How will Imran Khan’s electoral triumph affect Pakistan’s relationship with China?

All eyes are on how Imran Khan will fulfill the ambitious promises which he and his party (Pakistan-Tehreek-i-Insaaf, or PTI) have made for creating a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan). Khan, who will take his oath as Prime Minister on August 11, 2018, needs to hit the ground running given the myriad of economic (Pakistan’s external debt is well over $90 billion, and accounts for over 30 percent of the country’s GDP) and geopolitical challenges. As Pakistani senior officials were drawing up plans to approach the IMF for a loan (estimated at $12 billion), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the IMF that there is absolutely no justification for ‘IMF Dollars’ to bail out ‘Chinese bond holders’ or China.

Given the high expectations as well as the impatience amongst the youth, Khan is not likely to have a very long honeymoon period.

Pakistan-China relationship under PTI government

It will be interesting to see how the crucial Beijing-Islamabad relationship pans out under Imran Khan. During his first address (after his party’s victory) to the Pakistani nation, he dubbed the Pakistan-China relationship as the most important for Pakistan. Khan also emphasized the point that Pakistan had a lot to learn from China in the context of poverty alleviation, as well as the latter’s anti-corruption campaign.

China’s relationship with Imran Khan

In the past, Khan, while supporting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project in principle, had expressed certain apprehensions during his meetings with Chinese diplomats. Khan had also stated that the government of Pakistan needs to be more transparent with regard to the contours of the project, and that each province should get it’s rightful due.

The Chinese in turn were uncomfortable with Khan’s dharna (protests) of 2014 (it was as a consequence of these protests that the inauguration of the CPEC Project had to be delayed). Khan’s 2016 protests against the Nawaz Sharif government (after the names of three of Sharif’s family members, who held offshore accounts, appeared in the Panama leaks) were also watched with skepticism by the Chinese.

It would be pertinent to point out that the PTI manifesto, while praising the project, has pointed to some of CPEC’s short comings, including investments as a consequence of ‘insufficient transfer of knowledge and capabilities, fewer partnerships with local businesses and Pakistan’s high dependence on imports of goods and services from China’.

PTI’s chief rival, the PML-N, often spoke about the need for an independent foreign policy, but never ever alluded to this aspect.

Beijing’s preference for PML-N

It would also be pertinent to point out that while Beijing has had problems with Pakistan, it has had a close relationship with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N. Beijing, which has maintained robust relations with the army, also shared cordial relations with Shehbaz Sharif, the President of PML-N and former Chief Minister of Punjab. China has praised Shehbaz Sharif for his efficiency more than one occasion, even referring to his style of working as ‘Shehbaz Speed’ and Punjab speed. When Shehbaz was appointed President of the PML-N, he received a congratulatory message from senior members of the Chinese Communist Party.

The PML-N also sought to take credit for the CPEC project on more than one occasion. In August 2016, while addressing a meeting of his party’s parliamentary committee, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated:

He [Xi Jinping] said this is a gift to you from China. They were also waiting for the time when our government would be in power so that they could make this investment.

Chinese Media’s comments on Imran Khan and CPEC

Post the election results, Chinese media has sought to be positive, and has been confident that the CPEC project will go ahead as planned. One op-ed published in the Global Times (‘Will Imran Khan pivot Pakistan from US to China’) referred to how the West was creating unnecessary paranoia with regard to the economic ramifications of the CPEC project. The op-ed also said that Imran Khan may take Pakistan further into the ‘Chinese orbit’ and that he had no problem with the CPEC project. The article cites the PTI manifesto to bolster its argument (saying that PTI has dubbed the project as a ‘game changer’). Other sections of the Chinese media have also welcomed Imran Khan’s election. Only one analyst, Tom Hussain, has categorically made the point that PTI had strained ties with China in the past. Said Hussain:

the PTI has been working overtime to repair its relations with the Beijing, which had been damaged by its disparaging remarks and allegations of corruption about CPEC projects in the past.

Likely developments in the short run

Imran Khan doesn’t have too many options, but there could be some re-examination of some of the CPEC projects. While Pakistan is now dependent upon China given Islamabad’s rock bottom ties with the US, the question on many people’s minds is if Khan can do a Mahathir (Malaysia’s Prime Minister), where maintaining good ties with China does not mean shying away from questioning the financial feasibility of certain projects within CPEC.

In the short run, this is impossible, and many would argue that even in the long run this may seem like nothing but a pipe dream. Yet, if Imran Khan can harness relations more effectively with neighbors (as he emphasized in his speech) and build a robust economic relationship with India (something which the Chinese may not mind), we could witness a course correction. One of the reasons why Nawaz Sharif advocated good ties with India was so that Pakistan could develop an independent foreign policy and end its dependence upon the US. One of Sharif’s slogans in 2013 was ‘Trade not Aid’. While Imran himself has spoken about trade ties with India, will the establishment allow him to go ahead.

Changing geopolitical dynamics in South Asia

If one were to look beyond economics, even in the context of Afghanistan, one of the significant developments in South Asia has been a decision by India and China to work jointly in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen how Imran Khan’s government perceives this. India and Pakistan are also likely to participate jointly in anti-terror drills in Russia, in August 2018, under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Conclusion

It is very tough to predict how Imran Khan handles ties with China, but one thing is for sure: Beijing may publicly be welcoming Khan’s election but from the opinion pieces in the Global Times, there is a worry deep down concerning his maverick nature. Imran, unlike the Sharif’s (who were businessmen), may not be as transactional in the economic sphere. His economic ideology is left-of-center (with a strong thrust on welfare). While he needs foreign direct investment, he is not as obsessive about mega projects as the Sharif’s.

Imran on his part will have numerous challenges to contend with, and needs to strike a fine balance. A less hostile relationship with the neighbors will benefit him, and a slightly less hostile relationship with the US would give him space. Given the plethora of challenges he is likely to face, no real changes should be expected in the context of Pakistan-China ties, though over a period of time, recalibration of policies should not be ruled out.

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