The number of cases arising out of coronavirus in Pakistan continues to rise steadily. As of April 14, 2020, there were well over 5,000 cases (5,716) and deaths due to the virus totaled 96. China is providing assistance to Pakistan in dealing with the virus, and apart from medical assistance in the form of materials (including ventilators, masks, test kits, protective clothes), a team of medical experts reached Pakistan on March 28 for a period of two weeks. The team of Chinese medical experts argued for the extension of the lockdown in Pakistan (especially the province of Punjab, which has been hardest hit by the epidemic), arguing that one of the factors which helped China in controlling the further spread of the outbreak was the lockdown.
While the Chinese delegation laid great emphasis on extending the lockdown, and greater ‘social distancing’, one of the major challenges for the Pakistan PM, Imran Khan, has been the state of Pakistan’s economy. It is for this reason that he was reluctant to go in for a lockdown, but eventually pressure from opposition parties (the province of Sindh went for a lockdown even before the Federal Government) and, more importantly according to some, from the Army was what finally compelled Khan to go in for the lockdown.
On April 12, in an appeal on social media to the international community, the United Nations Secretary General, and the world’s international financial institutions, Khan appealed for ‘debt relief’ to developing countries.
Khan also pointed to the fact that the challenges faced by developing and developed countries were markedly different. Said the Pakistan PM:
While in the developed world, the main dilemma is containing with the coronavirus through lockdowns and then dealing with the economic impact, in the developing world, apart from containing the virus and dealing with the economic crisis, our biggest worry now is people dying of hunger.
He also pointed to the need for an initiative with a thrust on ‘Global Debt Relief’, one where all stakeholders are brought on board for coming up with a well-thought out economic and health response to the pandemic.
Welfare measures by the government
As the number of cases has been rising continuously, Khan has warned people to take the necessary precautions, saying that the country’s hospitals may not be able to cope with the rising number of cases. The Pakistan PM – who had earlier announced a stimulus package (to the tune of Rupees 1.2 Trillion Pakistan) to provide relief to labourers, businessmen, as well as the middle class – also stated that the government would start distributing cash to poor families through a program: ‘Ehsas Emergency Cash Program’. According to this program, Rs. 144 billion (Pakistani) would be distributed amongst 12 million low income families.
While Chinese assistance to Pakistan has been drawing attention, with both countries laying emphasis on the point that the bilateral relationship is an all weather one and that the ‘Pakistan-China All-weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership’ has grown under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Khan. Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, while receiving the team of Chinese medical doctors which arrived in Pakistan on March 28 stated:
Chinese have once again shown to the world that they are friends of Pakistan. They care for us. We stand with each other in difficult times. This is a unique relationship and such testing times tell us how close we are to each other.
China on more than one occasion has thanked Pakistan for the assistance, which it had provided when the coronavirus outbreak had begun and has assured full support to Pakistan. Pakistan’s President, Arif Alvi, had also undertaken a trip to China in March, in order to show solidarity with it’s ‘all weather’ ally (he was the first head of state to visit China after the outbreak of the deadly epidemic). Alvi’s China visit took place days before the lockdown was initiated in Pakistan, and a number of MOU’s were signed between both sides to counter the deadly epidemic. While Pakistan wanted to extend its solidarity with China, something which was acknowledged by Beijing, it also got assurance regarding its own fight against the coronavirus.
Commenting on his China visit, Alvi said:
China trip was very beneficial to show support & counter propaganda. We also need to get technical help from them for biggest health crisis Pakistan is going to face. Their experience is unique. Six hours of exhaustive meetings took place. Signed many MOUs for #iFightCorona.
Assistance from other quarters
While it is true that Beijing has been quick to provide logical assistance to Pakistan, China’s financial assistance would not have been sufficient for Pakistan to provide much-needed relief to the not-so-privileged in Pakistan. In this context, the International Monetary Fund has acceded to Pakistan’s request of $1.4 billion (under the Rapid Finance Instrument for fighting the coronavirus) according to sources. This amount would help Pakistan to increase it’s foreign exchange reserves as well as provide budgetary support at a time when the country faces a serious economic slowdown. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) have also provided Pakistan aid – to the tune of $1 billion and $1.5 billion, respectively. The Pakistan PM had referred to the assistance provided by international financial institutions in his social media recording on Sunday.
It would be pertinent to point out that Pakistan is already working with the IMF on a three year program called the Extended Fund Facility Program (EFF). The organization had sanctioned $6 billion and, according to analysts and rating agencies, it is the reform program of the IMF, which had played a key role in Pakistan being able to stabilize its economy (in December 2019, Moody’s Investors Services had raised Pakistan’s credit rating to ‘stable’ from negative). Pakistan has reiterated its commitment to the EFF (due to the current crisis, the IMF will be unable to release the third trance, $450 million, of the $6 billion total loan).
Not only has the assistance from IMF, ADB, and World Bank come as a major relief for Pakistan as it battles the coronavirus, Islamabad will also be heaving a sigh of relief after the review of Pakistan’s greylisting by the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) has been pushed from June to August/September 2020. Pakistan, which was put on the watchdog’s greylist in 2018, was given 27 points to comply with, and it has only been given two extensions after failing to convince FATF on 13 of the 27 points (Beijing has been extending support to Pakistan). While Islamabad was supposed to submit its progress in April 2020, it has now got time till July 2020 to address the points it needs to comply with. In the long run, it will need to address the points raised by FATF if it wants access to international financial institutions and needs to carry out transactions without any problem.
Imran Khan’s dilemma with regard to the lockdown
In the last few months, Pakistan’s economy was beginning to show some signs of a revival, and this was acknowledged by international agencies and a number of countries who had begun to show interest in investing in the country. There is no doubt whatsoever that the coronavirus has come as a sudden setback. With the number of cases steadily rising, Khan’s challenges are only going to increase and the dilemma for the Khan administration will be the length of time of the lockdown. Businesses have been opposed to the lockdown and sooner or later are likely to pressure Khan to lift lockdown orders (a decision has already been taken to open some companies, which supply to brands like Puma and Nike, with only essential employees, while taking key precautions such as ensuring regular disinfection), as well as a more comprehensive package which Khan’s government may not be able to provide. Opposition parties, the Pakistan army (which has not been on the same page as Khan on a number of issues, including the handling of the coronavirus), and China, upon whom Pakistan is dependent, have of course been backing the lockdown. Given the lack of medical facilities, there may not be any other option but to lockdown.
In the midst of all these challenges, there is some relief for Pakistan:
First, while Islamabad may publicly hail China for its assistance, the assistance from multilateral bodies like the IMF, World Bank, and ADB has been what’s helped Pakistan deal with the coronavirus crisis. The assistance provided by these institutions also raises the point of whether the obituary of ‘internationalism’ and ‘multilateralism’ and the relevance of international institutions, with all their flaws, was rather premature.
Second, the delay in the FATF gives Pakistan some more time, though it will have to address the remaining points and can not be evasive in the long run. Turning a blind eye to the activities of terror groups and their financing is not likely to benefit Pakistan in any way.
Islamabad’s task is cut out however, and it remains to be seen how the government deals with the multiple problems arising out of the coronavirus (Pakistan’s growth forecast for 2020 has been reduced from 2.6% to 0.8% for the current fiscal year). In the short run, it may be able to weather the storm, albeit with great difficulty, but in the longer run it is in for some serious problems. Pakistan’s government would however be relieved with the above two developments at this point of time.
The Corona Virus epidemic has shaken the world in numerous ways. The virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan (Hubei province), has led to the loss of over 12,000 lives globally. The three countries most impacted so far have been Italy (4,825 lives lost), China (3,287 lives lost), and Iran (1,500 lives lost) as of Saturday, March 21, 2020.
While there are reports that China is limping back to normalcy, the overall outlook for the economy is grim, to say the least, with some forecasts clearly predicting that even with aggressive stimulus measures China may not be able to attain 3% growth this year.
The Chinese slow down could have an impact on the country’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While China has been trying to send out a message that BRI will not be impacted excessively, the ground realities could be different given a number of factors.
One of the important, and more controversial, components of the BRI has been the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has often been cited as a clear indicator of ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’ (this, some analysts argue, is China’s way of increasing other country’s dependency on it, by providing loans for big ticket infrastructural projects, which ultimately lead to a rise in debts).
The US and multilateral organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have predictably questioned the project, but even in Pakistan many have questioned CPEC, including politicians, with most concerns revolving around its transparency and long-term economic implications. Yet the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) government, and the previous Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) government, have given the project immense importance, arguing that it would be a game changer for the South Asian nation.
On more than one occasion, Beijing has assured Pakistan that CPEC will go ahead as planned with China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, stating on numerous occasions that the project will not be hit in spite of the Corona Virus. Senior officials in the Imran Khan government, including the Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in an interview with the Global Times, stated that while in the short run Corona may have an impact on CPEC, in the long run there would be no significant impact.
Analysts in Pakistan however, doubt that there will be no impact, given the fact that a large number of Chinese workers who had left Pakistan are unlikely to return. Since February 2020, a number of reports have been predicting that the CPEC project is likely to be impacted significantly.
Similarly, in the cases of other countries too, there are likely to be significant problems with regard to the resource crunch in China as well as the fact that Chinese workers cannot travel. Not only is Beijing not in a position to send workers, but countries hit by COVID-19 themselves will not be in a position to get the project back on track immediately, as they will first have to deal with the consequences of the outbreak.
Some BRI projects which had begun to slow down even before the outbreak spread globally were in Indonesia and Bangladesh. In Indonesia, a high speed rail project connecting Jakarta with Bandung (estimated at $6 billion) has slowed down since the beginning of the year, and ever since the onset of the Corona Virus, skilled Chinese personnel have been prevented from going back to Indonesia. Bangladesh too has announced delays on the Payra Coal power plant in February 2020. As casualties arising out of the virus increase in Indonesia and other parts of Asia and Africa, the first priority for countries is to prevent the spread of the virus.
While it is true that Beijing would want to send a clear message of keeping its commitments, matching up to its earlier targets is not likely to be a mean task. Even before the outbreak, there were issues due to the terms and conditions of the project and a number of projects had to be renegotiated due to pressure from local populations.
What China has managed to do successfully is provide assistance for dealing with COVID-19. In response to a request for assistance from the Italian government, China has sent a group of 300 doctors and corona virus testing kits and ventilators. The founder of Ali Baba and one of Asia’s richest men, Jack Ma, has also taken the lead in providing assistance to countries in need. After announcing that he will send 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and 1 million masks to the United States, Ma pledged to donate more than 1 million kits to Africa on Monday March 17, 2020, and on March 21, 2020, in a tweet, the Chinese billionaire said that he would be donating emergency supplies to a number of South Asian and South East Asian countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The emergency supplies include 1.8 million masks, 210,000 test kits, 36,000 protective suits and ventilators, and thermometers.
China is bothered not just about it’s own economic gains from the BRI, but is also concerned about the long term interests of countries which have signed up for BRI.
The Corona Virus has shaken the whole world, not just China, and the immediate priority of most countries is to control the spread of the pandemic and minimize the number of casualties. Countries dependent upon China, especially those which have joined the BRI, are likely to be impacted. What remains to be seen is the degree to which BRI is affected, and how developing countries which have put high stakes on BRI related projects respond.
Ever since taking over as President, Donald Trump’s approach towards Iran has been excessively rash and lacking in nuance. The US withdrawal from JCPOA (Joint Comprehension for Plan of Action), the imposition of sanctions, and brash statements by Trump have heightened tensions between both countries. Allies of the US, including EU member states (especially Germany and France), have expressed their disapproval of Trump’s Iran policy on numerous occasions.
In August 2019, during the G7 Summit at Biarritz (France), it seemed that Trump might have changed his approach towards Iran. The US President expressed his openness to engaging with Iran and dubbed it as a country of immense potential. After the attack on Saudi Oil facilities, there has been a visible shift in the approach of Germany, France, and the UK towards Iran. All three countries blamed Iran for the attacks. In a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) these three countries issued a statement condemning the attack. They also held Iran squarely responsible for the attack. Said the joint statement:
It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack
Why China is giving importance to Iran Continue reading
Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, while issuing a statement with regard to India’s air strikes on a training camp of the dreaded terror group Jaish-E-Muhammad (JeM) in Pakistan on February 26, 2019, dubbed these as pre-emptive ‘non-military strikes’. The Foreign Secretary stated that the Indian Air Force hit the largest training camp of the JeM, which is in Balakot, Pakistan, and a large number of JeM terrorists were killed in the strike.
The rising tensions between both countries have understandably caught the world’s attention.
JeM had claimed responsibility for the dastardly terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, on February 14, 2019 in which over 40 CRPF soldiers were killed. While efforts have been made to designate JeM chief a ‘global terrorist’ at the UN, China has blocked such moves.
The Indian side also made it clear that these air strikes were neither targeted at civilians nor at the Pakistani military. This served two purposes; one it would prevent further escalation and second, it could give some space to Imran Khan’s civilian government.
The international community was quick to react to the attacks by the Indian Air Force (IAF), and asked both sides to de-escalate. The US, while asking Pakistan to take action against terror groups on their soil, also stated that both sides should de-escalate. In a statement issued on February 26, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also asked Foreign Ministers of both countries to resume direct communication and avoid any ‘further military activity’.
A statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson also spoke in favour of India and Pakistan exercising ‘restraint’ and the need for peace and stability in South Asia. Even during Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Beijing, a day after the strikes, China, while condemning terrorism, emphasized on the need for reduction of tensions. It did not change.
Domestically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received full support from the opposition, including the Congress Party. The President of the Congress Party was quick to tweet and congratulated the Indian Air Force. Even other prominent political leaders supported the IAF.
The Indian PM did not miss the opportunity to mention the IAF’s action at a political rally. While speaking at a rally in the Indian state of Rajasthan, Modi paid homage to the para-military troops who died in the February 14 terrorist attack, and also made a reference to the action of the Indian Air Force:
…I want to assure you that the country is in safe hands.
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also met with opposition leaders from different political parties on February 26, 2019. This was in stark contrast to the surgical strikes in 2016 on terror camps in Uri (located in PoK).
Some BJP spokespersons also made unnecessary uncalled for statements. (The BJP did issue instructions to its spokespersons to not issue any uncalled for statements).
Risks of escalation and Indian media
Sections of the Indian electronic media went overboard as usual, something which has been witnessed post 26/11.
While media channels may believe they are raising patriotic fervour, pushing the PTI government led by Imran Khan and the Pakistani army into a wall may not be a very smart move. As mentioned earlier, the usage of the word ‘non-military’ strike was meant to give space to the Pakistan government.
Post the attack, Imran Khan was criticised by the opposition and will be under pressure. His immediate reaction was that Pakistan would respond at a time and place of its choice and also asked the Pakistani nation to be prepared for all eventualities.
Post the Pulwama attack, a well-known Indian strategic analyst had made an important point:
The Pakistani army might be more likely to start a war if its image takes too hard a beating in the eyes of the Pakistani people, than if it suffers physical damage outside the limelight.
It is not just the electronic media, but the narrative on social media which further raises tempers.
Bobby Ghosh, a prominent journalist, made an interesting comment on Twitter:
People keep saying the India-Pakistan conflict is more dangerous now because both have nukes. But other new weapons greatly increase the risk: Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp… and hyper-nationalistic TV networks.
Not just the international community, but even sane minds in India and Pakistan realise the costs of conflict, and have been pitching for de-escalation. Apart from the role of the international community, a lot will also depend upon domestic narratives in both countries. While the Modi government received the support of the opposition post the Pulwama terror attack, it needs to focus now on not just taking all political players along but also ensuring that tensions do not rise further as things could go out of control. The media on its part needs to be more responsible, and as for the social media, a lot of it is driven by the views of the political leadership. The political leadership will thus need to change the direction of the narrative, so that tempers are calmed down.
Thousands of Islamists have pressured the Pakistani government to keep in jail a woman who was just acquitted by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Two European countries have offered to take her in.
Her lawyer has fled the country in fear for his life.
She was acquitted of blasphemy. Yes, speaking ill of the Prophet… or something. In Pakistan, they kill you for this.
The woman is a frail mother of several in her fifties. She is a landless agricultural worker by trade. She is a Christian in a country that is 98% Muslim.
If she did anything resembling blasphemy, she should be released for reason of insanity anyway. How could such a person so provoke her bloodthirsty neighbors and not be mad?
The silence of “moderate Muslims” on this case is making me deaf.
Yes, much of Western public opinion is Islamophobic. Perhaps the spectacle of thousands of bearded adult males demanding that a slight woman who has been declared not guilty of this grotesque “crime” be hanged, perhaps, it does not help.
On October 10, 2018, a senior Chinese diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism being promoted by US President Donald Trump.
It would be pertinent to point out that US had imposed tariffs estimated at $200 billion in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on $60 billion of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached $34.1 billion for the month of September (in August 2018, it was $31 billion). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact that Trump’s economic policies are not working.
Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and, given the fact that both are engines of economic growth, it is important for both to work together.
The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. Continue reading
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.
The most interesting reflection on V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner who died earlier this week, comes from Slate, a low-brow leftist publication that I sometimes peruse for book reviews. Naipaul, a Trinidadian, became loathed on the left for daring to say “what the whites want to say but dare not.”
The fact that Slate‘s author tries his hardest to piss on Naipaul’s grave is not what’s interesting about the piece, though. What’s interesting is what Naipaul’s wife, a Pakistani national and former journalist, has to say about Pakistan:
[…] she smiled and asked if I knew what Pakistan needed. I informed her that I did not. “A dictator,” she replied. At this her husband laughed.
“I think they have tried that,” I said, doing my best to stay stoic.
“No, no, a very brutal dictator,” she answered. I told her they had tried that, too. “No, no,” she answered again. Only when a real dictator came in and killed the religious people in the country, and enough of them that the streets would “run with blood,” could Pakistan be reborn. It was as if she was parodying a gross caricature of Naipaul’s worst views—and also misunderstanding his pessimism about the ability of colonial societies to reinvent themselves, even through violence—but he smiled with delight as she spoke.
“That’s so American of you,” she then blurted out, before I had said anything. My face, while she had been talking, must have taken on a look of shock or disgust. “You tell a nice young American boy like yourself that a country needs a brutal dictator and they get a moralistic or concerned look on their face, as if every country is ready for a democracy. They aren’t.”
Damn. This testy exchange highlights well what the developing world is facing, intellectually. Religious conservatives heavily populate developing countries. Liberals, on the left and on the right, in developing countries are miniscule in number, and most of them prefer, or were forced, to live in exile. Liberty is their highest priority, but the highest priority of Western elites, whose support developing world liberals’ desperately need, is democracy, which empowers a populace that cares not for freedom.
So what you get in the developing world is two kinds of autocracies: geopolitically important autocracies (like Pakistan), and geopolitically unimportant autocracies (think of sub-Saharan Africa).
That Naipaul and his wife had the balls to say this, for years, is a testament to the magnificence of human freedom; that Leftists have loathed Naipaul for years because he had pointed this out is a bitter reminder of why I left the Left in the first place.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
As in other parts of South Asia, dynastic politics is an integral feature of Pakistan’s politics. Both the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) and the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) are essentially family-run political parties. While the PPP has been dominated by the Bhutto family, the PML-N has been dominated by the Sharif family.
Resentment against family domination in PML-N
In the recent past, there has been resentment against the rise of both Maryam Nawaz Sharif (daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and Hamza Shehbaz, son of Shehbaz Sharif (PML-N party chief and younger brother of Nawaz Sharif).
The latest resignation from PML-N was that of Zaeem Qadri, once a confidante of Shehbaz Sharif, who was denied a seat for the NA-133 (an electoral constituency in Pakistan). Qadri used some harsh words for Hamza Shahbaz, saying ‘Hear Hamza Shahbaz! Lahore is neither your, nor your father’s property.’ Qadri also stated, that one of the reasons he did not get the ticket was that he did not possess adequate resources.
In the run up to the elections, internal dynamics of the PML-N, as well as the role of the Pakistan military, will be crucial (it has been lending tacit support to the opposition, to weaken the PML-N, especially in the party’s citadel of Punjab).
Dynastic politics and differences within the Sharif family
If one were to look at the resentment against Maryam Nawaz, only last year, Chaudhry Nisar, former Interior Minister, who does not share particularly cordial relations with the Sharifs, said that it is too premature to compare Maryam Nawaz with Benazir Bhutto. Said Nisar in an interview with Geo TV:
Comparing Maryam Nawaz to Benazir Bhutto is wrong […] Maryam Nawaz should understand and partake in practical politics. Only then can she be considered a leader.
Another minister, Saad Rafique, too had stated that Maryam Nawaz should be ‘cautious while addressing public meetings.’
Rivalry between Hamza Shehbaz and Maryam Nawaz
It has been argued that one of the main reasons for the strained relationship between Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif was the rivalry between their children. After Nawaz was removed from Prime Ministership in July 2017, one of the reasons why Shahbaz (now the PM candidate) was not immediately appointed interim Prime Minister, as well as President of the PML-N, was that there was a clamor for Hamza Shahbaz as Chief Minister of Punjab and Nawaz’s family was not comfortable with an arrangement where both father and son would be powerful. Later on, Nawaz appointed Pervez Malik, instead of Hamza Shehbaz, as campaigner in charge for NA-120, which was fought by his wife Kulsoom Nawaz.
Military’s behind the scenes manuevres and defections
In recent months, the Pakistan army has been trying to engineer a number of defections from the PML-N to PTI, and even though the military shares a comfortable relationship with Shehbaz, as compared to Nawaz, it is believed that now they would be most comfortable with Imran Khan as PM. There have also been reports of the military not just arm twisting political leaders of the PML-N, but censoring the media as well. Whether the latest resignation was prompted by the military is in the realm of speculation of course.
The Army and Nawaz’ reaction to the resignation of Qadri
Interestingly, Qadri’s resignation may be welcomed not just by the military, since it would have come across as a setback to the PML-N, which is considered the dominant force in Punjab. In his heart of hearts, Shahbaz’ brother Nawaz too may not mind this, since it will not only clip Hamza’s wings but also weaken Shahbaz’ position to some extent. During his press conference, Qadri made a mention of Nawaz Sharif, saying that the Former PM had told Qadri that many within the PML-N were not happy with his presence in the party.
While the two brothers share a very strong rapport, in spite of temperamental differences in the past year, there has been a degree of friction. After Nawaz’ remarks on the Mumbai attacks, where he blamed Pakistan for delaying the trial of the accused, Shahbaz had to intervene, and apparently told Nawaz not to talk to the press without consulting Shehbaz. In an interview to the Dawn newspaper, Nawaz had said:
Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me […] Why can’t we complete the trial?
In spite of the differences within the PML-N, and some tensions between both brothers, there is a strong realization that the main crowd puller for the PML-N still remains Nawaz Sharif, and with the elder Sharif being in London due to his wife’s ill health (she has been on ventilator since June 14 2018) it is unlikely that he will be able to spearhead the campaign.
On the whole, defections like Qadri’s are not likely to have much of an impact on the prospects of the PML-N, given Nawaz’ charisma and goodwill, along with the fact that he is looked at as an individual who has taken on the army, and Shahbaz Sharif’s performance as Chief Minister. What will really be crucial is the success of the Pakistan military’s back door machinations, and to what extent will it go all out to back PTI Chief Imran Khan, who himself has been in the eye of a storm after a book written by his former wife and senior journalist, Reham Khan, has made some serious accusations against him, and could dent his prospects amongst certain sections.
It is in Pakistan’s interest that the 2019 election verdict results in the strengthening of the democratic set up. Apart from a dire need for change in the military’s mindset, political parties in Pakistan (like in other South Asian countries) too need to get their house in order and move beyond being family concerns. It is also important to have greater intraparty democracy.
Over the past couple of months, both India and Pakistan have been trying to lower the temperatures through some good gestures and reconciliatory statements, while both sides have reiterated their commitment to amicably resolve the issue of harassment of diplomats. India and Pakistan have also agreed to some humanitarian gestures with regard to prisoners languishing, on both sides, in jails.
There have also been indicators that the two neighbors are keen to revive economic ties and give a boost to bilateral trade, which is way below potential.
In the month of March, Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, while addressing the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, spoke about the need for greater bilateral trade:
We should not talk about negative and positive lists rather we should work on the windows of opportunities. At present, over $5 billion trade is being done through third country but after removal of non-tariff barriers, liberalisation of visa and normalisation of mutual relations, the two-way trade could touch a high $30 billion.
Bisaria, while addressing the Employers Federation of Pakistan and the South Asian Forum of Employers, reiterated the need to increase the level of trade, and also said that if South Korea and North Korea could work towards resolving their serious differences, there is no reason why India and Pakistan could not.
Interestingly, in the month of April, Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Sohail Mahmood, met with the Chief Minister of Punjab (India), Captain Amarinder Singh, and discussed possible areas where both countries can cooperate. Not only was there an emphasis on reviving people-to-people contact between the two Punjab’s, but also to give a boost to trade through the Wagah-Attari land route. In the two phases (2004-2007 and then 2011-2014), when India and Pakistan made headway in terms of connectivity and economic linkages, the two Punjab’s played a pivotal role. The area of Punjab, of course, was split by the British Partition of 1947.
Change in mindset of Pakistan Army and RUSI report
What is interesting is a commentary, authored by Kamal Alam, published by premier British think-tank RUSI (Royal United Services Institution), which emphatically argues that there is a paradigm shift in the mindset of the Pakistani military, under the leadership of current Chief of Army Staff, Qamar Ahmed Bajwa, and a genuine realization for the need to move away from a zero-sum approach.
Alam’s commentary refers to an address by Bajwa last year, where he made a case for India being part of the $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Pakistan army chief stated:
The Pakistan army is now no more insecure and feels confident of its future and that he welcomes Indian participation in Pakistan’s flagship infrastructure project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Alam, to strengthen his argument, also points to some other instances, such as Bajwa’s speech at the passing-out parade of cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, where the Pakistan Army Chief referred to the necessity of dialogue between both countries, and an invite to the Indian Military attache, Sanjay Vishwasrao, and other senior diplomats posted at the Indian High Commission, for the military parade to mark Pakistan’s National Day. The diplomats attended the parade alongside Vishwasrao.
Another interesting development flagged by Alam is the military drill (conducted under the umbrella of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) in September 2018, where both India and Pakistan along with other member nations will participate.
Alam’s commentary has quoted a number of other high level members of the Pakistan army who have spoken in favor of mending ties, and also argues that a change in the Pakistan army’s mindset has been visible since 2013.
In December 2016, Pakistan’s Southern Command Lt General, Amir Riaz, while speaking at an awards distribution ceremony at Balochistan FC Headquarters, invited India to join CPEC and ‘share the fruits of future development by shelving the anti-Pakistan activities and subversion.’ Riaz, as Director General of Military Operations in 2013, had met his counterpart at Wagah to reduce tensions across the Line of Control.
According to Alam, Major General Ahmed Hayat, the Director-General-Analysis of the Inter-Services-Intelligence for Pakistan, had authored, in 2013, what was dubbed as the India Plan. While agreeing that engagement and not conflict was the answer, the report sought to identify the appropriate time to reach out to India from a position of strength.
Points of contention moving forward
While Alam’s report has generated a lot of interest, a few facts need to be borne.
First, the recent meeting between Modi and Xi, where China, without making a mention of Pakistan, committed to flag terrorism as a key concern. In recent months, China has given some indicators that it may be willing to re-think its approach towards terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Pakistan is now likely to be put on the watchlist of an international financial watchdog, Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Beijing was initially opposed to this move, but relented after India lent its support to Beijing for the Vice Presidency of FATF.
China has of course been pitching for a better relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad for some time, keeping in mind its own economic interests, and has even asked New Delhi to be part of CPEC. New Delhi has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative, given the fact that CPEC passes through disputed territory, but with the changing dynamics in the New Delhi-Beijing relationship, it is likely that Bajwa and the upper echelons of India’s diplomatic corps are making the right noises to look good to the international community, especially China.
Second, the incumbent PML-N civilian government in Pakistan, which has been completely overwhelmed in the past two years with the weakening of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The fall of Sharif began with the joint Tahir Ul Qadri-Imran Khan protests (backed by the Pakistan army) in 2014, and ever since the Panama Case leaks in April 2016, things have spiraled downhill for Sharif. In July 2017, Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court from holding any public office, and had to resign as Prime Minister of Pakistan. In April 2018, he was disqualified from holding any position for life.
Sharif, who has on more than one occasion dubbed political rival and former cricket star Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan-Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) as ‘laadla’ (favorite) of the army, has also argued that the judiciary and military are jointly conspiring against him. One of the points of divergence between Sharif and the army were relations with India, as Sharif has always batted for better relations with New Delhi.
There is absolutely no doubt that Imran’s relations with the army have improved considerably according to some. Imran has also publicly praised the army chief, recently calling Bajwa “probably the most pro-democratic man [Pakistan] has ever seen.” There is a good chance that PTI, backed by the military establishment, may win in the upcoming elections of 2018. The commentary, and Bajwa’s statements, could be a message to India that New Delhi will have to engage with the military in case PTI were to come to power.
In this context, Bajwa has been trying to cultivate the image of a pragmatist not opposed to peace. A few months ago in an article written for The News, the prominent left-leaning Pakistani journalist Sohail Warraich wrote:
The Bajwa doctrine stands for regional peace and, like China, wants to make peace with India while keeping our differences on core issues. The doctrine is ready for peaceful negotiations but without compromising on the Kashmir issue. The doctrine is fully aware of the Chinese advice to Pakistan that instead of war, other peaceful measure be negotiated for Kashmir issue.
It is important for New Delhi to wait and watch, while engaging with the business community and Pakistan’s vibrant civil society is absolutely essential. Not much should be read into Bajwa’s remarks. They should be taken note of, and not dismissed, but it is a bit premature to be optimistic. After all, the army has been backing the Milli Muslim League (MML), a civil front of the JuD, headed by the Mumbai terror attack mastermind, Hafiz Saeed.
It will also be interesting to see the ultimate outcome of the upcoming election in July.
New Delhi needs to deal with whoever is in power in Pakistan, and the army is an important power center there. A civilian government (possibly PTI) beholden to the establishment will not address India’s concerns the way a firm civilian government which has the fervent backing of the people (this may not happen in the imminent future, but is a reality) would. The Pakistan Army Chief’s words would have had more meaning if he had backed Nawaz Sharif’s attempts towards improving ties with India, and not joined hands with the judiciary to plot his downfall.