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October 24, 2018

A new season in the game


October 24, 2018

An outline of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to China from November 3 has surfaced, indicating that he will be meeting the top Chinese leadership in Beijing before traveling to Shanghai for a stay focusing more on trade and the economy.

The outcome of Khan’s talks with Chinese leaders will be crucial for the future of the all-weather friendship that has characterised relations between the two countries. The visit should lead to a reaffirmation of mutual loyalty as well as a renewal of the framework of close bilateral cooperation in the years ahead.

Important world capitals will be keen to know whether the quantum leap of this relationship, witnessed through the spectacular progress of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects, will be sustained under the PTI government. Developments in Pakistan’s strategic partnership with China have always been closely followed by regional and global powers, particularly India and the US, which have openly expressed some misgivings about CPEC.

Far gone are the days when Washington sought Islamabad’s assistance in opening diplomatic links to Beijing. The Trump administration has taken things to the other extreme by converting trade rivalry with China into open economic confrontation, with implications for countries like Pakistan. US Secretary of State Pompeo’s warning to the IMF against a bailout package for Pakistan to pay “Chinese debt” has been reiterated by other US spokespersons.

The Trump team does not hesitate to market alternate facts without checking the repayment schedule of Chinese loans to Pakistan. China has not added a significant burden to Pakistan’s current liabilities. Pakistan will have to start paying off the Chinese debt but that is not an urgent need in squaring off its balance of payments at this stage. Pakistan’s recourse to the IMF is being used by US officials as another pretext to target China in global power politics.

Trump’s efforts to roll back globalisation have undermined the global production and trading system designed by the West. He seems to overlook the phasing out of labour-intensive industries by developed economies to focus on sophisticated products and the services sector, as part of an evolutionary process in the division of labour. His massive tariffs against China have provoked retaliation from Beijing and the cumulative effect of these measures will slow down growth worldwide. Most countries, including Pakistan, are likely to be impacted by the resulting slowdown in demand.

The past six decades have witnessed Pakistan being repeatedly sucked into great power rivalries. One particularly instructive episode was Pakistan’s role in Sino-US rapprochement in the early 1970s, which greatly irritated the Soviet Union. In his memoirs, Jamsheed Marker, Pakistan’s ambassador in Moscow at the time, narrated how the Soviet officials kept asking him why, of all places, Islamabad had to be the staging post for Kissinger’s efforts to open high-level contacts with China.

Moscow saw the nascent US-China ties as detrimental to its vital interests. Pakistan’s role in facilitating ties between the countries might also have reopened the wounds of US reconnaissance flights from an airbase near Peshawar in the 1960s, which ended only with the shooting down of an American spy plane in the Soviet Union. Following Kissinger’s visit from Rawalpindi to Beijing in July 1971, Moscow retaliated by hurriedly signing a friendship treaty with India that enabled the latter to complete its war plans to dismember Pakistan.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979 provided the US an opportunity to punish the Soviets, and vowed to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s ‘Vietnam’. Pakistan was an essential partner in that great game, which was led by the US and largely financed by the Saudis. The US was determined to damage the Soviet Union beyond repair. Moscow offered withdrawal from Afghanistan but the then secretary of state, Alexander Haig, said they would not let the Soviets off easily.

The extent of Soviet discomfiture can be guessed from their refusal to Gen Zia’s call, not to leave Afghanistan in a hurry without a new political order. Moscow’s envoy said outside the meeting room that he “smelled a rat” in Zia’s ploy to continuously bog the Soviet troops. Both superpowers abandoned Afghanistan as the country slowly descended into chaos.

Fast forward to 2018. It is America’s turn to seek disengagement from Afghanistan, after failing in its longest war, and Pakistan is once again being asked to help its ‘on and off friend’. The irony is that the US makes a case of Pakistan’s debt burden to push its containment of the new emerging threat that it considers China. None other than Kissinger had warned once that being America’s friend can be more hazardous than being its enemy.

Interestingly, neither Washington nor Beijing is sure of PM Khan’s course of action in relations with the two great powers. We can assume that the basic parameters of foreign policy would remain unchanged. Khan’s first opportunity would be in China where that country’s leaders expect assurances from the PTI government about their commitment to CPEC, the flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Will the Chinese leaders find in Khan a tougher negotiator than his predecessors, whose effusiveness towards the all-weather friend knew no bounds? It is important that the two sides fine tune the future course of action for CPEC, accommodating each other’s genuine concerns. Both need unflinching solidarity at a time when the US considers India its privileged partner in South Asia and beyond.

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