‘Higher than the Himalayas’
Nawaz Sharif chose China as his first foreign destination after becoming Prime Minister. During the visit, his discussions with the Chinese leadership revolved around energy, trade investment, infrastructure, bilateral cooperation and terrorism. Chinese cooperation with Pakistan has reached new economic high points, with substantial Chinese investment in Pakistani infrastructural expansion. Both countries have an ongoing free trade agreement. In the earlier days, when China was more or less isolated from the rest of the world, Pakistan served as its main bridge to Muslim countries and also played an important role in closing the gap with the West by facilitating the 1972 Nixon visit to China.
This time around, during Nawaz Sharif’s visit, the two countries signed eight Memoranda of Understanding and agreements including the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor accord to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation. The agreement to build a trade link connecting Gwadar’s deep sea port with Kashgar further steps up bilateral economic cooperation. It is hoped that the corridor will become a very important economic and energy hub and perhaps even a ‘game changer’ in the region. It is good that both countries are looking to deepening their mutually beneficial economic cooperation with a new vigour and Nawaz Sharif’s visit is a reflection of the deep-rooted relationship between Pakistan and China. Both sides have reiterated their desire to continue to deepen their strategic partnership and their relations have become even more significant considering the 2014 NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It is time that the so-called all-weather, ‘higher than the Himalayas’ friendship between Pakistan and China became a hard economic reality now and went beyond the mere signing of MoUs. For the most part, Pak-China interaction is presently limited to mostly inter-government contacts. People to people contacts are few and far between and play a scant role in strengthening bilateral relations. A sustained relationship would need understanding of each other’s culture, language, ways of life, regular people to people contact, interaction between media and joint participation in creative arts like cinema and music, etc. Exchange of students, tourism and visits of cultural troupes keep mutual ties refreshed. Collaboration at the think tanks level helps in correcting any distortion in perceptions. An important milestone was achieved earlier when Pakistan handed over management of the Gwadar deep sea port to China. The port has important geostrategic and political implications and interests in the region: it will connect China to the Arabian Sea and to the Strait of Hormuz, an important gateway for a third of the world’s oil. If used as a Chinese naval base, the port will have new implications.
China-Pakistan relations began in 1950 when Pakistan was among the first countries to recognize the PRC. Since then, both countries have placed considerable importance on their extremely close and supportive relationship. The two countries have regularly exchanged high-level visits resulting in a variety of agreements. China has provided economic, military and technical assistance to Pakistan and each considers the other a close strategic ally. Bilateral relations have evolved from an initial Chinese policy of neutrality to a partnership that links a smaller but militarily powerful Pakistan, partially dependent on China for its economic and military strength, with China attempting to balance competing interests in the region. Chinese military assistance to Pakistan began in 1966 while a strategic alliance was formed in 1972 and economic co-operation between both countries began in 1979. China has become Pakistan’s largest supplier of arms and its third-largest trading partner.
It is very reassuring that China wants to see Pakistan as a prosperous and developed country and regards its problems sympathetically. Bureaucratic red tape and inefficient handling stand in the way of speedy execution of MoUs signed between the two countries. China is Pakistan’s largest trade partner at the bilateral level. However, Pak-China bilateral trade suffers from an imbalance and needs to review its policies to correct this imbalance. Pakistani consumers often complain about the low quality and short life of Chinese goods. The energy crisis makes the situation worse. Ways and means need to be found to provide an enabling environment for Chinese investors.
Keeping in view Pakistan’s huge untapped potential in wind and solar means of electricity, Chinese investors should be encouraged and facilitated to participate in related energy projects. China is the only country that has been persistently helping Pakistan in the nuclear domain of power generation. This cooperation needs to be carried further and transfer of technology may be sought so that Pakistan could manufacture nuclear power reactors. China has all along been a reliable supplier of military hardware and technology related know-how. Keeping in view the strings attached to the supply of military hardware by America and other Western countries, Pakistan should further build on this relationship and diversify its critical dependencies by initiating new projects with China.