Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s keynote speech in China at a global forum last week to discuss Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, highlights Pakistan’s very close ties to the world’s fastest growing country.
For Pakistan, the stakes surrounding its relationship with China are also central to its future as the country pursues the China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC with Beijing’s backing. At least $60 billion (Dh220 billion) earmarked for CPEC related investments across Pakistan marks a historic milestone. Never before has a foreign power committed such a large investment in Pakistan during the nation’s 72-year history.
The relationship also has a vital dimension related centrally to global security interests which must be considered in gauging this relationship. Pakistan continues to maintain security related ties with Washington, notably over events in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the friction unleashed after US President Donald Trump ended virtually all defence related assistance to Pakistan. Being in this unique position of maintaining close ties with China versus a security dialogue with the US, albeit a reduced one, Pakistan is able to talk to both the countries.
This is a powerful and a telling relationship. In about three years, China will begin supplying up to eight new submarines to Pakistan over the subsequent six years with half of them due to be assembled in Pakistan. The submarines are part of what is widely acknowledged as the largest defence contract in dollar terms, ever signed by Pakistan.
Meanwhile, by next year, the Pakistan Air Force is expected to get nearer to deciding on a new contract for the purchase of its next batch of advanced fighters. Though the cost of that purchase and its source remain a matter of speculation, many seasoned analysts have noted that a Chinese aircraft supplier will likely win that contract.
If true, that would partially be driven by not only the affordability of Chinese military hardware by comparison to western suppliers but also a long history. Unlike a country such as the United States, China has never blocked the supply of military hardware to Pakistan on any pretext. In sharp contrast, the US in 1990 suspended the sale of F16 fighter planes to Pakistan on the grounds that the country was close to producing nuclear weapons.
In subsequent years too, Washington’s relationship has hovered between being the closest ally to a suspected foreign partner. It has only been in recent months that the US appears to have once again warmed up to Pakistan after American officials concluded that the US backed war with the Taliban in Afghanistan is unwinnable. Meanwhile, president Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan following a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban has yet again prompted the US to seek Pakistan’s help for a face saving end to that conflict.
There are also lessons to be learnt from past US pressure on Pakistan. Not only did Pakistan become a nuclear power just eight years after the 1990 blockage of the sales of F16 fighters to Islamabad, the country began working with China to eventually produce its own fighter plane, the JF-17 ‘Thunder’, in a journey that helped reduce dependence on the US in this area.
Taken together, Pakistan’s emerging economic relationship with China under CPEC and its history of defence ties with China have only helped cement Islamabad’s most important foreign relationship. Though Khan chose the right moment to compliment China for its support to Pakistan, his words also reflect a powerful longer term reality. Any Pakistani leader in Khan’s place would have chosen the moment to similarly praise Beijing’s support to the country.
Going forward, Pakistan also needs to revamp its own house to sustain the warmth in its relations with China. Fundamentally, the country needs to redefine the role of government in daily lives if it is to improve the role of the state in the economy. Even though CPEC has been launched as evidence of a new era, parts of the Pakistani state machinery continue to vastly underperform. In particular, the future of debt tied to CPEC related loans is an oft discussed matter in daily conversations. Many critics argue that with Pakistan’s tax collections repeatedly falling behind target, the country’s ability to meet its CPEC related financial obligations will remain in doubt.
Similarly, Imran and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) came to power just last year, promising to lay the ground for a concerted attack on corruption. But Imran cannot afford to oversee a slowdown across Pakistan from his government’s anti-corruption drive, especially at a time when a recessionary type environment is already expected under the weight of conditions expected under a new loan from the International Monetary Fund. In the end, it should be clear to any observer that the full success from Pakistan’s closer economic ties with China, in part must be tied to the policies chosen by the country.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.