In February of this year, Pakistan signed a new agreement with China to begin the second phase of the CPEC (China–Pakistan Economic Corridor). This move was preceded by PM Imran Khan’s much-talked-about visit to China during the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022.
According to a report by Asia Times, Imran Khan’s China Visit had also to do with the unsuccessful withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan in 2021. The report claims that Pakistan had offered to withdraw from the CPEC, provided USA offers a similar deal to Pakistan, but it was rejected by the USA. After being repeatedly snubbed by the United States over diplomatic channels, Pakistan seems to have found a new master in China. China has already invested in Pakistan with the US$ 60 billion CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), where it seeks to construct Infrastructure projects in Pakistan – a part of its larger Belt-and-Road Initiative. Imran Khan, who was a vocal critic of China’s emerging influence during the elections has, however, gone ahead with the project since his elevation as a Prime Minister, despite the controversies.
Playing it before the US deep-state failed
It is argued that Washington’s relationship with Islamabad was largely based on its war in Afghanistan, and the military aid that flowed to the latter. Since America realised its detraction from Afghanistan had come close, the testing time for the ties between the two countries started. Reports say the increased rift between Pakistan and the US can be owed much to the US declaring Qatar as its diplomatic representative in Afghanistan. Since then, Pakistan has taken this move personally and has felt that it has been snubbed by the US over Afghanistan after the country pulled out last year.
Forging better ties with the US was always on Imran Khan’s agenda. The Imran-Khan dispensation tried to initially warm up relations with the US by appointing the US-based Pakistani analyst Moeed Yusuf as national security advisor (NSA). Yusuf, who has close ties with US policymakers could not achieve much beyond the IMF bailout package which was lent to Pakistan considering its current economic crisis. The challenge before Yusuf was to help Pakistan’s civil and military elites get access to the new Biden administration with a view to reset bilateral ties, in which he failed.
Since the military withdrawal of Afghanistan, the strategic relevance of Pakistan in the eyes of the US has continued to diminish. Some of Imran Khan’s Pakistani authorities who have allegiances to the US and the West were keen on scrapping the CPEC provided Washington offered similar financial assistance. However, Khan’s refusal to attend Biden’s Democracy Summit while making headlines about his China visit in 2022 cemented the course of Pakistan’s continued allegiance to China in the future.
Pakistan cementing its ‘Look-China’ policy
Dejected by the repeated snubbing by the US, Pakistan retracted and has again moved to appease China for economic rollouts. The Pakistani PM visited Beijing in February this year to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. In his four-day-long visit to China, he sought meetings with many top officials but rather ended up meeting with them virtually. He also signed a new agreement to initiate the second phase of the CPEC, the total cost of which amounted to US$ 62 billion in 2020.
Much beyond CPEC, China’s support for Pakistan on important geopolitical issues including Kashmir – which China referred to as “disputed territory” is much valued by the country. In a pro-China stance, Imran Khan vocally denounced the ‘claims’ of the genocide of Uighurs in China stating that Pakistan does not talk about Chinese personal affairs in open.
So much for the support on Kashmir that Imran Khan never misses a shot in dismissing Western criticism of the CPEC project as a ‘debt-trap’. In an interview with Eric Li, director of the Advisory Committee of the China Institute of Fudan University, PM Imran Khan asserted,” The CPEC is the key to lifting millions of Pakistanis out of poverty”.
The economic corridor project which also cuts through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) region, is a 3,000-km corridor of ambitious infrastructure projects connecting China’s northwest Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Gwadar Port in the western province of Balochistan in Pakistan. The project has met with much controversy in the Balochistan province as recently in December 2021, when Baloch women gathered in large numbers to protest against the increasing Chinese influence in the region. Pakistani Nationalists have also attacked the project stating that it doesn’t serve for ignored Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Balochistan provinces as compared to the developed Punjab province.
The overtly ambitious project has seen economic disagreements over funding, concessions on loan interest. The emerging faultlines also root in Pakistan’s ethnic troubles after Pakistan’s federal government transferred the scope of many ministries to the provincial governments via the 18th amendment. Analysts have observed that with rise of the CPEC and the exiting anti-18th-amendment politics, political controversies could lead to the further polarization of Pakistani society.
With equations with the US being ruled out, China has gained more powers to drive change in playing father to the debt-driven, polarised and militarised Pakistan.