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China’s Trouble With Pakistan’s Turbulent Democracy

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The Pulse

China’s Trouble With Pakistan’s Turbulent Democracy

The real stumbling block to CPEC? The differences in political systems between China and Pakistan.

China’s Trouble With Pakistan’s Turbulent Democracy

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurate CPEC projects in April 2015.

Credit: Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the coming together of two entirely different political cultures and systems. Even though this bilateral relationship has been termed as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel,” the core of this bond is limited to the politico-diplomatic and military domains. In other words, it is a state-to-state relationship managed by specific institutions such as the top government officials (heads of state and government), diplomats, and of course, the two militaries. Thus free from of their respective public and cultural strictures, the two neighbors have sustained an apparently impeccable relationship. However, with the coming of CPEC, the things are changing.

Apart from security concerns in Pakistan, China seems to have trouble accepting the way Pakistan’s media and political parties have handled this multi-billion project. Since this debate relates to the working together of two distinct political systems, looking back at how the structure of each country functions would be pertinent.

China has a one-party system with the decision-making process on all key national issues highly centralized. Thus power usually flows from the top down. This does not mean the provincial governments are helpless; they also enjoy considerable autonomy in adopting their own policies on certain issues and space in implementing the decisions imposed from the center. However, when it comes to implementation of an issue with the imprint of national interests or foreign policy, China acts more like a monolithic entity. From the complex structure of provincial governments to media outlets, all the institutions and platforms toe the line of the central government. The way President Xi Jinping’s dream of the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) has been positively portrayed by the media and diligently implemented by concerned regions and provinces amply demonstrates the dynamics of decision-making in China.

In contrast, Pakistan over the last ten years has been a nascent democracy with federalism taking deeper roots in the aftermath of the 18th amendment. Two sets of government, central and provincial, are elected directly by the people. Provincial governments not only have clear power and control over well-defined subjects but can openly defy the central government in case of a clash of interests. Ethnic differences among the provinces further complicate the matter. Moreover, the press in Pakistan is vibrant and free to question and criticize the state’s policy and decisions. One can find voices of dissent even on the most sensitive issues and subjects. Against this backdrop, China’s idea of CPEC as “the flagship project” of BRI was bound to stir up some criticism.

The Chinese are conventionally known for their calm and circumspect diplomacy even at times of boiling crisis. But in case of Pakistan and CPEC, this diplomatic norm seems to be already under strain. The Chinese have made no secret of their frustrations and have shown their displeasure in a number of ways.

Since the beginning of the project, two “Ps” in Pakistan have bothered the Chinese: the politicians, who are uncharacteristically divided, and the press, a section of which is irritatingly critical of CPEC. Both these elements are the fruits of Pakistan’s fledgling democracy. While political parties have vied for their share of CPEC projects, the media has questioned the transparency and economic and environmental feasibility of the project.

The controversy over the western route is going nowhere. Some have even argued that “P” in CPEC stands for Punjab, as the province has been allocated a disproportionately large share in the project. Others have lamented that CPEC might become “another East India Company” for Pakistan, undermining the country’s sovereignty. At the same time, the media has accentuated these concerns by lamenting the lack of respect for the principles of transparency, economic viability, and environmental standards under CPEC.

Perhaps not so accustomed to the complexities of democracy, the Chinese have been utterly dismayed by such criticism at times. Its mission in Islamabad has been compelled to plead time and again for political consensus on CPEC. Unfortunately, the tactic has not worked. Now Beijing is trying a new tactic: sending some of its leading figures with a special message for Pakistan’s political groups. For example, during a recent visit by Zheng Xiaosong, a vice minister in the Communist Party of China’s International Department, the Chinese official’s stentorian call for Pakistan’s political parties “to resolve their differences and make CPEC a success” was an unusual development.

By employing harsh analogies to rebut any criticism aimed at CPEC, labeling critics “enemies of Pakistan” engaged in “disinformation,” “maligning” CPEC, and promoting a “hidden agenda”, the Chinese have shown just how sensitive and in fact vulnerable they are to dissenting opinions.

Taking these glitches into consideration, how can the two countries manage the potential clash of their political cultures and save the day?

The onus lies on both parties. China will have to understand and accept that Pakistan is a different polity. Despite all its limitations, democracy seems to be a better alternative for Pakistan. Free media and differences of opinion are the natural outcomes of any standard democracy. As such, China will have to silently listen to criticism and look for the actual reasons behind such voices. Rather than using rebuttals that smack of a siege mentality, there should be measured responses to the the questions being raised about CPEC. Ignoring such views would be better than an unseemly outburst. China’s push for unity among the sparring center and provinces of Pakistan is something encouraging and relatively more effective tool.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s political parties need to realize that failure to resolve their differences seriously undermines the potency of civilian rule in the eyes of Chinese. It can also harm the image of the country’s institutions with respect to foreign investors. Above all, Pakistan’s most important relationship is at stake. Therefore, these differences should be resolved by making better use of democratic dispensation.

Now that Pakistan and China are expanding their relationship to new horizons, such undesirable scenarios should be expected and dealt with adroitly. No relationship is problem-free and this “all-weather” friendship is no exception.

Abdur Rehman Shah is Research Associate at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), Islamabad. He holds Master’s and M. Phil. in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He tweets @abdur_shah.