Imran Khan’s ‘New Pakistan’ turns to China

Imran Khan’s rise to power hailed a ‘new Pakistan’, yet he remains wedded to a now defunct strategy of serving great powers.

Across the Asia Pacific China has been flexing its economic, political and military influence. The intensity of its project to unseat America’s 70 year grip over the region has reverberated across all capitals. Some, like Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, have pushed back. Others, like Sri Lanka have acquiesced, trapped by a mounting debt burden; calculated actions of China’s new creditor imperialism. The prospect of a future great Asiatic power has enticed many to reconsider on which side its bread is buttered, hedging between an established and growing power. Pakistan is one such state, delicately attempting to balance US security demands with China’s growing appetite. Imran Khan’s rise to power, albeit with the tacit approval of the military, is the latest phase in Pakistan’s growing estrangement with America.

In his victory speech, Khan declared,

“with the US, we want to have a mutually beneficial relationship … up until now, that has been one way, the US thinks it gives us aid to fight their war … we want both countries to benefit, we want a balanced relationship”.

The Americans believe Pakistan has courted China at its expense. It is host to the crown jewel of its One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR), the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a project connecting north-western China to the Indian Ocean. Undoubtedly, the scheme came to pass as part of America’s own strategy to placate China, enmeshing it in trade agreements with allies whilst containing its power ambition. However, this policy backfired, only serving to cultivate the appetite of the growing power and drawing those allies away from America. The Obama administration attempted to tighten the USA’s containment offensive by increasing its attention on the Pacific, however the so-called pivot to Asia was ill-conceived and failed to fully commit to deterring China, especially its militarisation of the South China Sea. Instead, economic engagement emboldened the rising power. The Trump administration has upended the China strategy, taming China is no longer an option, instead opting to take a more assertive stance on trade and calling its allies in the region to do the same. In this new order, countries that hedge between the two powers are opponents unwilling to kowtow to America’s every demand.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in response to speculation that a request for IMF funds was imminent remarked,

“Make no mistake. We will be watching what the IMF does. There’s no rationale for IMF tax dollars, and associated with that American dollars that are part of the IMF funding, for those to go to bail out Chinese bondholders or China itself.”

China remains emollient towards Pakistan, despite the barely restrained language coming out of Washington. An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times noted, “Pakistan does need China’s help, as it faces a slew of economic challenges” the country must “ignore the noise and step up its investment in Pakistan.” Asad Umar, Imran Khan’s Finance Minister in-waiting last week met with the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan. After the meeting, Pakistani media reported that China released another $2 billion to Pakistan, pushing its total lending over the past year to around the same size as the last IMF rescue package for Pakistan. Speculation mounts as to whether China will step in and provide all the funds to plug the hole in its finances, possibly to the tune of another $10 billion, undercutting the need for an IMF loan. If this is actualised, it will further the rift between Pakistan and the US.

China’s reach extends beyond a civilian maritime port and infrastructure projects in Pakistan. In December last year, a group of Pakistani military officers met with Chinese counterparts and, according to the Washington Times, finalised plans to house a Chinese military base 15 miles from Gwardar in a port town of Jiwani in restive Baluchistan. This would be its second formal base after Djibouti. Plans call for the Jiwani base to be a joint naval and air facility for Chinese forces and would project Chinese power to the Indian Ocean. Reports early this year confirmed China had quietly met with Baluch militants to safeguard its CPEC interests. The region remains restive, on Saturday five Chinese engineers were injured in a separatist attack on a bus. The December reports of a Chinese military base were followed by the now infamous tweet sent by Donald Trump when he claimed, the US had given $ 33 billion in security assistance to Pakistan but had received only “lies and deceit”.

Following the impetuous message, Chinese state Global Times in an op-ed declared, “Islamabad will be forced to move closer to China and Russia”, and “since China and Pakistan enjoy an all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation, Beijing will without doubt not give up on Islamabad.” The day after Trump’s tweet, the State Bank of Pakistan announced that both public and private sector companies were free to use the yuan in bilateral trade and financing transactions, bringing the Chinese currency on a par with the US dollar.

American weapons sales to Pakistan have plummeted since 2010 from $1bn to $21m last year, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China’s sales have fallen but at a slower pace. Last year China was Pakistans largest weapons exporter at $514m. China’s rise in the East has meant, according to Brookings Madhia Afzal, “that America has far less leverage over Pakistan.” Last Friday reports emerged that the security assistance suspension will now also prevent participation of Pakistani military officers in the long-running International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.

Pakistan finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Its politicians, old and new, cannot move beyond accepting a peripheral role in regional affairs. This is less “Naya [new] Pakistan” and more of living within the shadows of great powers.

There is no doubt the country’s challenges are many and should not be underestimated. India remains its greatest foe and relations may deteriorate as Washington seeks to bolster India as part of its China containment strategy which China seeks to undermine. With an array of economic and security inducements, America hopes to build a counter balance to Chinese power. Last month America elevated India’s trade status to a Nato-level ally, granting it Strategic Trade Authorisation status (STA-1) and enabling it to access military technology much more readily. It has also made its intention known to install a missile defence system in the country purchased from the US. At the same time, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced a paltry $113 million in new US initiatives for promoting investments in infrastructure, energy and digital economy in the Indo-Pacific. Without naming China, he pitched the initiative as an alternative to the OBOR programme and emphasised the US seeks “partnership, not dominance”. India’s growing power will inevitably weaken Pakistan’s ability to act as an independent state.

The world is moving away from the certainties of the Cold War and its aftermath. What were once client states, today find themselves with an alternative power to release them from US bondage. Yet such a strategy in the hands of politicians that fail to possess a strong political will, can only keep Pakistan from achieving its true potential, taken advantage of by one power or another. The only strategy Pakistan’s leaders can muster is a hedging one, trying to placate both powers. Ultimately such an approach will unravel. “These are our two masters,” Turab Hussain, an economics professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, told the New York Times. “How do you serve both?”.

Politics lecturer, London. Host of The Thinking Muslim Podcast