THE Chinese like to call Pakistan an ‘iron brother’. This is a glowing tribute to a neighbour that has stood with them through thick and thin. Pakistanis also hold China in high esteem, as a neighbour that has respected their core concerns and interests. Even when Pakistan was closely aligned with the West, China enjoyed a special place in its foreign policy.
No doubt, the two countries’ ‘all-weather strategic cooperative partnership’ has endured the test of time. However, at times, we tend to go overboard in describing this relationship. For instance, referring to the latter as a relationship ‘made in heaven’, or telling the Chinese that we trust them ‘blindly’, is a notch higher than the oft-used ‘higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the ocean, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel’.
Relationships are sometimes described as the distance from winter fires; if you go too close, you burn; if you go too far, you freeze. Pakistanis can benefit from viewing relations with all its neighbours through the lens of pragmatism and national interest, rather than extreme emotion. There is another downside to emotional streaks. When we indulge in emotion-laden refrain, expectations go high, and when the results are not commensurate, disappointment sets in.
China and Pakistan seem to be making efforts to revive CPEC.
China and Pakistan have always been close, even though their cultures, language, cuisine and political ethos are different. The reason is that both have scrupulously respected each other’s sovereignty and never interfered in the other’s internal affairs. Another factor that underpins their close friendship is the economic partnership that has flourished since 2015, when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was launched. Pakistan was in a difficult situation then. The US-led ‘war on terror’ had taken a heavy toll. At a time when no country was willing to invest in Pakistan, the Chinese put billions of dollars into the country’s energy sector, transport infrastructure, and Gwadar Port. Naturally, Pakistanis felt deeply obliged. Of popular interest were the power plants, that generated enough electricity to overcome loadshedding of over 16 hours a day, as well as hundreds of kilometres of quality roads.
CPEC investments were to be complemented by certain actions that Pakistan was to undertake, most notably the Special Economic Zones. Since we did not create these zones in time, Chinese industry moved out to other countries, and not to Pakistan.
In the second phase of CPEC, which coincided with the change of government in Pakistan (2018-22), greater emphasis was to be placed on socioeconomic development, agriculture and IT. However, the political signalling of functionaries of the then government dampened Chinese enthusiasm to invest further in Pakistan. The slowdown in CPEC also coincided with the intensifying US-China competition. The US and other Western countries started criticising CPEC, citing issues of transparency and debt trap.
For the past one year, however, both countries seem to be making efforts to rejuvenate CPEC. Notably, they intend to jointly build a growth corridor, a livelihood corridor, an innovation corridor, a green corridor, and an open corridor — an ambitious agenda, which can be accomplished only if the next elected government puts its full weight behind these initiatives and ensures ease of doing business.
The next government should also double down on efforts to complete the development of Gwadar Port, which is uniquely placed to advance cross-regional connectivity. The port infrastructure, airport, free zone, and expressway are ready. To make the port optimally functional, we need a steady provision of electricity and freshwater as well as security for Chinese nationals working in Gwadar. The government must also ensure that the people of Gwadar are the first beneficiaries of the port.
China is now Pakistan’s largest trading partner, but the balance of trade is heavily tilted in China’s favour. The two free trade agreements signed by Pakistan and China have not worked well for us. It is encouraging to note that China intends to help Pakistan improve its export capacity through experience-sharing, special studies, expert exchanges and personnel training. The Special Investment Facilitation Council created recently can be another conduit to attract Chinese investments and businesses in Pakistan.
If the ‘iron brothers’ wish to make this relationship stronger than steel, let us move away from rhetoric and focus our energies on implementation of the projects. We must not allow CPEC to be dragged into the US-China rivalry. A welcome development in this regard is that both countries have agreed to make CPEC projects open and inclusive, enabling third parties to benefit from CPEC investments.
The writer is a former foreign secretary and chairman of Sanober Institute Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2023