Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is painting his visit to China not just as a triumph for his government but as a repudiation of the protests that are demanding his ouster. Chinese President Ji Xingping’s visit to Islamabad in September had been indefinitely postponed because of the dharnas, something the government claimed cost us billions of dollars. Now that Nawaz has returned having signed MoUs worth $33 billion, any damage that was caused should be repaired. The deals were primarily concerned with the energy sector, probably the most pressing issue facing the country today. Among the projects China has signed up for are the development of Gwadar, the Economic Corridor and various coal and solar power projects. So acute is our energy crisis that any outside investment should be welcomed and it is certainly to the credit of the Nawaz Sharif government that it has concluded more deals with the Chinese than the previous government. Pakistan’s relations with China have always been strong and aid is usually forthcoming but the PML-N has attracted more investment for specific projects than its predecessors. With the Iranian gas pipeline a non-starter and the Tapi pipeline beset by security concerns, the smaller projects being funded by China are ideal for now.
However, we should not confuse Chinese investment with benevolence. As a condition for investment in these power projects, China has demanded management control for its own companies which will reap any possible windfalls. There are also significant environmental concerns and a very real worry that the government, so eager to show proof of development, will ram through the process without taking due precautions. With Gwadar, there is always a danger that Chinese workers will be targeted, as they have been in the past, by Baloch separatists and even militants. This is a consequence of Nawaz’s policy of putting economic development before other political concerns. Had he tried to win over the Baloch with shows of good faith rather than continued to make them feel like they are being exploited, there would be a greater chance of genuine, equitable economic progress in the province. Perhaps this is why Nawaz has promised the Chinese to help with tackling the Uighyr Muslim province. The separatist Uighyrs have previously infiltrated into Pakistan and for China, which accuses them of being militants, that has always been a bone of contention. If we help them with their Uighyr problem, the Chinese might show a better understanding of our Baloch problem.