India is going to be a big-time beneficiary of the 18th SCO Summit at Qingdao. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been warming up to India after the Doklam Pass standoff last year.
China has so far failed to secure Indian support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) because one of the projects – CPEC – passes through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and partly because India sees the initiative as an ambition for regional or global power. In spite of India’s reservations, the foreign and defence ministers of both countries have visited each other’s capitals to prepare ground for Xi-Modi meeting at Qingdao.
China gave India an incentive as well. In February 2018 – unlike in the past when China vetoed UN resolutions on terror allegations on Pakistan – China did not veto the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF)’s decision to place Pakistan on the grey list for terror financing. This may be seen by many as a pull to India.
China’s foreign ministry, however, assures Islamabad that closer cooperation with India is not at the cost of Pakistan. China is also not happy with the pace of development on CPEC infrastructure building, particularly the slow pace on special economic zones. Although China will wait a little further before losing hope.
Pakistan’s media and politics duo (coupled with militants wreaking havoc on a fragile Pakistan) could be blamed for much of the loss of opportunities that come the country’s way. If the past is any indication of the future, let’s consider the timelines of SCO summits and Pakistan’s ties with China alone.
Xi’s visit: in 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping could not visit Pakistan because of the dharna by the PTI, led by Imran Khan. Xi was to announce investing $46 billion in CPEC. The visit was delayed by a year. The Ufa Summit: in June 2015, when the SCO summit took place in Ufa, Russia, no Pakistani media accompanied PM Sharif where he met Indian PM in addition to the Russian and Chinese presidents. At Ufa, Pakistan’s Full Membership to SCO was approved for further paperwork. It was also at this summit that President Xi broke the news to the world that CPEC had reached the stage of implementation. The news that needed to come from Pakistan’s state media came from Xinhua, the Chinese news agency.
The Bishkek Summit: in November 2016, the then PM Sharif had to cancel his participation in the SCO Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan at the last minute because of the November 2 lockdown announced by – guess who – Imran Khan’s PTI party. The BRF in Beijing: in May 2017, when Nawaz Sharif and his four chief ministers were in Beijing for China’s global Belt and Road Forum, being attended by 29 foreign heads of states or governments, 10 labourers were killed in Gwadar and a convoy of Senate’s then deputy chairman was attacked in Balochistan, killing another 28. Gwadar and Balochistan were the two keywords that would have featured on Sharif’s proud speech in Beijing, highlighting progress on CPEC milestones. The opportunity turned into a tragedy back home.
Political instability in Pakistan has not helped its cause and opportunities have been wasted. July 2017 saw Nawaz Sharif disqualified as a member of parliament following a Supreme Court verdict on the Panama investigation. The foreign ministers’ meeting: In April 2018, the then foreign minister Khawaja Asif attended SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Beijing, but was unable to meet his Indian counterpart. In less than a week, Asif too was disqualified as a member of parliament through a high court order – though his disqualification now has been overturned by the Supreme Court.
Qingdao Summit: this weekend when the SCO summit is held in Qingdao, an interim caretaker setup is in place to hold general elections. President Mamnoon Hussain, who has no powers, can only represent Pakistan figuratively. He is slated to meet Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin.
So, will Pakistan be able to benefit from the SCO framework to increase economic opportunities for its millions of poor people? How will the relationships with neighbours – India, Iran and Afghanistan – be reshaped for the better after Pakistan’s SCO membership upgrade? And, will Pakistan’s politicians and media behave differently now that we are in a different league? The jury is still out on this.
However, if there is a way forward, this is only possible if the media and politicians mend their ways. When it comes to international opportunities, politicians need to leave behind petty politics. Instead of timing their street agitations on every global opportunity that comes Pakistan’s way, they need to appeal to voters based on their respective performances in their governed provinces. More than 3,500 TV shows were run on Pakistan’s broadcast media in a year from April 2016 to April 2017 on the Panama scandal. How many shows were organised on the SCO, our ties with China, CPEC, the Belt and Road Initiative, and economic growth? We can count the number of shows on these issues on our fingers.
This media blackout of substantive issues facing Pakistan is further aggravated when combined with false propaganda and fake news on social media and WhatsApp. I speak on CPEC and the Belt and Road Initiative in all parts of Pakistan to all sorts of audiences. But the people I meet hardly have any actual knowledge of what CPEC, the Belt and Road Initiative or the SCO stand for.
China and the SCO membership could only help Pakistan get its foot in the door. Our own national effort is now required, with the media and politics playing their visionary and futuristic role, to reap the benefits and, like China, pull millions of people out of poverty. This is the only way.
The writer is President of Institute of Media and Communication (IMC) in Pakistan, a Pakistan futurist and longtime China-watcher. An award-winning journalist, he blogs at walizahid.com.