Pakistan seems willing to bask in China’s economic glory

Pakistan definitely has China on its mind as it looks for “best source” of funds to put its stagnant economy back on the path of progress.

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In November 2015, Islamabad and Beijing signed a $46 billion economic corridor project allowing China to acquire over 2,000 acres of land in Baluchistan to develop the strategic Gwadar port which will serve commercial traffic to and from the Central Asian states and Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, China, Iran and Southeast Asia.

Faced with an internal and external debt amounting to $78 billion and perpetual energy crisis, Pakistan badly needs more such ‘foreign direct investment’ to spin the stagnant wheel.

Pakistan’s latest move to take the “deep relations” with China to a new level comes amid geo-political changes rapidly occurring in the region, especially in Afghanistan and the Middle East. These changes have forced Pakistan to re-assess its foreign policy and traditional tilt towards the U.S. Although Pakistan has never enjoyed stable and long-term relations with the U.S., Washington had remained, until recently, the most important source for Islamabad’s various regimes to seek political, financial and military support.

However, more than political compulsion, it is Pakistan’s geographic location — China’s “silk road” happens to pass through it — that is shaping its foreign as well as internal policies. For the country’s political elite, this is perhaps one of the greatest opportunities the country has ever had in years to revamp itself politically and economically.

Although China’s billion-dollar investment in Pakistan seems to be an economic venture, it does have significant political aspect too which become evident when compared with the way Americans have been investing in Pakistan.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, left-wing politician and an academic, says: “There is the obvious fact — noted even by the American media — that billions of dollars committed by China will be invested in physical infrastructure like roads, whereas Washington has never committed as much money and usually prioritizes military hardware and training. In this sense alone, China’s patronage would appear to promise more benefits to ordinary Pakistanis than the Americans have ever offered.”

In this context, China’s offer of $46 billion for road, rail, energy and other investments in Pakistan is stunning enough. Unsurprisingly, much of the Pakistan media and politicians alike responded with glee, seeing at last the much-needed kick-start money which can make Pakistan a new ‘Asian Tiger’, or at least give India some economic competition in the South Asian growth contest.

It is precisely here that Pakistan’s major political and military interests seem to converge. Although Pakistan denies the essential ‘India-centric’ nature of its alliance with China, such a huge investment from China would certainly allow Islamabad to play a more important role at the regional level than it has ever done during the so-called “great games” of Russia and America in the 20th and 21st centuries respectively.

According to Pakistan’s former ambassador to China, Masood Ahmad Khan, “Pakistan’s alliance with China is primarily meant to enhance and deepen their strategic cooperation and strengthen economic ties between the two countries. From the latter form of cooperation, Pakistan stands to benefit the most because of the impressive strides of China’s economy. The alliance is not directed against a third country, such as India. That said, Pakistan’s close collaboration with China has raised Pakistan’s regional stature. If India does not choose to pursue a policy of acting as a counterweight to China, the Pakistan-China alliance does not hurt it in any manner.”

While the denial is clear regarding the alliance’s ‘anti-India’ posture, Pakistani officials are only denying what is quite self-evident. Were it not for the Indian advances in the region, particularly in Afghanistan where it tends to fill the vacuum left by the US, Pakistan might never have found it diplomatically useful to engage China in Afghanistan as a counterweight to ‘Indian ambitions.’

Engaging China in matters that directly relate to Pakistan’s vital strategic interests is a clear-cut policy Pakistan is following today.  Counter-balancing India is one of the matters where China has historically played an important role and that role has not decreased, although it does seem to have changed its form and manner due perhaps to China’s own “deep economic relations” with India.

Therefore, it cannot still be gainsaid that by boosting Pakistan’s economic position, China wants to divert India’s attention away from itself. That is to say, in the wake of the U.S.’ “Asia Pivot” and the position India currently has acquired within the ambit of this “pivot”, it is of utmost significance for China to refocus Indian security concerns back to her longstanding obsession with Pakistan. These had been waning due to Pakistan’s endemic domestic problems, its inability to project itself regionally and the rise of China’s presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.

While China’s intention is to “develop” Pakistan to accomplish the said diversion of India’s security concerns, “development” per se does not and cannot alone resolve impeding political crisis in Pakistan, particularly the separatist movement in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest territorial province.

While Pakistan hopes, as Masood Ahmad Khan informed me, that economic development in Baluchistan with the help of China would help resolve the crisis, the nature of the crisis is such as demands much more than mere “development” — a reality that various Pakistan regimes have been refusing to confront for past many decades.

As Akhtar argues, “Our ruling class is living in denial if it believes that billions of dollars of Chinese investment can gloss over a long history of state repression of underrepresented ethnic nations. Fourteen years of infrastructural investments in and around Kabul have not helped the US get any closer to establishing sustainable peace in Afghanistan, let alone accessing oil and gas off the Caspian Sea. There is no linear relationship between the influx of economic capital and the resolution of political conflict.”

It cannot be denied that Baluchistan, particularly, its Gwadar port, is crucial for the success of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Therefore, resolution of conflict in that region is much more important than merely building roads there. It is uncertain whether China is playing or will play any role in mitigating the conflict in Baluchistan. However, recent controversies about the route of CPEC have clearly demonstrated that nationalist forces in Baluchistan and other regions are highly suspicious about Chinese interventions in their respective regions.

While ‘Chinese intervention’ does appear to be better than what United States has been doing in Pakistan since 1950, it would still be naïve, many seem to argue in Pakistan, to believe that China’s investment plans in Pakistan are not part of larger strategic blueprint it is in the process of implementing, arguably with Russian support. Hence, the important question: Will Pakistan not fall a trap to Sino-Russian strategic objectives as it did fall to the United States’?

When the question regarding a possible divergence between Pakistan’s development needs and China’s strategic objectives was put to Khan, he seemed to relegate it as a question of secondary importance only and went on to highlight Pakistan and China’s “mutuality of interests in multiple, interlinked areas.”

As mentioned earlier, Islamabad tends to officially deny the possibility of China playing an active role in resolving political conflicts in Pakistan. Were we to believe Pakistan’s official narrative, it becomes evident that China is not that much concerned with Pakistan’s internal political matters.  And if this is assumed to be true, the underlying logic of Pakistan’s development needs and China’s strategic objectives seem to diverge rather than converge.

While Islamabad tends to use “China’s impressive economic strides” to develop Pakistan’s most impoverished region as a means to resolve the national question of Baluchistan, China’s policies are not necessarily guided by this objective. This is evident from the fact that CPEC route in Baluchistan has been primarily guided by the imperative of accommodating China’s interests while Pakistan tends to reap whatever potential benefits it can out of this ‘grand project.’

Nor is the resolution of political conflict in Baluchistan China’s priority. For example, as Akhtar argues, “one reason why progressives have opposed US intervention here is that it has impeded democracy and empowered the military establishment. One of the least discussed aspects of the Chinese president’s visit was the announcement by the DG ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) that a 10,000-strong military force will be readied to provide protection to the so-called economic corridor from Gwadar through the Chinese border on the northern tip of Pakistan” — a potential step towards more militarization of the region than resolution of the conflict.

While China may just not be keen on directly interfering in Pakistan’s internal political affairs, many political decisions being taken in Islamabad do strongly indicate how keen Pakistan itself is on accommodating China’s interests. Important in this context is the ongoing controversy over the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan region that falls inside the disputed territory of Kashmir and which is central to the passage of China’s trade route through Pakistan.

While Islamabad has categorically denied that the said region is being given a new constitutional status on the insistence of China, a Pakistan official told Dawn newspaper on the condition of anonymity that China cannot afford to invest billions of dollars on a road that passes through a disputed territory claimed by India and Pakistan.

While China seems to be fully adhering to its policy of “non-interference” in other country’s internal affairs, Gilgit-Baltistan’s constitutional status is not, strictly speaking, an internal affair of Pakistan as China itself is a party to the Kashmir conflict.  Therefore, the possibility of China playing an active role in raising this region’s position to a new level cannot be denied.

Pakistan, on the other hand, seems willing enough to do whatever it takes to accommodate China’s interests and address all its concerns in its bid to fully harness CPEC to pave the way for its own “economic strides.” It is, therefore, no exaggeration to state that Pakistan is willing to bask in China’s economic glory while China is all set to make huge strides towards consolidating its geo-political position in the Asian continent.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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