The Iron Brothers

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s latest visit to Beijing aroused great interest as well as curiosity among the people, especially after governmental claims on the outcome of the visit. According to Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal, at least 19 agreements were signed during this visit, involving a huge portfolio of Chinese investment worth $45.6 billion. There were all sorts of speculations on the nature of the Chinese financing – whether they were loans or investment – and if loans, what sovereign guarantees were involved.

There are fears that given the enormity of the size and cost of the projects and knowing our system, we may not be able to avert situations of ‘force majeure’ or inevitable delays with hidden cost-escalation as experienced in some earlier projects, notably the controversial Nandipur plant. Whatever the reality, the
government owes it to the people to bring transparency into all aspects of the Chinese ‘investment’ package. Our relationship with China is too important to be dragged into domestic controversies.

China constitutes a cornerstone of our foreign policy and represents a pillar on which we believe the stability and security of our region rests. This exemplary relationship is not based on transient interests or expediencies, and is above personalities or even changes in domestic or global situation. It is an all-weather relationship. The unmatched special feature of this relationship is the mutual trust and confidence based on convergence of strategic interests that the two countries have built over the decades as an asset of their friendship.

The Chinese, on their part, were quick to dispel any speculations. In a media briefing in Islamabad, a senior Chinese official confirmed the signing of 19 agreements during the prime minister’s visit to Beijing. Though he did not give the exact value of the agreed projects, he made it clear that China wants to ensure their early and transparent completion. “For us, their execution is a challenge as we have signed these documents with firm commitment,” he said. According to him, out of the 19 projects, 13 were energy-related which will be functional by 2018.

China’s projects, he said, were all for the people of Pakistan. Specifically citing Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, Gwadar Port and the newly launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as the major “engagements” between the two neighbours, the Chinese official made it clear that Pakistan-China economic cooperation was without any political preconditions. Reiterating China’s known position, he said: “We will not let our friends suffer in testing times. We are strong friends — ‘The Iron Brothers’ — and we will continue to discuss issues of mutual benefit and cooperation.”

Indeed, both countries have been supporting each other in their just causes, which for Pakistan include a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue and preservation of its independence and territorial integrity, and for China, the issues of Taiwan, human rights, Tibet and Xinjiang. A strong strategic mutuality in this approach makes their economic and security cooperation the bedrock of this multi-dimensional relationship as a factor of peace and stability in this region. From Karakoram Highway to the newly-completed Gwadar Port, a string of industrial plants, factories, electrical and mechanical complexes, power producing units, including hydro and nuclear power plants, stand as testimony to China’s vital contribution to our country’s economic development.

Their common agenda now encompasses a whole range of connectivity, construction, economic and technical cooperation, including the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor linking Pakistan’s coastal areas with northwest China. This indeed is a huge agenda with mutual interests rooted in their common vision for a better future for their own peoples and for peace and prosperity of the region itself. For China, it is the ‘national rejuvenation’ through accelerated development of its backward western regions whereas for Pakistan, it is the imperative of converting its geopolitical location into an asset rather than a liability.

From Karakoram Highway to the newly-completed Gwadar Port, a string of industrial plants, factories, electrical and mechanical complexes, power producing units, including hydro and nuclear power plants, stand as testimony to China’s vital contribution to our country’s economic development.

The real challenge for both now remains how vigorously and faithfully they can translate this common vision into reality. On their part, the Chinese have always delivered on their commitment. Their help has always been selflessly unconditioned involving even sacrifices in terms of many Chinese lives. Even today, thousands of Chinese engineers and workers are engaged under most difficult conditions in building roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, schools and hospitals for the people of Pakistan.

On our part, unfortunately, the history of two vital aspects of our cooperation with China – trade potential and the Gwadar Port – totally neglected by us for almost a decade should be an eye-opener on our capacity or ability to ensure time-bound and cost-effective completion of the new projects. The problem is we do not even have a policy or priority framework nor an integrated approach in handling development projects and funds which often lapse due to non-utilisation. A number of projects are lost or abandoned only because there is no coordination among the relevant agencies of our government.

Economic activity’s basic ingredients — consistent policies, stable law and order situation and supporting infrastructure including requisite energy — are missing in our country.

Our industrial wheel remains mostly non-operational constricting our export productivity. No wonder, our trade with China remains one-sided. It’s also a pity that a country of 200 million people and tremendous engineering skills and talent reservoir today can’t even run its own ports, railways or airlines. We are still waiting for the Chinese to come and start operating the Gwadar Port.

The perilous security situation, continuing energy crisis and our corrupt politico-bureaucratic machinery are the biggest bottleneck and warrant immediate attention if we are serious about honouring our own commitment to realising the common goals envisioned as part of the new China-Pakistan plans. The situation needs a paradigm shift in our governance patterns with hard decisions.

As a gesture of friendship and solidarity, China has also been repeatedly affirming its support for Pakistan’s “efforts in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.” This does not mean that we completely absolve ourselves of our own responsibilities leaving our fate in the hands of others whoever they may be. No matter how heartening this gesture may be, the Chinese ‘assurances’ in no case exonerate our rulers of their obligation to preserve the country’s sovereign independence and dignity which in recent years they have been so callously squandering for their own self-serving interests.

A nation that leaves itself at the mercy of others and continues to look for disinterested favours from them is not worthy of independence. We must not embarrass China by overstretching our demands. Also, it is time the two countries rose above meaningless clichés that they often are tempted to use in describing their friendship as ‘higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans.’ Lately, for whatever reason, the Chinese are using a new title for this relationship—’The Iron Brothers’. Perhaps, they don’t understand its connotation in Pakistani context.

The two countries will be better off giving a realistic and genuine description to their relationship — neither too high nor too deep — but strong enough to face the fast-changing regional and global ground realities and common challenges of peace, cooperation and prosperity. An ‘all-weather friendship’ might be the right title if at all they must use one to describe their special relationship.

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