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Islamabad turns to the East for economic fixes

Mansoor Jafar

Published: Updated:

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to China holds special significance in regards to its timing, the changing situation in the region, the strengthening of bilateral relations and other vital aspects.

Within the first month of taking charge as Prime Minister, Sharif’s visit to Beijing is the continuation of Islamabad’s tradition under which every new government has been giving priority to going China. It is a gesture of love and respect for the brotherly Chinese people and government. This visit came in response to Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s invitation to visit China during his brief visit to Islamabad before Nawaz Sharif took oath as Prime Minister.

Pakistan had been looking towards the West for solving its grave economic problems for a long time, but always found the West used it like a tissue paper for achieving certain vested interests in the region. Now, it seems the new rulers in Islamabad have woken-up to the reality and realized that China is their only sincere friend, and also Saudi Arabia, to a certain extent. Strangely, Nawaz Sharif has so far avoided visiting Riyadh.

Historic relations between Pakistan and China

Pakistani president Asif Zardari has visited China seven times during his five years term which is about to end in September this year. This tally becomes eight if the visit of Zardari’s children during Olympics is also included. But we will defer discussing those visits for some other time.

Will Nawaz Sharif be able to counter India as the 'most favored nation' in the run to win Chinese cooperation?

Mansoor Jafar

The historic relations between Pakistan and China began in 1950 when Islamabad became the first country to recognize China. Military cooperation between the two countries started in 1966 and a strategic alliance was established since 1972. Economic cooperation between them began in 1979 and at present Pakistan is Beijing’s third largest trade partner. Besides, China is also supporting Islamabad’s quest for achieving civil nuclear power. Beijing supported Islamabad during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and has always backed Pakistan’s principled stance on Kashmir dispute. Similarly, Pakistan has always supported Chinese stance on Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan issues, and facilitated Beijing in establishing relations with Muslim countries.

Pakistan acted as bridge to China’s access to the West for bilateral relations. Pakistan’s adventurism for arranging visits of former U.S. president Nixon and secretary of State Henry Kissinger to China is an important chapter in the history of world diplomacy. Sino-Pak relations have always been an example for the rest of the world. People and governments of both countries have always displayed a remarkable love, sincerity and cooperation towards each other despite having different culture, religion, language, lifestyle and history which is unmatched elsewhere in the world.

The depth and strength of these relations manifested with the signing of eight agreements and MoUs for promotion of economic cooperation and strategic partnership between the two countries during Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit. The agreements primarily aimed at establishing Pakistan-China Trade Corridor which will help both countries do combined trade with the rest of the world, and as many analysts put it, will change the entire trade and economic landscape of the region. From Gwadar to Central Asia, the Trade Corridor is set to become a ‘big economic blast’ as it would open new vistas of business for China with Central Asian states, and provide Russia the much needed access to warm waters.

Besides, the agreements are aimed at providing both long-term and short-term benefits to Pakistan. China has agreed to make Gwadar port functional, and construct a network of its link roads, besides connecting Gwadar airport to other major roads. China has also agreed to assist Pakistan in building underground metro bus system, bullet train and Lahore-Karachi motorway.

On Nawaz Sharif’s request, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has agreed to exempt Pakistan from providing ‘sovereign guarantees’ for such projects which would save millions of dollars. Nawaz Sharif has announced to establish a China Cell in his office to monitor the work on all joint projects with China; especially the powers projects and ensure that every requirement and understanding should be given approval within seven days. I wonder if any cheque sent from bank in Beijing to Islamabad could be cleared within this time.

The million-dollar question

Chinese investors raised the issues of law and order situation in Pakistan and bureaucratic hurdles. Nawaz Sharif assured them that he would personally see to it that all bottlenecks and hurdles for Chinese investors would be removed, and asked them to contact him directly if the need be. But still, the resonance of the recent killing of Chinese trackers at Nanga Parbat base camp, killing of Chinese engineers in Gwadar, and incessant killings in Karachi and some other parts of the country was heard during the visit.

How Nawaz Sharif will overcome such issues to restore confidence among Chinese businessmen is now a million-dollar question. Pakistanis have an unwavering confidence over China’s ability to overcome difficulties. Beijing has never waged ‘war on terror’ on the pretext of alleged Muslim extremism on its soil, and used a soft language to say Islamabad should control Chinese fighters in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA]. Beijing supports Pakistan on Kashmir issue but urge its old friend to exercise restraint over Indian occupation of its jugular vein.

Irrespective of a great friendship, Islamabad has also to keep an eye over growing proximity between Beijing and Delhi. Chinese premier Li Keqiang visited India before coming to Pakistan two months back. While Nawaz Sharif is visiting China, Indian defense minister has also reached there with a big delegation. Will Nawaz Sharif be able to counter India as the 'most favored nation' in the run to win Chinese cooperation? Time, as always, remains a best judge.

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Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based at Islamabad. He can be reached through Twitter: @mansoorjafar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.