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A sorry tale of friendship


By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, August 15, 2014


China cannot help Pakistan until Pakistan begins to help itself

This is a sad tale of a conference at Islamabad’s Pakistan-China Friendship Centre on August 5, organized jointly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy.

The seminar hall resonated with phrases such as “higher than the Himalayas”, “deeper than the Indian Ocean” and “sweeter than honey” – mostly by Pakistani speakers, from Sartaj Aziz, the national security advisor, to Tariq Fatemi, the prime minister’s special aide. All of them repeatedly underlined the need to expedite the execution of mutual projects.

Almost all Pakistani speakers kept telling the Chinese what China has done for Pakistan. The Chinese, on the other hand, waited to hear what Pakistan is doing to address their concerns, particularly on the feasibility and implementation of mutual projects.

“Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is keen to do things overnight, but we are very keen to know what they are doing to kick-start the many projects,” said a frustrated Chinese officials during a lunch break.

China’s frustration

Let me explain the Chinese frustration by citing a recent cabinet meeting that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired after returning from Saudi Arabia.

He wanted an update on the energy projects – those inaugurated and those under construction.

Interestingly, the minister for water and power, Khawaja Asif, repeatedly emphasized the need to “put in place permanent and not transitional policies to overcome the energy crisis.”

The minister’s statement, one participant of the meeting later confided, surprised many – the head of the water and power ministry appeared to be urging himself to put in place permanent and not transitional policies. Ministry officials as well as those representing the Planning Commission chief appeared clueless when Sharif asked about the total production in megawatts once all the projects were complete. What will happen to the surplus if there shortfall is little over 4,000 MW, Sharif asked.

There were also no answers at the meeting to questions as to what is going to be Pakistan’s energy requirement over the next five years.

It is worth mentioning that a Pakistani delegation was to fly to China in the last week of July to present Pakistan’s case to seek Chinese funding for some power projects but the visit was put off because no real paper work – as demanded by the Chinese – was at hand.

Top officials running the affairs of Pakistan Railways are also worried about coal-based Chinese-funded power projects in Punjab. Pakistan Railways is supposed to transport the imported coal to the power plants, but it lacks the capacity to do so.

The minister in charge, Khawaja Saad Rafiq, reckons that the railways would need some Rs 400 billion to procure an adequate number of wagons for coal transportation.

If the recent meeting were an indicator, calculations on how much the imported coal would cost and from where it will be brought into the country are also largely vague.

At another recent meeting on energy, when someone raised the question as to why Pakistani officials keep asking China to fund so many power projects around the country when the shortfall at the moment is around 4,000 MW, Shahbaz Sharif replied: “We might get rifles if we ask for cannons”.

Chinese officials and diplomats are also aware of this. They believe that the target of some 10,000 MW electricity by 2017 is not unrealistic. But where are the plans, they ask.

Security issues:

Beside the lackluster Pakistani presentations, the two-day seminar did entail some interesting synergy of thought on security and counter-terrorism. Speakers from both the countries agreed that China and Pakistan – as victims of terrorism – needed to accelerate counter-terror cooperation. It must expand and continue as a process rather than as-and–when-needed basis.

Chinese scholars and officials, it was obvious, came well-prepared. They pointed out that the appointment of the first Chinese special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan reflected China’s unusual focus on Afghanistan and on the need for counter-terror collaboration with Pakistan. Their speeches clearly underscored the Chinese desire to proactively engage with regional countries, not only out of commercial considerations but also for peace, security and stabilization. One area of common concern, they argued, will flow from the American forces’ presence in Afghanistan under the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), particularly the role and scope of the CIA.

Pakistani speakers also drew the visitors’ attention to China’s restive Muslim majority western region of Xinjiang. They argued that mere economic investments may not necessarily win over the population. To insulate the majority from faith–based Uighur separatists, Beijing needs to allow and facilitate religious diversity and reach out to those individuals and groups which may be vulnerable to the Al-Qaeda-inspired East Turkestan Independence Movement. The organization pursues an agenda that is anti-China and apparently derives strength from external sources, if not direct support.

This also highlights the nature of violence that is handy for external spoilers; driven by their own agendas, they take advantage of the trans–nationalist ideology that also cloaks their agendas of geo-political vested interest.

The Chinese likened the Islamist movements such as ISIS, Ansar al- Sharia, ETIM and IMU to “sparrow war” – a concept used to describe a guerrilla war against interests of a stated enemy in the way sparrows hunt for food. One of the Chinese officials suggested that Pakistan and China must collaborate to prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as their command and control centre. The TTP’s war on Pakistan, they said, provided the best manifestation of the sparrow war – one that is being waged against Pakistani interests.

They also identified the narcotics trade originating in Afghanistan as a big financial lifeline for terrorist organizations, and said this menace must be taken heads on by all Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members in a concerted way.

Once could discern from the proceedings that while Chinese intelligentsia is clear in the diagnosis of the malaise, Pakistan generally remains torn between counter-terror tactics and a vague definition of the threat and its components.

The geo-political factors that seem to dictate Pakistanis distinction between good and bad Taliban also possibly obscures and the threat diagnosis in an imperious way.

Privately, Pakistan-focused Chinese did convey that Pakistan really needs to break out of the compulsive obsession with the “perceived external motives” and address issues with long-term implications in the pragmatic way China and other countries have done. Unfortunately, the discourse as peddled by Pakistani politicians and officials hardly went beyond conventional rhetoric. Most seem to have little awareness of what sustains bilateral or multilateral relationships.

In almost all the sessions, some 16 Chinese scholars and officials and half a dozen Chinese media served as the captive audience, while Pakistani speakers and participants numbered around 12 in all but the opening and the concluding session. The thin Pakistani attendance also underscored poor organization and little pro-active regard for the visitors for a seminar that was supposed to be filled up by Pakistani think tanks.


Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk