The Pulse

Shahbaz Sharif’s China Visit: Implications for CPEC

What to make of the visit to China by Punjab’s chief minister (and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s brother)?

Shahbaz Sharif’s China Visit: Implications for CPEC
Credit: Facebook/ Mian Shahbaz Sharif [Official]

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who happens to be the brother of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was in China from July 24-29. Sharif held meetings with Zhang Gaoli, China’s vice premier, Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Song Tao, and Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. Seven agreements and 17 MOUs were signed between Pakistani and Chinese companies during Shari’s visit.

While in China, Shahbaz Sharif received praised for his efficiency. According to a report in The News, China’s “Exim Bank chairperson, Hu Xiaolian, said earlier in China they used the term ‘Shenzhen speed’ as a symbol of development and progress, but instead ‘Punjab speed’ was currently in use in China for the rapid execution of projects.” The report also said that Zhang Gaoli spoke about the relevance of Punjab province for cooperation between both countries, and also lauded the economic progress made by the province under Sharif’s leadership.

Sharif, for his part, spoke about the enduring friendship between both countries and Pakistan’s support for China on the South China Sea issue, amongst other issues.

China’s Focus on Punjab Province

Praise of Sharif and an emphasis on the importance of Punjab province reiterate two things. On the one hand, the Chinese are depending totally upon the Pakistani army for completion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, but by reaching out to an important leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), they are putting up a façade of strong relations with the ruling party of Pakistan. The report in The News, for instance, argues that the CPC is building a strong relationship with PML-N. Says the report, “The unprecedented warm welcome extended to Shahbaz suggests the ruling Communist Party has developed personal links with the PML-N leadership, which would continue for a long period.”

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Interestingly, on his return from China, Sharif spoke about the importance of the CPEC project in strengthening China-Pakistan relations. The day before, at a July 28 commemoration of the 89th anniversary of the founding of China’s Peoples Liberation Army, Pakistan’s army chief Raheel Sharif gave his own guarantee to the project: “As chief of army staff, I assure you that security of CPEC is our national undertaking and we will not leave any stone unturned to ensure its timely completion and uninterrupted success.”

Second, the PML-N government has claimed that other provinces –Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), and Sindh –are not being discriminated against, and are likely to benefit equally from the CPEC project. However, Sharif’s visit suggests that the Chinese are not willing to take any risks, and are likely to focus on Punjab province after all. In fact, China recently stated that five CPEC projects in Balochistan and Sindh will be scuttled if they are not completed by 2018.

Domestic Problems

Even while Sharif was in China, senate leaders from a number of provinces raised objections to CPEC, requesting greater transparency and benefits for Balochistan, KPK, and Sindh. Pakistani Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal, in response to demands for greater transparency, stated that the agreement was confidential. Iqbal handed over a sealed copy of the CPEC agreement to Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani and said that members were free to examine the agreement in chairman’s chamber. This is not the first time that political leaders from other provinces have expressed their reservations with regard to the lack of transparency and Punjab focus of the project.

These recent developments are important in the context of Pakistan’s domestic politics.

It seems that the Nawaz Sharif-led PML-N is making yet another compromise. It has already ceded substantial space to the Pakistani army in the sphere of foreign policy. It is now playing cynical politics by ignoring the legitimate apprehensions of Balochistan, Sindh, and KPK, which feel that Punjab is benefiting most from CPEC at the cost of other provinces.  The party seems to be content with keeping its tag of being a Punjab centric party; the PML-N is apparently satisfied with Chinese investments in Punjab, which will help the party win the 2018 elections.

In many ways, Pakistani politics are going back to the trends of the 1990s, except that back then Nawaz Sharif took on the Pakistan army head on and was not as timid as he has been in his current tenure. However, no amount of force can suppress the legitimate grievances of the provinces; neither Rawalpindi nor PML-N will be successful in such an endeavor.

While Pakistan has blamed India for trying to destabilize the CPEC project, there are some inherent contradictions which only Pakistan can and should address. Islamabad would be well advised to address these and bring all stakeholders on board before blaming external forces.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonipat.