Pakistan’s relations with the People’s Republic of China are based on solid foundations of mutual trust and shared interests. The commonality of their policies is embedded in the concept of malice towards none and tolerance towards all for peaceful coexistence. To use a cliché, a time-tested friendship between the two for over five decades that has weathered diabolical changes in the international politics. The end of Cold War, the breaking down of the Berlin Wall; followed by the breakup of the USSR, has had no negative effect on the formidable relationship between the two nations. China had always demonstrated its support for us, both in the global political arena and in the economic matters. Their role during the wars of 1965 and 1971 is well recorded. In the most difficult times of economic crunch, China has been a pillar of support and strength.
Being a trusted and traditional friend of China, the Americans used our good offices to reach out to them. Henry Kissinger, who for the world media was convalescing in Abbottabad, due to flu, had actually surreptitiously flown to Beijing; this meeting led to thawing of the strained relations of decades between the US and China and ultimately to the issuance of the Shanghai Communique at the end of President Richard Nixon’s first-ever visit to the communist China, announcing détente. Pakistan paved the way for this engagement. It is believed that Premier Chou en Lai, said to his US guests that a bridge having been used doesn’t lose its importance in reference to Pakistan’s role.
China’s policy towards Pakistan was architectured by Chairman Mao and Premier Chou; and from Pakistan’s side the credit for building this sustained relationship with China, is due to President Ayub Khan and to the then foreign minister and later prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Premier ZA Bhutto was the last of the overseas visitors to be received by Chairman Mao during which time he was seriously sick…. Mao passed away a few weeks later. The main Chinese architects of this relationship passed away within the same year, 1976. China then saw the emergence of the “Gang of Four”, who were very quickly deposed, thankfully; the course set in motion, of impending attack upon the socialist government never reached the leadership. Deng Xiaoping, who during the cultural revolution, was purged from the party and banished to the field returned to Beijing, triumphantly; since then, China has had no time to look back.
Today there are no more Mao’s and Chou’s, who would have the same emotional attachment towards Pakistan. The current leadership operates on the premise of looking at long-term interests of China, while maintaining the traditional friendship and relationship. This is rightfully done, because, today we live in an almost unipolar world that is distinct and different from the era of “higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the oceans” clichés and slogans. The dynamics of global politics and economics have altered dramatically and we must recognise that reality. China and the US are at loggerheads but the business between them continues to thrive.
For decades, Pakistan looked at China only for political support in the domain of international politics. We sought their support at various fora, to gain diplomatic advantage, sans any economic gains. A serious disconnect happened, when Pakistan failed to foster economic ties with China, while it was still a growing economy. We literally missed the bus to participate in their economic growth that could have been a great benefit for our own economic interest.
China was in search of “talent, experience and knowledge” for their free enterprise experience. Pakistan had the capacity to provide that but we had blinders at the foreign office, who couldn’t visualise the many opportunities, the opening of Chinese economy afforded to us. Instead, other neighbouring countries stepped in and availed great advantages for themselves. We were satisfied with the Chinese vote at the international fora in our favour. A tunnel view that has been costly and continues to haunt with the dismal trade and investment figures even today.
If the trade volumes were to be examined of the past decades, they make for a very sad reading. The several opportunities that arose out of an economically open China, were not taken, at either the government level or by the private sector. Despite the close association, no serious effort was made either by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Ministry of Commerce, to proactively take up the business opportunities; even the private sector and the limited number of think tanks, we have, failed miserably to provoke the interest and to remove the cobwebs of ignorance about China, its people and business policies. There was, and possibly still is, a general lack of understanding about the People’s Republic of China.
Sadly, the situation is not much different, despite the initiative of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). We and our policymakers are still sitting pretty in the thinking of the decade of the nineties. Either it is a case of obstinate incompetence, or it is diplomatic lethargy, that we still are no taking full advantage of the Chinese experiments in the running of the economy. In these very columns, besides in other dailies, I have been lamenting about not building enough economic bondage with China.
However, there is no doubt that our own unending political saga of turmoil and the instability of 75 years has contributed heavily in making us directionless and a vision-less economy. The successive governments in Islamabad weren’t keen, inclined or focused, in establishing economic links, our foreign policy was obsessed with ensuring that China would cast its vote in our favour and support us for the Kashmir cause and in the process remain hostile towards India… that was true for the decades of the sixties and seventies but to pursue it today is to act like nothing has changed.
In that era, China had emerged from a lesson learnt at the hands of the Indians during the 1962 war, when India attacked China in the Ladakh region. Much water has flowed since then. The dimensions of the global relationships have undergone through a paradigm change of strategy. It is about economy.
While we may falsely believe that the glorious period of sixties is still prevalent, the world has moved on. So has China, a nation that has adopted a pragmatic approach in its foreign policy based on the current realities and; hence, the contours of its policy, recognise with maturity, that despite its less than normal relations with New Delhi, they have developed a strong trade, investment and economic links with India. Pakistan’s total trade volume with China is $16 to $17 billion, as against India’s, which stands at $115 billion (2021/22). This distinction is enough evidence of our failure to capitalise on our traditional relationship.
In my assessment, our policy pundits have failed in understanding the bold and creative initiative of Deng Xiaoping, who initiated the economic reforms in 1979, under the daring slogan of “one country, two systems”. That was a courageous step. On the benefit of hindsight today, we have, before us, China’s amazing economic miracle. In less than 40 years, China has acquired the status of being the “factory of the world”; with its forex reserves exceeding $3.12 billion. That’s no mean achievement!!!
Why don’t we learn from that experience? Why do our politicians merely harp about the friendship being higher than…? Why can’t we learn from them about economic planning? Why cannot we take tuition on how to build and operate successfully the Special Economic Zones? Why can’t we seek help in the field of agriculture for harvesting better yields? Why don’t we seek the transfer of technology in relation to power generation? We can take some baby steps with say building solar parks with Chinese inputs.
CPEC, which has the potential to become the bedrock of economic cooperation, badly needs attention from Islamabad. We have neglected and delayed the project far too long. The Chinese certainly have a well-laid out strategy for CPEC but do we have a 30-year strategy on this huge economic potential? Even our short-term goals remain and lie in obscurity.
On the day, when China had placed over $2 billion with our central bank, our print and electronic media was doing two things, firstly celebrating the borrowing (sad) and chastising the Chinese for not being invited to a sideline meeting of the BRICS!! Again, sad. BRICS is a multilateral arrangement and we expect that a bilateral relationship should impinge upon their wider global interests. This is an unfair demand. If seen as an affront, it must be taken up through diplomatic channels and not through the medium of open airwaves.
We have much to learn from China. There is still a great opportunity to deepen our economic ties. All ministries must work in unison for this purpose. CPEC is a great moment of truth, let’s take advantage of it and not squander it away, as we are wont to doing for decades now. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs alongside the Ministry of Commerce must get the machine in motion to understand the nuances of doing business with China.
(The writer is a senior banker)