Is China Pakistan’s Friend?

Is China Pakistan’s Friend?
I watched YouTuber Junaid Akram’s video “Is Pakistan the next Sri Lanka?” where he mentions that China built a dozen power plants under the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), that would shut down unless Pakistan made the payment of USD 1.5 billion. Akram’s videos are a welcome presence in online Pakistani spaces that are rife with political and religious discourse. His predilection for showcasing Pakistani talent and focus on creating educational videos on economic issues and international affairs is commendable. In his video, Akram adds that “China Ain’t Happy” and does not want to talk to Pakistan.

A simple google search shows that China is sitting on USD 3,480 billion US, which means that Pakistan owes 0.043 percent of those reserves to China. In other words, what is not even a pinch for China is a matter of life support for a country that is going through a severe existential crisis that rests on a balance of payment crisis, power shortage crisis, and a political turmoil that has divided Pakistan. It necessitates questioning whether China is Pakistan’s friend or merely using it for strategic purposes, given the threat it perceives from another emerging giant – India.

Additionally, one wonders whether through the CPEC and more generally the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), China has bought the silence of Muslim leaders on the plight of Uyghur Muslims. This is especially noteworthy when even populist leaders like Imran Khan, who are quick to point out issues of Indian administered Kashmir, Palestine, Rohingya Muslims, and more generally, Islamophobia, remain deafeningly silent on Uyghurs.

A new book, Rethinking China, the Middle East and Asia in a ‘Multiplex World’ edited by Mojtaba Mahdavi and Tugrul Keskin was published earlier this year. The book sheds some light on such concerns. It contains a collection of chapters including one by Saeed Shafqat, who is a professor and founding director of the Centre for Public Policy and Governance in Forman Christian College, Lahore.

The foreword of the book indicates that “the nations with which China has partnered feature political instability, little respect for the rule of law, a lack of transparency” and “no entrepreneurial culture, and chronic corruption”. It is therefore not surprising that critics contend that the BRI is “a neo-colonial scheme” and “a debt trap for many nations”. Given that such conditions hold true for Pakistan, such an assessment is alarming.

China’s Model Of Development

In his chapter in the book, Mojtaba Mahdavi states that the Chinese model of development “is an amalgamation of neoliberalism with elements of mercantilism, authoritarianism” and “development without democracy”. He adds that China’s increasing presence “could contribute to the deterioration of civil rights” and that the Beijing consensus or the Chinese model of development might facilitate “autocratic capitalism”. This is significant, as “neoliberalism produces extreme social inequality” and “empowers capital, not citizens”.

While Mahdavi alludes to the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, such an assessment seems valid for Pakistan that is ruled by the establishment, business oligarchs, and feudal lords without much transparency and which drove people towards the populist demagogue – Imran Khan. It sheds light on why Pakistan’s industrial oligarchs are so heavily invested in the CPEC for dividends predominantly flow to them instead of poor citizens of Pakistan.

Mahdavi references that “Beijing’s pragmatism explains strong” Chinese relations with the Muslim world to prevent “sympathy and support for Muslim Uyghurs”. Indeed, “the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation along with several Muslim-majority states even blocked a Western motion at the UN in 2019 calling for China to allow journalists access to Xinjiang province”. This is certainly not how Pakistan would have responded when Indian administered Kashmir was sealed by the right-wing Modi government.

Mahdavi adds that China continues “its arms trade with Saudi Arabia in spite of Saudi’s intervention and war crimes in Yemen”, that “by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Syria” it is “undermining the regime’s massive crimes against humanity”, and that despite the “genocidal treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority”, it backed Aung San Suu Kyi’s narrative that “Muslim Rohingya’s human rights were overblown”. So much for Pakistani concerns for the Rohingya Muslims.

Additionally, Mahdavi states that “Beijing’s boost in its military budget does not seem to represent a new emerging peaceful order”. In other words, if the US is fraught with human rights violations across the globe and viewed as the police of the world then China seems to offer the same. Replacing the US hegemony would only trade American drones for Chinese.

The Benefits Of CPEC

In his chapter, Saeed Shafqat states the CPEC benefits based on “the development of the Gwadar port, investments in the energy sector, and the development of industrial sectors” will only materialise “if policies surrounding the CPEC are transparent” and if the CPEC “provides Pakistanis with an opportunity for technical learning, and creates employment in the country”. This is significant as the benefit must belong to the people of Pakistan instead of being siphoned away by the rent seeking class.

Shafqat adds “any critique or concerns of transparency… is equated with conspiracy against the Pakistan-China friendship”. This is concerning as there are genuine concerns that “influx of Chinese goods and services will crowd out local producers and enterprises”, that the CPEC “is an instrument of Chinese imperialism and will adversely impact Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty”, that it will result in “Pakistan turning into Greece as it acquires loans in the name of the CPEC”, and that “without proper reforms, the CPEC could enhance the already prevalent corruption and the lack of political transparency in Pakistan”.

Pakistan-China Friendship

To summarise, Shafqat states that the “litmus test of the CPEC” would be based on if the “local communities are being involved”, if “the CPEC does not derail the economic and human development rights of those being affected”, through “the process of resource extraction” and if those affected by the CPEC are given “a fair chance for local development”. This means if the benefits of CPEC are predominantly shared by the rent seeking class, if Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty is compromised, if Pakistan falls into a “debt trap” then such a friendship comes with too high a price.

On his part, Mahdavi argues against both the “neoliberalism of the Washington consensus” and the “neoliberalism of the Beijing consensus”. Instead, he favours “active citizenry, a civil society engagement, and a socio-economic model ensuring social justice and political freedom”.

What this means for Pakistan is to wean itself away from any dependence (be it American or Chinese) and focus on its own strength that rests on the people of Pakistan.

How? By maintaining peaceful ties with all countries, including especially India, giving up on dead end issues like Kashmir, and quietly nurturing the human potential of Pakistan. Bangladesh is an excellent example before us to emulate and follow.

In short, in this nafsa nafsi (every man to himself) world, where men are in love with their own reflection, and nations focus on their own self-interest as they abandon the cries of others, there are no friends. In such a world, Pakistan will have to look within to develop its own strength – the people of Pakistan.