View from Pakistan | Thicker Than Blood

China-Pakistan ties are getting more broad-based

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery

Hours after returning from an official visit to China, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted, ‘Had a great meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping today. We agreed to further enhance our strategic and economic relations; and to fast track the second phase of CPEC.’

Khan’s tweet is instructive not only because it points to the trajectory that both countries want their ties to follow but also because it identifies one crown jewel that must be valued and taken forward: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While Khan joining a select group of world leaders that attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was certainly emblematic of the growing strategic bonhomie between the two countries, it was his meetings with the Chinese leadership and their business community that reflected the importance Pakistan attaches to its ties with China. Thus, Khan’s parleys with China’s President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and business giants must be seen through a broader, more strategic prism. The way the visit panned out and the release of a long, 33-point joint statement all but indicate that Beijing and Islamabad are poised to take their ties to the next level. In essence, three takeaways from the visit augur well for Sino-Pak relations going forward.

First, both countries redoubled their commitment to making CPEC a success. In this regard, three things are noteworthy. One, Pakistan and China signed the much-awaited Framework Agreement on Industrial Cooperation under the auspices of CPEC. The said Framework is likely to provide a fillip to the completion of one of the mainstays of CPEC’s second phase: Special Economic Zones (SEZs). As per the Framework, not only would work on SEZs be expedited but also chances for Chinese industries to relocate to Pakistan will increase. What’s more, it is not only Pakistan that is seeing this as an opportunity to reinvigorate industrialisation. China, too, is committed to leveraging the public and private sectors of both countries, with a view to contributing towards Pakistan’s industrialisation.

Two, as clearly enunciated in the joint statement, both countries look forward to bolstering CPEC in a manner that allows for increased agricultural productivity, scientific and technological cooperation, and the socio-economic development of locals. The focus on improving the economic profiles of locals is also ensconced in the development strategy for the port city of Gwadar.

Three, both sides have expressed their commitment to safeguarding CPEC from all kinds and types of threats, which also include mendacious propaganda against the project. All this underscores the fact that both Beijing and Islamabad realise that, for all its potential benefits, CPEC cannot succeed if it does not positively affect the lives and livelihoods of people. Also, a commitment to taking all what it takes to protect CPEC puts scepticism to rest. This shows that Beijing is not only cognizant of the security challenges that the project faces but also is willing to help Pakistan deal with them. If anything, this is China’s vote of confidence in Pakistan. With Islamabad focused on securing its citizens in a comprehensive manner, mainly by increasing the resource pie, a renewed emphasis on accelerating CPEC will further deepen its ties with Beijing. In addition to all this, top Chinese firms agreed to invest billions of dollars in Pakistan. The promised investments will greatly help Pakistan augment its food security woes, which have been dubbed important in the country’s recently-released National Security Policy.

Second, the strategic unanimity between Beijing and Islamabad has all but solidified the overarching anchor of their relations. As aforementioned, attending the opening ceremony was a strong Pakistani expression of solidarity with China. However, if that was not enough to show the growing significance of Sino-Pak relations, what followed the ceremony indeed was. In his meeting with PM Khan, Premier Li Keqiang stated, in no uncertain terms, what Pakistan means to China.

According to the statement released by China’s ministry of foreign affairs after the Khan-Li meeting, Li said China has always ‘taken China-Pakistan relations as a priority in its neighbourhood diplomacy, and supports Pakistan in advancing national prosperity and revitalization, and realizing independent economic development.’ Premier Li’s remarks have to be assessed in a broader context. By virtue of being China’s priority, Pakistan would expect to get China’s ratification in what it wants to do in the region. Besides, China wanting to help Pakistan tread an independent economic path and achieve prosperity would certainly mean that it would be willing to act as a bulwark against any economic coercion imposed on Pakistan. The spirit of Li’s words permeates the joint statement, as it includes in it a commitment by China to ‘safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and security, as well as promoting its socio-economic development and prosperity.’

Taken together, these two concomitant expressions signal the fact that China wants to create strategic interoperability with Pakistan, which will not be limited to defence only. Further, the joint statement’s sections on the brewing crisis in Afghanistan and the Kashmir dispute demonstrate how similar both countries view these sources of regional chaos. While reiterating its stand against unilateral action in Kashmir, China was quite forthcoming in calling upon the international community to help avert a catastrophe in Afghanistan. It would not be wrong to say that the language of the joint statement on Afghanistan and Kashmir is just what Pakistan wanted to hear. For its part, Pakistan, too, extended support to China on issues like that of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Thus, it is apt to stress that both consider themselves each other’s strategically and diplomatically important partners. Luckily for both of them, no development is likely to upset this robust diplomatic and strategic camaraderie going forward. In fact, it will become stronger than ever as regional and extra-regional forces jostle and jockey for new positions.

Third, that the joint statement makes frequent references to how both sides have agreed to strengthen people-to-people and cultural relations is reflective of a two-way desire to lay strong, organic foundations of a strategic equation. Adding softer elements into the strategic mosaic is important for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it will help both countries navigate cultural, attitudinal, and language barriers that have partly contributed towards creating misperceptions. With two of the foci of Beijing and Islamabad being on exploring opportunities for two-way tourism and expanding the conduits of cross-cultural communication, erroneous impressions about China’s highly-vaunted colonial designs could be dispelled.

The placement of chunks on sports, culture, and tourism ahead of those on defence and security is interesting. It would not be wrong to argue that China’s people-friendly interventions in Pakistan cannot become success-stories, unless there is a local buy-in. Therefore, interactions through sports, arts, and culture are critical to making Sino-Pak relations truly strategic. The joint statement and the nature of new Chinese commitments make it amply clear that both governments understand the strategic implications of involving the peoples of China and Pakistan in the full gamut of their relations.

Hence, it is fitting to argue that China and Pakistan, owing to their consensus on regional and global issues, mainly on those that affect peace and stability in the wider region, are slated to take their ties forward. This is evidenced by their having rightly ascertained what needs to be done to put themselves and the region in a better strategic position: propelling CPEC and deepening people-to-people relations.

(The writer is a research associate at the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore)




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