As an emerging power in the region, China is closely watching the developments taking place in the South Asia region. It is in China’s best interests to have friendly governments in neighboring countries, and to a large extent, Beijing is succeeding. China has been meticulously working to attract South Asian countries, big and small alike, by all means.
One of China’s friendliest neighbors is Pakistan. When al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was assassinated by U.S. forces on May 2, 2011 in Pakistan’s garrison city of Abbotabad, Pakistan put all its eggs in China’s basket. As a result of this paradigm shift, Pakistan has put the highest priority on its friendship with China. For Pakistan, whether China can replace the United States or not is a separate debate, but one thing is sure: since 2011, China has increased its presence in the country, as seen most readily in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the multibillion-dollar project announced in 2014.
Ever since the announcement of CPEC, it has been a topic of discussion for politicians, businessmen, journalists, and common people belonging to different walks of life.
“A majority of Pakistanis view the multibillion dollar CPEC project as key to Pakistan’s economic prosperity,” journalist Shezad Baloch tells The Diplomat. “All major political parties either take credit for initiating it or make promises to bring prosperity and development through CPEC while also safeguarding the national interests.”
Leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself, take all the credit for CPEC at functions, seminars, and in the media. And they are also highlighting CPEC in the campaign for the upcoming general elections in Pakistan, which are expected on July 25.
“The launch of CPEC is arguably one of the most popular public policy developments in Pakistan over the last few years. The PML-N will certainly highlight it on the campaign trail and point to it as one of the great success stories of its term,” says Michael Kugelman, who is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan, the arch-rival of Sharif, has been bashing the PML-N and its chief for taking credit for CPEC investments in Pakistan. On some occasions, Khan would even make fun of Sharif and his party for claiming that they were the ones who made CPEC, which is supposed to change the fate of Pakistan, possible.
However, Kugelman tells The Diplomat, “There’s little the PTI will be able to do to counter that claim, given that PTI had no role in launching or overseeing CPEC and given that CPEC is a popular policy — and particularly among voters in Punjab, which is a critical electoral battleground. By pushing back against PML-N claims about CPEC, the PTI would be committing a bad political move.”
CPEC factors in local election campaigns as well. Gwadar in Balochistan is the epicenter of CPEC; unsurprisingly, then, it’s a topic of discussion for candidates in the area.
The Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) is a new political party recently formed in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. According to analysts, it is a king’s party (the party of the establishment), and it is expected to win with great margins in the upcoming general elections in Balochistan, which is vital for Chinese future investments.
If the BAP comes into power in Balochistan and forms the government, analysts point out, it will be easy for some forces to make deals regarding not only CPEC but Reko Diq mine and other oil and gas deals in the province. These political developments in the country in general and in Balochistan in particular are meant to pave the way for Chinese investments.
In fact, China was one of the major areas of dispute between the now-ousted Sharif and the establishment – the military and intelligence service. The Pakistani establishment typically deals with Chinese affairs, but Sharif and the PML-N wanted more of a stake in the CPEC projects.
According to Shezad Baloch, “CPEC provides a handy slogan for all political parties. People of all political persuasions can get behind the promise to provide basic necessities, infrastructure and development that CPEC offers.” However, he adds, “The man or woman on the street, however, is still not fully aware of the ramifications of this massive project, making it easy for any political party to exploit it.”
Average Pakistanis think that CPEC is going to change the fate of not only the country but also the entire South Asia region. On the contrary, educated Pakistanis are alarmed about the ramifications, particularly the loans coming from China. They are apprehensive that Gwadar could meet the same fate as Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which had to be ceded to China due to Colombo’s inability to repay the loans that paid for the port’s construction.
Much like Pakistan, Sri Lanka has been dependent on Chinese loans. Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was at the forefront of allowing China a greater role in his country. As a result, China increased its footprint in Sri Lanka. Unsurprisingly, then, Beijing was highly invested in keeping Rajapaksa in power. A New York Times report by Maria Abi-Habib found that “in the final months of Sri Lanka’s 2015 election, China’s ambassador broke with diplomatic norms and lobbied voters, even caddies at Colombo’s premier golf course, to support Mr. Rajapaksa over the opposition, which was threatening to tear up economic agreements with the Chinese government.”
Even more telling, “At least $7.6 million was dispensed from China Harbor’s account at Standard Chartered Bank to affiliates of Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign,” Abi-Habib wrote.
Could China do the same in Pakistan?
As Pakistani columnist Khurram Hussain wrote in Dawn, “Now that Pakistan is approaching a moment that Sri Lanka passed in 2015, and Malaysia passed in May, perhaps an opportunity to more publicly evaluate the financials of these projects is opening up before us.” China will be hoping to prevent that very outcome, which could led to public questioning of CPEC projects.
Undoubtedly, Beijing wants to see parties to come to power that would welcome future Chinese investments. But according to Kugelman, China doesn’t have much to worry about. “I don’t think China is particularly concerned about the election outcome,” he says. “It [China] knows that there is a strong political consensus in Pakistan for a continued deep Pakistan-China relationship and for continued efforts to build out the CPEC project.”
“No matter what the next Pakistani government looks like, Beijing will be happy to work with it. And the next Pakistani government will be happy to work with Beijing,” he concludes.
Oxford University professor and author Peter Frankopan predicts that “China will watch the elections in Pakistan closely.”
“But what is perhaps more significant [than which party wins] will be that the election produces a clear result,” he continues. “Investment – and good relations – require stability and knowing what to expect in the future.”
“Elections are always momentous occasions; but given what is at stake, more hangs on the decisions made by voters in Pakistan in 2018 than perhaps at any point in the last seven decades.”
Muhammad Akbar Notezai works with Pakistan’s daily Dawn.