Imran Khan and Xi Jinping
A file image of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan with Chinese President Xi Jinping | Photo: @ForeignOfficePk | Twitter
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Pakistan can play an important security and development role in the region and as a partner of the US, even as it maintains its separate relationships with its immediate neighbours, China, Afghanistan, India and Iran. Imran Khan’s apparent efforts to work with the military on national economic and strategic issues will stand him in good stead but they may also delay the establishment of civilian supremacy in a democratic Pakistan. The country and its surrounds have changed dramatically in the past two decades.

If current trends bear out, populations in the greater South Asia region will continue to become more politically and economically active. If its leaders can provide responsive governance and a clear and consistent economic direction, South Asia may be able to surmount over time its persistent security challenges, both within countries and from hostile neighbours. And they may be able to lay the basis for connectivity of their economies. The challenge for Pakistan will be to balance its internal battles with the need to create a more congenial regional atmosphere that fosters stability and economic growth.

Imprisoned by its geography, Pakistan must learn to live and thrive in its neighbourhood without becoming a vassal of surging India. Otherwise, it risks becoming a backwater and asterisk in future atlases. Especially if its centrifugal forces triumph over the centripetal forces holding it together. In fighting this hostile future, it needs to learn from its history and those of other countries that have struggled to establish a clear and sustainable national identity. And it will need to balance carefully its quest for security against its need to develop economically and to ask itself if its investment in defence has effectively purchased it adequate security.


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Regarding its external relations, Pakistan does not have to choose between its traditional ally, the US, and its relatively newer friend, China. On its part, the US can take advantage of the presence in the same region of two relatively sophisticated military and political systems in India and Pakistan that together could provide stability and growth to the wider region.

The US cannot afford to create or encourage divisions in South Asia. Over the next ten to fifteen years, South Asia could be poised to play a pivotal role on the global economic and political scene. Given its size, India is in a position to take the regional lead, and Pakistan could end up playing either a major supporting role or the role of a critical spoiler, if its polity deteriorates instead of stabilizing and improving. Afghanistan also may well offer a springboard for a new regionalism, reverting to its historical role as the gateway to South and Central Asia. And Iran, if it can fully rejoin the global community, may successfully hook into South Asia’s economy, while playing a key role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and the neighbourhood. But only if the US reopens its discussions with Iran rather than taking the path of confrontation.

An economically and militarily stronger India may well work out a balanced relationship with arch-rival China, building on trade dependency to either dampen territorial disputes or to resolve them through quiet negotiations. Pakistan’s developing relationship with China under the China– Pakistan Economic Cooperation Corridor or CPEC, linked to China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative may give it a chance to connect with its neighbours too and become the ‘game changer’ that Pakistani leaders talk about. But that will demand much more preparedness and transparency in Pakistan. Much more than has been evident to date.

China will also need to give Pakistan breathing room to undertake and participate in the Belt and Road Initiative so that it brings investments into Pakistan rather than burdensome debt or commitments on the rates of return promised to Chinese investing firms that Pakistan may have difficulty in servicing. Deeds, not words, matter. Pakistan looks to reap some benefits from the emergence of the CPEC that will start bearing fruit in the next five years by creating jobs in the infrastructure sector and by alleviating the energy shortages that have held back the economy in the past decade or so. It remains to be seen if China reduces its reliance on its own labour to speedily complete the jobs or relies on Pakistani labour to build and maintain the projects. Another possible impediment might be the speed with which Pakistan can muster counterpart funding and institution building for these projects. Initial reports indicate that the development budget will be cannibalized to give priority to the CPEC effort, including funding the security forces to protect construction work. Much of the $46 billion investment promised by China over the next fifteen years is in the energy and infrastructure sectors, with energy taking the lion’s share at nearly $38 billion.


Also read: India, US, Japan, Australia come together to give impetus to ‘anti-China’ Quad


If the government can deftly manage the initial investment in the pathway from China to Gwadar on the Arabian Sea by not tilting the investment first towards the easternmost Punjab-centric highway, Pakistan could help knit the provinces together. It would behoove the government to begin work on the Baloch segment first, mandating the use of local labour and bringing the tribal populations into ownership, given the strategic location of Balochistan across three countries of the region. The US could lay the foundation for a long-term investment in Pakistan’s future by helping Pakistan undertake speedily the Western Corridor traversing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, and including a tributary linked to Afghanistan. Such a signature project would be a lasting symbol of US relations with Pakistan, much like the Mangla and Tarbela dams were in the 1960s and ’70s. The undisbursed KLB funds amounting to an estimated $2 billion and withheld CSF and other funding by the Trump administration might provide the seed money for this project.

To date, Pakistan has chosen to avoid making decisions on the $46 billion in Chinese investments that would speedily integrate its marcher regions into the economy and body politic of the country. Of these, some $36 billion are energy related and the remaining $10 billion are for infrastructure. It has favoured the Punjab for the main route connecting China to the Arabian Sea, given the presence of the current motorways.


Also read: By challenging status quo on Kashmir, India risks hyphenating itself with Pakistan again


The Western Corridor is supposed to be built with local financing. China did not provide loans for three infrastructure projects of the western route. Pakistan had to scramble to find funding for one of the three projects related to that segment of the CPEC corridor. But, lack of preparation has dogged it and many other projects. China has provided a number of heavy loans to Pakistan and some balance of payment financing. But nothing of the quantum that would meet Pakistan’s immediate financing needs to service its obligations and imports. Both Pakistan and China need to better publicize China’s investment flows into Pakistan as a counter to the impression that most of its funding is in the form of loans. At the same time, both China and Pakistan need to make a special effort to share openly and widely their plans and processing of contracts. This would help counter the surging conspiracy theories of those who oppose this relationship, both inside Pakistan and in other countries, near and far.

But in all this it would be critical for Pakistan not to present China as an alternative to the US and the West. Rather, Pakistan needs to reshape its regional and global alliances in light of the blueprint that Gen. Ashfaq Kayani had presented to the US and NATO in September 2011. Ending the no-war-no-peace condition in South Asia and working with friends, near and far, to help stabilize its own economy and polity will be key to Pakistan’s economic growth.

This excerpt from The Battle for Pakistan by Shuja Nawaz has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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