Chinese President Xi Jin Ping is planning to undertake his first tour of South Asia after taking over as President. He was expected to make Islamabad his first port of call, followed by visits to New Delhi and Colombo. Xi will be the first Chinese President to visit Sri Lanka, which is part of the proposed ‘Maritime Silk Road’ project and other important ventures.
In keeping with traditional Chinese Diplomacy, where high level sojourns are kept under wraps, the visit was not formally announced but Chinese Foreign Ministry invited four senior journalists from Pakistan (including this scribe) and three from Sri Lanka to Beijing for briefing while a media group from India was to visit later.
China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao informed the visiting delegation regarding the impending Presidential tour, without confirming the actual dates. His briefing centered on sharing details of the visit in the realm of cooperation with both Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It was heartening to note that China not only continues to keep Pakistan prominently in its highest level of consideration, extending a helping hand without attaching strings but seeks to provide unprecedented financial investment in projects, aimed at the socio-economic uplift of Pakistan.
The Minister informed that the Chinese President was expected to have detailed discussions with Pakistani leaders during his upcoming visit on the prospects of exploring further opportunities of mutual cooperation. He named at least 25 major projects, especially in the energy sector, capacity building, technology development, and communication infrastructure especially the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being envisaged, planned and operated jointly by China and Pakistan. The President was expected to sign several new agreements as well as MoUs during his visit besides reviewing progress in the projects already being executed.
The journalists queried Liu Jianchao regarding the perils to Chinese cooperation in Pakistan and the possibility of vested interests placing impediments in the path to fruition of the early harvest and long term development ventures. The Minister’s response was categorical and definitive that no force can hinder the journey of progress and the bilateral relationship. Stressing on the cemented bonds that tie Sino-Pakistan relations, the Minister reassured that China was not only determined to support Pakistan in all fields but wanted to convey a clear message to the government and the people of Pakistan that it firmly stood by them in their efforts for a strong, stable and prosperous Pakistan and the deep level of mutual trust and confidence will thwart any evil designs by any negative force.
Besides the briefing, the visiting media persons were provided the opportunity to tour the organizations engaged in implementing the projects envisioned or investing in the enterprises; e.g. China Harbour Engineering Company, which has constructed the first phase of the Gwadar deep sea port and the Dongfang Electric Corporation, responsible for successfully undertaking major assignments like the Ghazi Barotha Hydro Power and Nandipur power generation plant amongst numerous others. The Export-Import Bank of China on the other hand is a serious investor which has already provided $3.6 billion support to Pakistan in terms of concessional loans and export service credits and was poised to sign new framework agreements with institutions in Pakistan to invest billions of dollars in upcoming development projects in Pakistan, especially in the energy sector and the CPEC during the visit of President Xi Jinping.
While the media persons were still in China,, to their great disappointment, it was learnt that the Presidential visit to Pakistan was in jeopardy. Security concerns emanating from the three weeks’ long protest rallies, sit-ins, bitter squabbling amongst politicians and power struggle constrained the Presidential visit to be postponed. A blame game has erupted between the current political dispensation ruling Islamabad and the protesters attempting to dethrone it, with both sides censuring the other for being responsible for the postponement.
PM’s Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs as well as the Finance Minister claimed during the Parliament’s joint session that the cancellation of the Chinese president’s visit has jeopardized $35 billion Chinese investment in Pakistan.
The redeeming factor however is that Sino-Pak relations are not held hostage to cancellation or rejuvenation of presidential visits. The Chinese Government has no favourites amongst Pakistan’s political parties. Its relationship with the people of Pakistan is time tested and deep rooted. It has reassured that the visit will certainly take place, as soon as the political climate in Islamabad becomes conducive to receiving foreign dignitaries.
Time and tide wait for no man. We should realize that Chinese rising industrial strength has whetted its appetite for more avenues of investment. It is keen to take South Asia as well as other Asian neighbours along on its journey to economic development. India is a lucrative market and despite past tensions and rivalry exhibited by the Indians towards China, they have invited China to set up several Industrial parks on various locations in India, to the tune of USD 35 billion per annum. A Chinese delegation has already visited several places in India to study the location to set up the first park to manufacture a host of goods to be sold and exported from there. Chinese investment in India is already around USD 1.1 billion annually, mostly in Gujarat, home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had visited China four times as Gujarat’s Chief Minister. President Xi and Modi touched off a personal chord during BRICS’ Summit in Brazil in July. Now with Japan announcing its plans to invest about USD 35 billion in the next five years in India, observers say it will be interesting to see how China space out its investments. Besides the parks, Sino-Indian talks are focusing on Chinese investments and expertise in modernizing Indian Railways. During Modi’s recent visit to Japan, he had received an offer from his hosts to build bullet train on Mumbai-Ahmedabad route. Notwithstanding Sino-Japanese rivalry, according to Indian sources, China too is keen to take up certain sectors to build bullet trains which the Chinese officials say could be cheaper than the Japanese. Modi’s penchant for trade and commerce and India’s uncanny habit of playing one rival against the other as it did with Soviet-US rivalry during the cold war era and received rich dividends, is likely to pay rich dividends. During his visit to Tokyo last month, Modi played to the gallery and took a jibe at China without naming it by hinting criticism of countries with an “expansionist” mindset.
India is also seeking greater access and greater facilitation for services like IT and is also pressing for greater market access for pharmaceuticals. India has made headway in textiles specially exports of cotton and yarn, amounting over USD 4 billion, while it is pressing China for market access for garments and apparels.
From Pakistan’s point of view, a matter of concern is that earlier China had refused to grant visit visas to Indian Army Generals deployed in Indian Occupied Kashmir. Recently such Indian military officers have been hosted by China. Sino-Indian military exercises have also been planned and executed. There is a definite thaw in Sino-Indian relations. India has not only provided asylum to the renegade Tibetan leader Dalai Lama and has exploited the separatist spiritual leader to embarrass China on numerous occasions. In the past China refused visit visas to tourists as well as Indian Government officials to tour Tibet since India did not recognize that Tibet was an integral part of China and instead supported the insurgents and separatists seeking Tibet’s independence. Recently China provided access to Indians seeking to visit Tibet.
Chinese overtures to India or any other country will never be at the cost of its close relations with Pakistan. But Pakistani politicians need to sense the wind of change.
China will definitely honour its commitment for the social uplift of Pakistan. We may temporarily miss the fanfare of Xi Jinping personally inaugurating various projects, adding impetus to the early harvest projects and ensuring culmination of the long term ventures, which hold promise for Pakistan’s economic stability. Are our politicians cognizant of the opportunity cost of Pakistan’s better future? All they have to do is sink their differences and jointly tackle the challenges. Let us not waste opportunities our friends and well wishers want to provide us for progress through our internal strife. Even China has declared that it would like us to settle our differences amicably but opportunities need to be grabbed not squandered.