Permanent friends

Permanent friends

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China’s Ambassador to Pakistan Jiang Zaidong recently wrote an op-ed in a Pakistani newspaper in which he reiterated his country’s commitment to strengthen the Pakistan-China “all-weather strategic” relationship. But there was another important message. He urged Islamabad to “take all measures to protect the safety and security of Chinese personnel, institutions and projects in Pakistan.” “It’s heart-wrenching”, he wrote, “that in the recent terrorist attack on 26 March, five Chinese citizens were deprived of their lives.” 
His reference was to the militant attack in Bisham in which the five Chinese nationals killed were working on the Dasu Dam project. Ambassador Zaidong’s message once again underlined the need for Pakistan to urgently address this issue and guarantee the safety of thousands of Chinese citizens working on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). 
The Bisham attack was only the most recent in a series of terrorist incidents targeting Chinese workers even though Pakistan had set up a special security force for their protection. Clearly there are forces– violent non-state actors backed by Pakistan’s adversaries – at work, out to damage the Pakistan-China relationship and undermine CPEC. While they have not succeeded in their aim the security issue, which has in the past been raised at the highest level by Beijing, needs to be effectively tackled by the government. 
Nonetheless Pakistan-China relations remain on a positive track. 
Often there is comment in the media about how Pakistan has to balance relations between China and the US. This misses the point and mistakes Islamabad’s declaratory policy for its operational policy. Today Pakistan’s relations with the two global powers are qualitatively different. Ties with China are Pakistan’s strategic priority, having long been a cornerstone of its foreign policy. While the US relations are in an undefined state and await a reset after the US military withdrawal and disengagement from Afghanistan in 2021. This diminished Pakistan’s value in Washington’s eyes and changed the context for future ties. Although Pakistan seeks to set ties on a stronger and stable footing it is clear it cannot be part of any anti-China coalition given Washington’s overriding priority today is containment of China. This in turn limits the space for future ties between Pakistan and the US.

Often there is comment in the media about how Pakistan has to balance relations between China and the US. This misses the point and mistakes Islamabad’s declaratory policy for its operational policy.

Maleeha Lodhi

With China a robust economic dimension has been added to long-standing defense and strategic ties. This has been a consistent and resilient relationship based on strong mutual interests, unlike some of Pakistan’s other relationships, which have frequently seen ups and downs. Having stood the test of time, the relationship meets both Pakistan’s security and economic interests. CPEC is the pivot of China’s Belt and Road Initiative – the 21st century’s most ambitious geo-economic enterprise. Chinese officials describe CPEC as BRI’s “signature project”. It is emblematic of Beijing’s interest in strengthening Pakistan, economically and strategically. CPEC envisages enhancing Pakistan’s connectivity, accelerating its economic progress, and expanding and modernizing its road, rail, and energy and transportation systems.
Since the project was launched in 2015 it has involved over $25 billion in direct investment to Pakistan and helped to create over 200,000 jobs. Up to now, a total of 47 projects have been completed or are a work in progress under CPEC. They include development of Gwadar port, several energy, hydel and transport infrastructure projects. Infrastructure development has involved construction of hundreds of miles of highways. Many social and livelihood priority projects have also been launched. There has been occasional media speculation in Pakistan that CPEC went off track in recent years. This is an erroneous view. There was a slowdown during the Covid-19 pandemic but work was never halted. 
CPEC has in fact now entered its second phase. This will focus more on sectors that include agriculture, industry, mining, new energy and IT, while promoting major infrastructure connectivity projects. Its aim is to create more jobs and benefit people, so that CPEC becomes a “livelihood-enhancing corridor” according to the Chinese plan. Discussion is underway to forge cooperation in new areas, such as high tech, mobile communications, e-commerce, AI and smart cities, so that CPEC also becomes what the Chinese propose as an “innovation corridor”. Greater synergy is envisaged by the Chinese proposal between the Green Silk Road and the Green Pakistan Initiative, with the ambition of also turning CPEC into a “green corridor.”
China’s help has proven crucial in Pakistan’s recent economic crisis, the worst in its history. Indeed, if China hadn’t rolled over loans to Pakistan, on which payments were due last year, Pakistan would have defaulted on its foreign debt. Strong as the relationship is, it nevertheless needs consistent reinforcement and high-level engagement to keep it on a positive trajectory. CPEC’s timely progress requires close coordination and above all addressing Beijing’s security anxieties as a priority as well as removing cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, which are still an obstacle to greater economic engagement by China. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to China, planned in the coming months, will be an opportunity to further boost relations and reassure the Chinese leadership on their security concerns.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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