PM Imran Khan In China: Mistakes He Can’t Afford To Repeat
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited China late last year where he along with his delegation attended the China International Import Expo (CIIE). Before the start of the visit, the PTI government, and its supporters in the media, talked about getting 6 billion USD as preferential loans from the People’s Republic; the latter, however, could only release about 2 billion US dollars.
The main reason behind not hitting the 6 billion mark related to China’s policy calculations whereby the latter had already provided financial support to the outgoing Sharif government. The originally $46bn-China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) also materialized under the previous government. Therefore, it seemed naïve on the part of the PTI government to expect too much in financial terms from a friendly neighbor.
In addition, there is a perception among certain social circles in China that Imran Khan and his team members initially did little service to the CPEC. Indeed, the commerce advisor to the PM, Mr Razak Dawood, demanded a revision of the Corridor’s terms and conditions set under the “corrupt” Sharif government.
The PTI people might sound politically correct domestically but not abroad. Such a critical stance on a very crucial component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) raises serious concerns with the core of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that has put much into the projection, expansion and sustainability of the BRI mega project encompassing around four different continents and more than 150 nations.
Had this issue not been taken seriously at the state level, it carried the potential to affect bilateral relationship in other areas, too. Therefore, the visit of Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, was well-timed to ward off any misunderstanding that was aired by anti-CPEC countries such as India.
After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, whom the Chinese leadership familiarized with quite closely, it was expected of Imran Khan to develop personal and party rapport with the key members of the CPC and the business elite. He fumbled in this respect and could not get maximum out of his first visit.
Since domestically the Khan government is in the grip of economic crisis, it is desperately searching for financial input from multiple sources. Khan’s visits to Saudi Arabia, Iran and now China are essentially determined by economic factors. For, the GDP growth rate has trended downwards – around 3.8 percent in the first quarter of 2019. Commodity prices are sky rocketing and already the rural areas are having long hours of load shedding.
The government was supposed to move in the direction of structural reforms whereby the rich are taxed more and the poor get subsidized. Unfortunately, this is not the case and PM Khan and his team believe in external sources of finances to help the dwindling economy. In this respect, his second visit to China is politically projected in terms of accruing further funds under CPEC.
This may materialize in the future if the two sides agree on expanding the scope of CPEC. Currently, the Chinse government is keen to work on the proposed Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and, in this respect, Pakistani side has prioritized three SEZs: Hattar, Dhabeji and Rashakai.
Two years ago, around nine Industrial Parks were agreed upon. There is need to work on other SEZs as well given Pakistan’s economic woes. Moreover, Pakistan would have to take due security measures for the safety of Chinese workforce and equipment engaged in the construction and expansion of the SEZs in particular and CPEC in general.
In addition, PM Khan ought to explore other areas of economic cooperation such as exchange of agriculture technology. Even in digital technology, there is huge potential for local firms that can learn from internationalization of technological exchange.
Importantly, Pakistani side must focus on improving communication and transportation system. For example, at the moment, there is no direct flight from Shanghai, China’s commercial and financial center, to any city of Pakistan. With improvement in the means of direct (aerial) transportation, businesses get more opportunities to flourish.
Last but not the least, the two sides need to further expand educational, cultural and sports exchange. To attract Chinese and other people, Pakistan would have to improve its image regionally and globally by taking concrete measures at the policy level. We need a well-trained and highly qualified diplomatic team to project Pakistan meaningfully to the Chinese government and people.
Currently, the pace is very slow, and India is getting ahead of us on this front. Our embassy in China ought to engage Pakistani businesses, students, and academics, working seriously on China-Pakistan relations, on a sustained and meaningful basis. Also, our government representatives need to improve their pedagogical skills to avoid ‘slip of the tongue’ as it may prove damaging in China, if not in Iran.
The author is political and military analyst with a PhD from Heidelberg and Postdoc from Berkeley. He is also DAAD and Fulbright fellow. He tweets @ejazbhatty