”, said that Pakistan and the US had never been as close as they were now.

But though this camaraderie is welcome, speaking in Islamabad, Alice Wells, the State Department’s senior official looking after the South Asia file, delivered yet another critique of CPEC. Ms Wells made some very serious allegations, claiming that firms blacklisted by the World Bank had got CPEC contracts, adding that Pakistan was walking into a debt trap laid by China.

She also urged the government to be more “transparent” about the flagship scheme, described as a game changer by the state.

On Wednesday, the Chinese embassy in Pakistan released a rejoinder to the American official’s criticism. While observing that Beijing would be “more than glad” to see the deepening of Pakistan-US ties, it dismissed the American criticism as “negative propaganda”. It also pointedly asked what Washington had done for Pakistan.

Some background is necessary here. During the Trump administration, ties between China and the US have been especially frosty, and Ms Wells’s critique of CPEC must be seen in this geopolitical perspective.

However, while good advice from our foreign friends is always welcome, they should avoid giving Pakistan lectures on how to conduct its foreign policy. True, there are some concerns regarding CPEC, and this paper has always called for all projects under the scheme to be made more transparent, and to benefit Pakistan in the long run. But for the Americans to wholly dismiss this giant collaborative effort between Pakistan and China is unacceptable.

Also, the relationship between Islamabad and Beijing is decades old and has a strategic dimension, and Pakistan can ill afford to ditch an ally simply to please another foreign friend. This country values its relationship with the US, but as the Chinese have rightly pointed out, what has Washington done of recent to help uplift Pakistan economically, and stand by it in international forums?

Concerning Mr Trump’s comments, while the US president is prone to making hyperbolic statements, his newfound fondness for Pakistan should be appreciated. As for ties between the states being at an all-time high, this claim is debatable.

After all, the US and Pakistan were quite close when it came to dislodging the Soviets from Afghanistan under Gen Zia’s watch — though history will judge whether that endeavour was the wisest move to make for this country. Moreover, in the aftermath of 9/11, Gen Musharraf was walking in lockstep with Washington in the ‘war on terror’.

If Mr Trump really wants to take the bilateral relationship to new heights, then let the US offer this country trade, investment and assistance. Moreover, if Washington values Pakistan’s friendship, let it publicly back this country’s stance on India-held Kashmir, FATF and other critical matters.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2020

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