As an emerging power in the region, China is closely watching all developments taking place in the South Asian region. It is in China’s best interests to have friendly governments in its neighborhood, and to a large extent, Beijing is successful. China, being cash rich has been meticulously trying to attract South Asian countries, by all means. Pakistan, by all means, is one of the friendliest countries in China.
On May 2, 2011, when Osama bin Laden, Chief of al-Qaeda, was assassinated by U.S. forces in Pakistan’s garrison city of Abbottabad, Pakistan abandoned its dependence on the US and had to put all its eggs in China’s basket. As a result, there was a paradigm shift, Pakistan has put the highest priority on its friendship with China. For Pakistan, replacement if the United States with China or not is a separate debate. One thing is surely seen since 2011 i.e. China has increased its presence in Pakistan. It can readily be seen in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multibillion-dollar project announced in 2014.
Ever since the announcement of CPEC, it has been a topic of discussion from common people to businessmen, journalists, politicians, and those belonging to different walks of life.
“A majority of people in Pakistan view this multibillion-dollar CPEC project as key to Pakistan’s economic prosperity,” journalist Shezad Baloch tells The Diplomat. “All major political parties either take credit for initiating it or make promises to bring prosperity and development through CPEC while also safeguarding national interests of Pakistan.”
Politicians, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his party members, take all the credit for CPEC at functions, seminars, and in the media. They are also highlighting CPEC in the campaign in general elections in Pakistan, which is scheduled for July 25, 2018.
“The launch of CPEC is arguably one of the most popular public policy developments in Pakistan over the last few years. The PML-N party has been highlighting it on the campaign trail and point it as one of the great success stories of its term,” says Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director, Senior Associate and Asia Program for South Asia at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan, of PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf), the arch-rival of Sharif, has been bashing the PML-N and its chief for taking credit for CPEC investments in Pakistan.
CPEC is factoring in local election campaigns as well. Gwadar in Balochistan is the epicenter of CPEC being the exit and entry port at sea. Unsurprisingly, it’s a topic of discussion for candidates in Gilgit.
Balochistan Awami Party, King’s Party
The BAP (Balochistan Awami Party) is a new political party with epicenter at Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. According to analysts, it is being called as king’s party or the party of the establishment. It is expected to win the elections with great margins in Balochistan, this will, of course, will be pivotal for Chinese future investments.
If the BAP com forms the government in Balochistan, it will be easy for some forces in China to make deals regarding not only CPEC but Reko Diq mine and other oil and gas deals in Balochistan. These political developments in the country in general and Balochistan, in particular, are meant to pave the way for Chinese investments and require Chinese to influence them in their favor.
In fact, China and CPEC were one of the major areas of dispute between the now-ousted Sharif and the establishment – the military and intelligence service. The Pakistan military typically deals with Chinese affairs in Pakistan, but Sharif and the PML-N wanted more of a stake in the CPEC projects.
According to Shezad Baloch, “CPEC is providing a handy slogan for all political parties. People of all political parties can get behind the promise to provide basic necessities, infrastructure, and development that CPEC offers.” However, he adds, “The man or woman on the street, however, is still not fully aware of the ramifications of this massive project, making it easy for any political party to exploit it.”
China tried to influence Sri Lankan Polls unsuccessfully
Average Pakistanis think that CPEC is going to change the fate of not only the country but also the entire South Asia region. On the contrary, educated Pakistanis are alarmed about the ramifications, particularly the high-interest loans coming from China. Those opposing are arguing that Gwadar could meet the same fate as Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which was ceded to China due to Colombo’s inability to repay the loans that paid for the port’s construction.
Much like Pakistan, Sri Lanka had been heavily dependent on Chinese loans. Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was at the forefront of allowing China a greater role in his country. As a result, China increased its footprint in Sri Lanka. Unsurprisingly, then, Beijing was highly invested and interested in keeping Rajapaksa in power.
A New York Times report by Maria Abi-Habib found that “In the final months of Sri Lanka’s 2015 election, China’s ambassador broke with diplomatic norms and lobbied voters, even caddies at Colombo’s premier golf course, to support Mr. Rajapaksa over the opposition, which was threatening to tear up economic agreements with the Chinese government. At least $7.6 million was dispensed from China Harbor’s account at Standard Chartered Bank to affiliates of Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign,” Abi-Habib wrote.
Could China do the same in Pakistan?
As Pakistani columnist for Dawn, Khurram Hussain “Now that Pakistan is approaching a moment that Sri Lanka passed in 2015, and Malaysia passed in May, perhaps an opportunity to more publicly evaluate the financials of these projects is opening up before us.” China will be hoping to prevent that very outcome, which could be led to public questioning of CPEC projects.
Undoubtedly, Beijing wants to see parties come to power that would welcome future Chinese investments. But according to Kugelman, China doesn’t have much to worry about. “I don’t think China is particularly concerned about the election outcome,” he says. “China knows that Pakistan Army and Deep State call the shots. There is also a strong political consensus in Pakistan for a continued deep Pakistan-China relationship and for continued efforts to build out the CPEC project. No matter what the next Pakistani government looks like, Beijing will be happy to work with it. And the next Pakistani government will be happy to work with Beijing. If not the days of the government will be numbered as Pakistan military wants it that way,” he concludes.
Oxford University professor and author Peter Frankopan predicts that “China will watch the elections in Pakistan closely. But what China concerned is that the election should produce a clear result. Investment and good relations require stability and knowing what to expect in the future. Already the military is coercing Political parties towards a clear winner.”
Elections are always momentous occasions; but given what is at stake Pakistan and China, more hangs on the decisions made by voters in Pakistan on July 25, 2018, than perhaps at any point in the last seven decades of democracy.
13 July 2018/Friday Written by Mohd Tahir Shafi