China steps up where the United States refuses to step
Pakistan is getting closer and closer to China as partners of the two countries on strategic regional development projects. But with China’s undemocratic stance influencing Pakistan’s domestic politics, Islamabad must be careful not to alienate its Western allies, argues Tasmia Tahira.
US President Joe Biden’s virtual summit of democratic countries earlier this month aimed to rally democracies around the world to fight democratic retreat and growing authoritarianism around the world.
Pakistan under the government of Imran Khan, one of 110 countries invited to the summit, declined the invitation with an indirect diplomatic statement.
Presumably, its close relationship with China is the main factor in avoiding the democratic summit, as the growing ties of the two countries have been a central feature of Pakistan’s foreign policy since it became the focal point of the Belt Initiative. and Beijing Highway (BRI).
It seems that Pakistan’s relations with China not only reshape its foreign policy, but also force a change in its domestic policy.
How did Pakistan-China ties develop?
The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was officially launched in 2015.
It is a flagship project under the BRI (China Global Infrastructure Development Project) and is considered the economic backbone of the long-standing strategic relationship between Pakistan and China.
CPEC is a constellation of infrastructure projects aimed at building and upgrading roads, highways, railways and pipelines while connecting China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, invested by China.
Many academics are interested in the analysis of development projects in the context of the CPEC but ignore the influence that China exerts on local institutions and political actors.
Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world and has the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia.
He has lived mostly under long military dictatorships since gaining independence in 1947, but moved to democracy for the third time in 2008.
Since then, it has seen three successful democratic transfers of power through elections, with a strong system of multiple political parties and a vibrant civil society.
However, the military still exercises immense control over politics.
This control has reached the extent that the military determines the extent of the jurisdiction of the government and other civilian institutions such as the Prime Minister’s Office, Parliament and the judiciary.
Unofficially, the military has drawn red lines in areas of foreign and domestic policy that no democratic government can cross.
Otherwise, the government would find itself in a serious political crisis and could be overthrown by a coup. Thus, civil-military relations in Pakistan remain at the center of politics and the democratization process.
Outside powers, especially the United States, play an important role in establishing the level of control the military can exercise over the politics of the country, forcing the military on many occasions to cede political control to institutions. democratic.
We now see China as an emerging world power that is getting on the “great power” bandwagon and playing a role in setting new political standards in its neighboring countries, including Pakistan.
The new political norms are very authoritarian and aim to enforce social and political conformity. Anti-democratic activities and authoritarian practices have never been more blatant in Pakistan than they are now.
Prior to the CPEC, China’s relations with Pakistan were limited to the security and defense sector, and mainly passed through the Pakistani military.
After the democratic transition in 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) held power from 2008 to 2013 and showed its willingness to develop closer economic relations with China.
Under the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz) government of Nawaz Sharif, who ruled from 2013 to 2018, China and Pakistan set out to forge important relationships beyond defense and the security sector.
Sharif’s government was very ambitious in maintaining civilian control over strategic trade and development projects, which angered the military.
Since 2018, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, has been the ruling party.
How does Pakistan’s relations with China affect its ties with the United States?
The military seems as passionate as the civilian government to establish economic ties with China and materialize the CPEC projects, however, it has been troubled by civilian control of the project.
The PTI, which is seen to be closely associated with the military, has often criticized the previous government for prioritizing the CPEC project and claimed that PML-N politicians derive personal benefit from it.
All other opposition political parties allege that the military rigged the 2018 election and carried out a coup without a coup to bring the PTI to power. Since taking office, Imran Khan has publicly criticized democracy and Western liberal standards and values.
In his first speech after winning the election, he praised China for its national poverty reduction strategy and anti-corruption campaigns.
In practice, his government has undermined democratic institutions, systematically suppressed political dissent and critical voices while outsourcing governance to the military. The army now practically controls the governance, foreign policy and economy of the country.
It is obvious that the current government is following China’s political playbook.
The US strategic disengagement in the region following a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrates a more marginal US interest in Pakistan.
China remains the only country interested in investing in Pakistani infrastructure. The American disengagement and the shift to an Indo-Pacific strategy gave new impetus to authoritarianism in Pakistan.
However, Pakistan’s military and political elite are keen to keep their relations with the United States intact while allowing China to invest in infrastructure in Pakistan, as the military has been the main beneficiary of billions of US dollars of armament and training.
The personal future of many officials in Pakistan is linked to that of the West, especially the United States.
He could mend his relationship with the United States if he continues to value at least the democratic standards led by the United States.
Islamabad cannot save its relations with the United States while crushing free speech, berating democratic standards and practicing the Chinese political model.