American protectionism and Asian responses

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

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.

Pakistan’s dynastic politics and the PML-N’s Sharif family

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.

Conclusion

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.

Nightcap

  1. Trump’s ‘Great Chemistry’ With Murderous Strongmen Conor Friedersdorf, the Atlantic
  2. A Little-Noticed Legal Ruling That Is Bad News for Trump Damon Root, Volokh Conspiracy
  3. Will the Pause in South Asian Conflicts Last? Arif Rafiq, the National Interest
  4. The changing shape of Britain’s mosques Burhan Wazir, New Statesman

A short note on the India-Pakistan thaw

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.

Conclusion

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.