A short note from New Delhi on the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently attended the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), hosted by the Russian city of Vladivostok, which was held on September 11th and 12th of 2018. President Xi (who became the first Chinese President to attend the EEF) met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the third time in as many months. Significantly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also attended the Forum, which was titled “The Russian Far East: Expanding the Range of Possibilities.”

Both Xi and Putin repeatedly referred to not just their close personal rapport (Chinese President Xi Jinping, while referring to their individual ties, stated that his and Putin’s ‘friendship was getting stronger all the time’), but also the deepening of economic and strategic ties between Russia and China, as well as the convergence on key global issues (neither side missed the opportunity to target the US for it’s inward looking economic policies).

China was also participating in military exercises, held in Siberia, which have been dubbed ‘Vostok 2018’ (Beijing clarified that these military exercises were not targeted at any third party). The military exercise (September 11-17, 2018) involves 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes, and a number of warships. China sent over 3,000 People’s Liberation Army personnel for the military exercises.

China-Russia Economic Times

A number of issues were discussed during the course of the Forum. Both sides agreed that there was a need to accelerate bilateral economic ties. Trade has witnessed a significant rise in recent years, while in 2017 it was estimated at over $80 billion. In 2018, bilateral trade could surpass $100 billion. Chinese investments in Russia have also been increasing. According to the Russia-China Investment Fund (RCIF; set up in 2012), 150 representatives from China and Russia have already identified 73 projects estimated at $100 billion. Also according to the RCIF, 7 projects estimated at well over $4 billion have already been undertaken.

Both sides also agreed to promote stronger synergies between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Given the fact that the Forum was held in Russia’s Far Eastern Region (RFE), the need to increase Chinese investment in the RFE was high on the agenda. President Xi stated that China has always been a key participant in development projects in the Eastern parts of Russia. China’s Shandong Hi-Speed Group is also likely to invest in highway projects in the RFE.

Recent years have witnessed an increasing Chinese economic presence in Khabarovsk, which is the second largest city in the Eastern Region and 800 kilometres from Vladivostok. It may also be pertinent to point out that a large number of Russians have been uncomfortable with the growing Chinese economic clout, as well as immigrants. In 2010, the Chinese population in the Russian Far East was estimated at less than 30,000, though according to some estimates the population is much higher.

Protectionism

Both Russia and China warned against growing economic protectionism. Xi stated that he was all for greater international cooperation, and even lashed out at the growing tendency towards protectionism. Xi’s views were echoed by Putin, who stated that ‘the world and global economy are coming up against new forms of protectionism today with different kinds of barriers which are increasing.’

Putin made the point that protectionism was a threat, especially to Asia-Pacific (significantly, the current Trump administration has been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific,’ much to the chagrin of the Chinese).

What was also significant was that Xi came down heavily on ‘unilateralism’ at a time when China itself is being accused of ‘expansionist tendencies’ and promoting ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy.’ What was even more interesting was a reference to ‘UN Charter.’

The message emanating from the forum was clear: that the economic as well as strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing is likely to strengthen, and both will try to develop an alternative narrative to that currently emerging from Washington.

Significance of meeting: Why India would be watching

New Delhi would be observing the Forum and meetings between Putin and Xi, since it’s own relations between Russia and China are of vital importance. While Russia is important in the security context, economic ties with Beijing are important for New Delhi.

New Delhi attaches immense significance to ties with Moscow

There are many in analysts in New Delhi who argue that India should be cautious in strengthening strategic ties with the US, given that this could cause friction in New Delhi’s relations with Moscow (Russia’s improved defense ties with Pakistan are often cited as a consequence of New Delhi moving too close to Washington DC). There are others who argue that New Delhi’s ties with Moscow are robust and time-tested, and will not be impacted by close ties with Washington DC. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be visiting India in October 2018 (for the 19th annual India-Russia Summit), while Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, during her Moscow visit, met with Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. Both of them jointly chaired the 23rd India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical, and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) meeting. A number of issues, including the need to boost bilateral trade and enhance people-to-people contact, were discussed. Significantly, this was Swaraj’s third visit to Russia in 11 months and she stated that India accorded ‘high priority’ to ties with Russia.

The fact that Swaraj’s visit to Russia took place after a successful 2+2 dialogue with the US, where a number of important defense agreements including COMCASA were signed, shows that New Delhi realizes the importance of ties with Russia. India is likely to sign a deal with Russia for the procurement of the S-400 air defence system, even though the USA has not given India any assurances with regard to a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) if India purchases defence equipment from Russia. During the visit, India is also likely to go ahead with an agreement with Russia for four frigates for the Indian Navy. While two of these will be manufactured in Kaliningrad, two will be manufactured in Goa.

New Delhi-Beijing ties

The issue of trade tariffs, which was highlighted by Putin and Xi, has also not gone unnoticed by New Delhi. One of the reasons (apart from the desire for peace and tranquility on borders) why India has been pro-actively reaching out to China is a convergence on economic issues. In fact, days after the 2+2 Summit, US President Trump, while referring to India and China, stated that the US has been providing subsidies to India and China for far too long and can not afford to do so any longer.

In terms of investments, there has not been much progress so far due to political disputes, but there is scope for greater economic cooperation between both countries through enhanced connectivity. New Delhi, on its part, should be open to projects like BCIM Corridor (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar). The recent proposal out of Beijing to start a railway line from Kunming to Kolkata may not seem possible in the short run, but in the long run it is definitely worth examining, and would give a boost to economies of India’s Eastern and North Eastern states. Interestingly, on September 9th, 2018, Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China for agreeing to establish the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). New Delhi should see this connectivity project as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Conclusion

New Delhi, while enhancing strategic cooperation with Washington, needs to keep in mind that there is a plethora of economic as well as other issues of global importance where New Delhi can find common ground with Beijing and Moscow. India bilaterally shares robust economic ties with China, and a strategic relationship with Russia. All three countries are also working closely in BRICS as well as SCO. New Delhi also needs to keep in mind that while strategic ties with Washington are important, Trump’s unpredictability will compel New Delhi to keep all its options open and think in a nuanced manner. While historically New Delhi shares close ties with Moscow, the logic of geography can not be ignored in the context of India-China ties.

Pakistan-China ties and CPEC

Abdul Razak Dawood, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Adviser on Commerce, Textile, Industry & Production and Investment, told the Financial Times that the previous Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz ) government did not get a good deal for Pakistan in CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), and that Pakistan has lost out as a result of poor negotiations.

Dawood also made the point that some of the CPEC projects could be put on hold for a year, and CPEC can be stretched up to five years. Said Dawood: ‘Perhaps we can stretch CPEC out over another five years or so.’

Interestingly, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s  recent Pakistan visit, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, assured the former that Pakistan would accord high priority to CPEC — which was of immense economic and strategic importance for Pakistan. Qureshi also stated that projects would be implemented at the earliest outset. Even the normally outspoken Pakistan Finance Minister, Asad Umar, was cautious, and categorically said that ‘We don’t intend to handle this process like Mahathir.’ Imran Khan also met with Wang Yi, and a statement from the Pakistani side read as follows:

‘The Prime Minister reiterated that the Government is committed to the implementation of the CPEC.’

Wang Yi on his part emphasized on the fact that CPEC was not responsible for Pakistan’s debts. He also stated that Beijing was willing to re-negotiate a Free Trade Agreement which, according to many in Pakistan, was heavily skewed in favour of China and has faced domestic opposition.

During the course of a meeting between the Planning, Development and Reforms Commission of Pakistan and the National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC) of China, two interesting aspects were added to the existing agreement. The first, that third countries would be allowed to invest in the upcoming 9 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of CPEC. The Chinese delegation during the meeting is supposed to have conveyed the point that it was open to investment from countries which were friendly to both Pakistan and China to invest in the SEZs. Some of the potential countries discussed were Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia

Second, ‘social sector’ schemes and regional development schemes were added to the existing CPEC projects. Social sector schemes include drinking water, health, education, and technical training. The inclusion of these areas was done keeping in mind the priorities of the current government.

Is a significant re-think towards CPEC possible?

There is no doubt that Islamabad’s dependence upon China would have increased as a consequence of its current economic situation and it’s deteriorating ties with Washington (days before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Islamabad, military aid to the tune of $300 million was withdrawn). Yet, some re-think vis-à-vis CPEC can not be ruled out because a number of Pakistani politicians have expressed discomfort with the lack of transparency regarding the project.

Transparency with regard to the CPEC project

When in opposition, Imran had himself spoken about the need for greater transparency and openness with regard to the project. Before the elections in July 2018, many analysts argued that the Chinese would be far more comfortable with parties like the PPP and the PML-N as opposed to Imran Khan.

The protests of Khan and his party (PTI) against the previous PML-N government were also viewed with skepticism by the Chinese who believed that these protests would be detrimental to the progress of the project. Khan during his meeting, in 2016, with the Chinese Envoy to Pakistan tried to address the apprehensions of the Chinese by saying he was all for the project.

One of the objections of Pakistani politicians from Non-Punjabi provinces (across parties), as well as analysts, was that the project was Punjab Centric. In November 2017, members from the Senate, including the then-ruling party, PML-N, had spoken about the lack of transparency of CPEC, and had also alluded to the fact that China was benefitting at Pakistan’s expense.

Apart from domestic politics, the firm stance taken by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad with regard to some Chinese projects (the Malaysian PM scrapped projects worth $20 billion) is also important and has forced a rethink in Pakistan . An editorial in Dawn titled ‘Rearranging CPEC’ also cited Mahathir’s stance against Chinese projects. While it is unlikely that Pakistan may follow suit as was stated by the Finance Minister, Asad Umar, as well as by Abdul Razak Dawood himself (Dawood in fact had to clarify that his remarks with regard to CPEC had been quoted out of context), there will be groups in Pakistan (especially members of the business community) who could nudge the current government towards tweaking the CPEC agreement further as well as resetting the Pakistan-China economic relationship to some extent.

China itself can not afford to ignore Mahathir’s stance, as well as his statement about the rise of a ‘new colonialism’. The address of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Africa-China Summit, as well as Wang Yi’s statements during his Pakistan visit, are clear indicators that China is not taking Mahathir’s statements lightly. Whether Imran Khan can be a Mahathir of course is a different issue.

Lack of options and GHQ

While there may be certain personalities within the current government who are making the right noises with regard to the CPEC project, Islamabad’s economic situation has reduced its options.

Apart from this, the Pakistan army (which runs the show when it comes to complex foreign policy issues) has robust ties with Beijing, and will prevent any drastic changes to the CPEC agreement. During his meeting with Wang Yi, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, assured the visiting Chinese Minister of full support. The Chinese also had a robust relationship with former Pakistan Army Chief, Raheel Sharif.

A re-think on CPEC, as well as Pakistan-China economic relations (highly unlikely in the short run), would benefit not just Pakistan, but could have broader ramifications, and may compel more countries to rethink their ties with China.

Mahathir Mohammad deserves credit for highlighting the shortcoming of China’s infrastructural projects as well as its economic ties with certain countries. This debate is not likely to die down soon, though not every country is in a position to take a bold stand like Mahathir. Imran Khan, in private, may be supporting Mahathir’s approach towards China, but can not afford to do so publicly.

China and the liberal vision of the Indo-Pacific

Mike Pompeo’s recent speech (titled ‘America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision’) at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, has been carefully observed across Asia. Beijing has understandably paid close special attention to it. Pompeo emphasized the need for greater connectivity within the Indo-Pacific, while also highlighting the role which the US was likely to play (including financial investments to the tune of $113 million in areas like infrastructure, energy, and digital economy). The US Secretary of State, while stating that this vision was not targeted at anyone, did make references to China’s hegemonic tendencies, as well as the lacunae of Chinese connectivity projects (especially the economic dimension).

The Chinese reaction to Pompeo’s speech was interesting. Senior Chinese government officials were initially dismissive of the speech, saying that such ideas have been spoken in the past, but produced no tangible results.

A response article in the Global Times is significant here. Titled ‘Indo-Pacific strategy more a geopolitical military alliance’ and published in the communist state’s premier English-language mouthpiece, what emerges clearly from this article is that Beijing is not taking the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ lightly, and neither does it rule out the possibility of collaboration. The article is unequivocal, though, in expressing its skepticism with regard to the geopolitical aspect of the Indo-Pacific vision. Argues the article:

[…] the geopolitical connotation of the strategy may lead to regional tensions and conflicts and thus put countries in the region on alert.

The piece is optimistic with regard to the geo-economic dimension, saying that American investment would be beneficial and would promote economic growth and prosperity. What must be noted is that while the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been put forward as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, the article also spoke about the possible complementarities between the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ and China’s version of BRI. While Pompeo had spoken about a crucial role for US private companies in his speech, the article clearly bats in favor of cooperation between the Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and US governments, rather than just private companies. This is interesting, given the fact that China had gone to the extent of dubbing the Indo-Pacific vision as “the foam on the sea […] that gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

While there is absolutely no doubt that there is immense scope for synergies between the Indo-Pacific vision and BRI, especially in the economic sphere, China’s recent openness towards the Indo-Pacific vision needs to be viewed in the following context.

First, the growing resentment against the economic implications of some BRI projects. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is a classical example of China’s debt trap diplomacy, where Beijing provides loans at high interest rates (China has taken over the strategic Hambantota Project, since Sri Lanka has been unable to pay Beijing the whopping $13 billion). Even in the ASEAN grouping, countries are beginning to question the feasibility of BRI projects. Malaysia, which shares close economic ties with Beijing, is reviewing certain Chinese projects (this was one of the first steps undertaken by Mahathir Mohammad after taking over the reigns as Prime Minister of Malaysia).

Secondly, the Indo-Pacific vision has long been dubbed as a mere ‘expression’ that lacks gravitas in the economic context (and even now $113 million is not sufficient). Developments over recent months, including the recent speech by Pompeo, indicate that the American Department of State seems to be keen to dispel this notion that the Indo-Pacific narrative is bereft of substance. Here it would be pertinent to point out that Pompeo’s speech was followed by an Asia visit to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The US needs to walk the course and, apart from investing, it needs to think of involving more countries, including Taiwan and more South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific partnership.

The Indo-Pacific also speaks in favor of democracy as well as greater integration, but countries are becoming more inward-looking, and their stands on democracy and human rights are more ambiguous than in the past. Japan is trying to change its attitude towards immigration, and is at the forefront of promoting integration and connectivity within the Indo-Pacific. Neither the US, nor India, Japan, or Australia have criticized China for its human rights violations against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

Here it would also be important to state that there is scope for China to be part of the Indo-Pacific, but it needs to look at certain projects beyond the rubric of the BRI. A perfect instance is the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, which India was willing to join, but China now considers this project as a part of BRI.

In conclusion, Beijing can not be excluded from the ‘Indo-Pacific’ narrative, but it cannot expect to be part of the same, on its own terms. It is also important for countries like the United States and India to speak up more forcefully on key issues pertaining to freedom of speech and diversity (and ensure that these remain robust in their own respective countries), given that one of the objectives of the Indo-Pacific vision is a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

Finally, the US is getting serious about the Indo-Pacific

China has not been particularly comfortable with the Trump Administration’s repeated use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (of late, it has been quite scathing in it’s criticism). The term ‘Indo-Pacific’, which has been used for a few years, has now gained more attention after a few developments:

First, during Trump’s Asia visit in 2017, in which he visited Japan, Vietnam, and attended the ASEAN Summit, he used this term on more than one occasion.

Before his India visit in October 2017, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson articulated a vision for a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. Tillerson, while pitching for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific, also highlighted the need for preventing illiberal multilateralism. Said the former US Secretary of State:

We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity — so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics.

The use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was followed by the revival of the Quad Grouping (India, Australia, US, Japan). Senior officials of these four countries met on the eve of the East Asia Summit, held in Manila, and discussed ways to strengthen cooperation for promotion of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’.

There have been a number of meetings between representatives of Japan, the US, and India to discuss a wide range of issues such as maritime cooperation, connectivity, and strengthening collaboration between these countries

China’s criticism of Indo-Pacific and Quad

China dismissed the Indo-Pacific as an ‘attention grabbing idea’, while the Quad too has been criticized by Beijing. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while commenting on the Quad, likened the Quad to ‘foam on the sea’ that ‘will soon dissipate’ once the attention due to headlines turns elsewhere.

The Indo-Pacific narrative did lack a vision

One issue on which it is hard to disagree with Beijing, and those skeptical about the ‘Indo-Pacific’, is the fact that countries who have joined hands for promoting a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific (as a sort of counter narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative), did not have clarity in terms of enhancing connectivity and economic linkages. They have met on a number of occasions to discuss connectivity projects and a myriad of other issues but nothing substantial has emerged so far. This lack of effort, according to many, has been one of the main reasons for the Indo-Pacific narrative not being taken seriously (even by US allies). The other problem, of course, has been the Trump administration’s differences with allies like Japan and South Korea on economic and geopolitical issues.

US rolls out an economic vision for the Indo-Pacific

At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, organized by the US Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated a broader economic vision for the Indo-Pacific, while also speaking about the likely role of the US in promoting cooperation.

First, Pompeo yet again reiterated the US desire for a Free and Open Indo Pacific, and how the US was fervently opposed to the hegemonic tendencies of certain countries (in a clear reference to China).

Second, at a time when a number of countries, such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, are beginning to question the financial feasibility of China’s Belt and Road Initiative-related projects, Pompeo’s words are significant. It may also be pointed out that his address at the US Chamber of Commerce was made days before he began his Asia trip (which included visits to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore).

Third, Pompeo spoke about the $113 million investment in areas such as digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo dubbed this investment as a ‘…down payment on a new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’.

Fourth, the US Secretary of State also spoke about the potential role of the US private sector in promoting economic growth, prosperity, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. In an interview with CNBC, Pompeo stated:

We want private industry with the assistance of the United States government, understanding that we’re going to support this effort, we’re going to have private industry go in and develop relationships. When American businesses come to these countries, they’ll thrive

China’s reaction to Pompeo’s speech

China was dismissive of the US commitment towards Indo-Pacific, and Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated that even in the past, there has been talk of cooperation between Japan, the US, and Australia working jointly for developing infrastructure, but so far not much has been achieved.

While there is absolutely no doubt that an alternative narrative is needed to China, the US also needs to be more predictable in terms of economic and strategic relations with key players in the Indo-Pacific. One of Washington’s closest allies in the past, Japan, has been extremely uncomfortable with not just the tariffs, but also on Trump’s handling of strategic issues (such as the North Korea issue).

The example of Indian and Japanese Companies in South Asia

If differences can be ironed out, there is clear space for companies of different countries to work together in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have already taken the lead in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (two countries likely to play an important role in the Indo-Pacific). In Bangladesh, Marubeni and Larsen and Toubro shall work jointly for supplying electrical and mechanical railway systems for Phase 6 of the Dhaka Mass Rapid Transport. In Sri Lanka, Petronet, along with Japanese companies, is setting up an LNG terminal near Colombo (L&T has already been working with Marubeni for setting up a 400 MW gas plant in Habibgant district, Bangladesh). Petronet will hold 47.5 per cent stake in the project while Japan’s Mitsubishi and Sojitz Corp will take 37.5 per cent stake, while the remaining 15 percent stake will be held by a Sri Lankan company.

Conclusion

Pompeo’s emphasis – on the need for greater transparency in investments, US support for areas such as technology in the Indo-Pacific, and a more pro-active role for the private sector in the Indo-Pacific – all make sense. A lot will depend upon Donald Trump’s approach on critical geopolitical and economic issues, and whether he is able to take along key allies such as Japan. A lot will also depend upon relations of countries, especially Japan and India, with China. In recent months, Japan and India have been trying to recalibrate economic ties with Beijing (a number of Japanese companies are in fact participating in the BRI). While this in no way implies that the narrative of the Indo-Pacific will lose its relevance, it does remain to be seen whether Japan and India would put it on high priority.

Pompeo’s speech is interesting, and it remains to be seen how companies from other countries react and whether they explore the possibility of investing in big ticket connectivity projects.

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.

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

Many analysts (internal and external) believed that the 2018 election would be a tough fight with the PTI (Pakistan-Tehreek-I-Insaaf) having a slight edge (as a consequence of support from Pakistan’s deep state). Surveys also predicted a close fight (the importance of undecided voters was highlighted in all of these) with the PTI having a slight edge.

Former PM Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan, along with daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, in spite of both facing jail terms, was thought of by many as a gamble which could have been a game changer in Punjab. Sharif returned to Pakistan, leaving his ailing wife Kulsoom Nawaz in London, and this, many believed, would help PML-N (PTI’s chief rival) in securing sympathy votes.

Ultimately, the PTI actually romped home quite comfortably, and emerged as the single largest party with 119 parliamentary seats, while the PML-N was a distant second with 63 seats (PML-N did emerge as the single largest party in the provincial election) and the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) was at the third position.

Imran Khan’s India Policy

While there has been a lot of focus on the support which PTI has received from the army, there is also curiosity about what sort of policy Imran Khan will follow vis-à-vis India. It has been argued that the Indian establishment is not particularly comfortable with Imran Khan (who, unlike Sharif, may not challenge the Pakistan army’s India policy). The Indian High Commission in Islamabad is supposed to have been in touch with some of his close advisors (every government keeps channels of communications open with all political forces, and there is nothing unusual about this) in the run up to the elections.

At this stage, it is very tough to predict Imran Khan’s precise approach towards India. On the one hand, he has made belligerent statements against India, accusing Nawaz Sharif of being soft on India. While speaking in 2016, Khan had stated:

‘Our premier [Nawaz Sharif], instead of raising voice [for Kashmiris], is busy in making his business flourish there.

On another occasion he had taken a dig at Nawaz Sharif, saying that not every Pakistani is more concerned about his business than his country.

In fact, a day before the polls, Khan stated that Nawaz Sharif was more concerned about India’s interests and was even willing to discredit Pakistan’s army, which is why India preferred him.

How seriously should we take Imran Khan’s rhetoric

In the past few elections, including Nawaz Sharif’s triumphs in 1997 and 2013, anti-India propaganda did not find much traction, and the PML-N itself has indulged in anti-India rhetoric. So Khan’s statements should not be taken seriously.

A retired diplomat who has served in Pakistan, TCA Raghavan, also the author of a book titled People Next Door very aptly stated:

These statements are very common in Pakistan politics. We have to separate political rhetoric from what he actually does when he is in power.

No substantial headway can be expected over the next few months, between both countries, given the mammoth geopolitical and economic challenges which Imran Khan is facing. On the Indian side too, no grand gesture can be expected, given the fact that elections are to be held in May 2019. Backdoor diplomacy, of course, cannot be ruled out. A meeting between Imran Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is also a possibility.

In the long run however, there could be some movement forward. In his first address to the Pakistani people, Imran Khan spoke in favor of resolving contentious issues through dialogue, while also pitching for closer economic linkages and jointly combating poverty.

In a media interview recently, he stated:

If you have a good relationship with India, it opens up trade, and trade with a huge market. Both countries would benefit.

PTI has made strong inroads into Punjab, and the business community of the province has been in favour of closer economic ties with India for sometime.

Imran’s familiarity with India

During Khan’s address to the Pakistani people, he also spoke about his familiarity with India, as well as personal ties through his cricketing career.

In 2015, during his visit to India, Imran met with PM Modi and backed peace initiatives between both countries. During his visit, Imran also met with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (who he praised) and, in the past, he has had kind words for Nitish Kumar’s governance.

Even some of Khan’s close advisors, like former Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and current Vice President of PTI Shah Mahmood Qureshi (who also served as Foreign Minister during the PPP government led by Asif Ali Zardari), are experienced and are familiar with India. Kasuri has numerous personal friendships in India, Qureshi, an agriculturalist, was president of the Farmers Association of Pakistan and has strong links in Indian Punjab.  

Conclusion

Pakistan is facing numerous internal challenges and it is virtually impossible to comment on how things will pan out in the context of India-Pakistan ties. A lot will, however, depend upon the intent of the Pakistan army, as well as ties between Imran Khan and the army, and the role which both China and the United States play in South Asia. While Imran Khan’s initial overtures should be welcomed, it is best to wait and watch and not prophesize, as far as India-Pakistan relations are concerned.

Hegemony is hard to do: China, globalization, and “debt traps”

As a result of an increasingly insular United States, with US President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs, China has been trying to find common cause with a number of countries, including US allies such as Japan, India and South Korea, on the issue of globalization.

While unequivocally batting in favor of an open economic world order, Chinese President Xi Jinping has also used forums like Boao to speak about the relevance of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (also known as the One Belt and One Road Initiative, or OBOR). At the Boao Forum (April 2018), the Chinese President sought to dispel apprehensions with regard to suspected Chinese aspirations for hegemony:

China has no geopolitical calculations, seeks no exclusionary blocs and imposes no business deals on others.

There is absolutely no doubt that the BRI is a very ambitious project, and while it is likely to face numerous obstacles, it is a bit naïve to be dismissive of the project.

Debt Trap and China’s denial

Yet China, in promoting the BRI, is in denial with regard to one of the major problems of the project: the increasing concerns of participant countries about their increasing external debts resulting from China’s financial assistance. This phenomena has been dubbed as a ‘debt trap’. Chinese denialism is evident from an article in the English-language Chinese daily Global Times titled ‘Smaller economies can use Belt and Road Initiative as leverage to attract investment’. The article is dismissive of the argument that BRI has resulted in a debt trap:

It is a misunderstanding to worry that China’s B&R initiative may elevate debt risks in nations involved in massive infrastructure projects. Countries are queuing up to cooperate with China on its B&R initiative, but many Western observers claim the initiative will create a problem of debt sustainability in countries and regions along the routes, especially those with small economies.

The article begins by citing the example of Djibouti in Africa, and how infrastructure projects are generating jobs and also helping in local state-capacity building. It then cites other examples, like that of Myanmar, to put forward the point that accusations against Beijing of promoting exploitative economic relationships with participant countries in the BRI is far from the truth.

The article in Global Times conveniently quotes Myanmar’s union minister and security adviser, Thaung Tun, where he dubbed the Kyaukpu project a win-win deal, but it conveniently overlooked the interview of Planning and Finance Minister, Soe Win, who was skeptical with regard to the project. Said Soe Win in an interview with Nikkei:

[…] lessons that we learned from our neighboring countries, that overinvestment is not good sometimes.

Soe Win also drew attention to the need for projects to be feasible, and for the need to keep an eye on external debt (Myanmar’s external debt is nearly $10 billion, and 40 percent of this is due to China).

The case of Sri Lanka, where the strategically important Hambantota Port has been provided on lease to China (for 99 years) in order to repay debts, is too well known.

The new government in Malaysia, headed by Mahathir Mohammed, has put a halt on three projects estimated at over $22 billion. This includes the $20 billion East Coast Railway Link (ECRL), which seeks to connect the South China Sea (off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia) with the strategically important shipping routes of the Straits of Malacca to the West. A Chinese company, China Communications Construction Co Ltd, had been contracted to build 530km stretch of the ECRL. On July 5, 2018 it stated that it had suspended work temporarily on the project, on the request of Malaysia Rail Link Sdn Bhd.

The other two projects are a petroleum pipeline spread 600km along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, and a 662km gas pipeline in Sabah, the Malaysian province on the island of Borneo.

During a visit to Japan, Mahathir had categorically said that he would like to have good relations with, but not be indebted to, China, and would look at other alternatives. The Malaysian PM shall also be visiting China in August 2018 to discuss these projects.

Conclusion

While Beijing has full right to promote its strategic interests, and also highlight the scale and relevance of the BRI, it needs to be more honest with regard to the issue of the ‘debt trap’ (especially if it claims to understand the sensitivities of other countries, and does not want to appear to be patronizing). While smaller countries may be economically dependent upon China, the latter should dismiss the growing resentment against some of its projects at its own peril. Countries like Japan have already sensed the growing ire against the Chinese, and have begun to step in, even in countries like Cambodia (considered close to China). A number of analysts are quick to state that there is no alternative to Chinese investment, but the worries in smaller countries with regard to Chinese debts proves the point that this is not the case. China needs to be more honest, at least, in recognizing some of its shortcomings in its dealings with other countries.