It’s hard to think of another occasion from the past when Pakistanis were so agog and animated to roll out the red carpet to a foreign dignitary as they were to welcome President Xi Jinping of China in Islamabad, April 20-21.The red-carpet would, indeed, be too poor and prosaic an analogy to compare with the stellar enthusiasm of Xi’s Islamabad reception. His hosts left no stone unturned to make him believe he was to them the most important VIP on planet Earth. The aura surrounding his engagements in the Pakistani capital was, to say the least, majestic.
Pakistan and China are bosom friends, as both their leaders let go of no opportunity or occasion to reiterate this romantic sentiment. Xi did the same in his address to a joint sitting of the two houses of the parliament in Islamabad on April 21. Pakistan-China friendship, he gushed without showing any emotion, was ‘higher than the mountains, deeper than the ocean and sweeter than honey.’ His poetic articulation was sweet lullaby to his all-ears audience.
Xi was, initially, slated to visit Pakistan last October but was held back by the dharna of the charismatic Imran Khan and his aficionados that had barricaded Islamabad. Nawaz Sharif had lamented that Imran’s petulance robbed Pakistan of a promised bonanza of huge Chinese investments—as much as 45 billion dollars—in Pakistan’s hobbled economic fortunes.
The fact that Xi made up on the promise to visit Pakistan within six months of that hiatus underlines the desperate spade work Nawaz and his minions did to lure him to Islamabad. And disappointments there were none about the windfall for Pakistan’s laboriously lumbering economy from Xi’s much-anticipated visit—the first in 9 years from Pakistan’s most valued neighbour. Statistics gushing out of government sources, during Xi’s presence in Islamabad, were simply staggering, if not awe-inspiring.
China committed itself to invest as much as $ 46 billion into the near-dried sinews of Pakistan over the next 10 to 15 years. Dozens of MoUs and agreements were signed by the two ‘partners’ on the sidelines of Xi’s visit in Islamabad. The sum total of this huge bonanza of investment—which, if fully utilised, would surpass the total global investments in Pakistan over the past 45 years—is to give Pakistan a solid socio-economic infrastructure to ‘take-off’ industrially and become a dynamo of economic enterprise in the region.
Of the total $ 46 billion, $ 34 billion is earmarked for energy, the sector that has been the Achilles heel of Pakistan’s poorly performing economy for years. 8,000 megawatts of energy is slated to be added to the starved power grids of Pakistan over the next 2 to 3 years.
The remaining $ 12 billion will go to ports, rail-roads, highways and other industrial projects all geared to making the dream of a Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (PCEC) come true.
PCEC is Nawaz’ brain-child, the idea of which was first conceived in his visit to China, two years ago, soon after returning to power for a third time. The canny businessman in him has been animated by the idea of welding Pakistan-China six decades-old friendship into a power house of economic enterprise that would make the two “iron brothers”, a terminology coined for the mascot of Xi’s visit to Islamabad.
The port of Gawadar, just off the Straits of Hormoz, on the Pakistani coast will be the pivot of this elaborate plan. Aware of its prime strategic location, the Chinese have already developed it as a deep-water port. Gawadar is to be linked with Kashghar, the historic city of China’s Xinjiang province through rail and highways, dubbed as the New Silk Road.
Of course China is not being a Good Samaritan to Pakistan for altruism only. In today’s world there are no free lunches. Pakistan may be the beneficiary of its largesse but China will be the one reaping a huge windfall from its investment in Pakistan.
They are saying that once this new Silk Road becomes operational, its spin-off will be phenomenal for China. Today, it takes a ship twelve days from the Straits of Hormoz to reach the nearest port in China. The new Silk Road will cut this travel time to just 36 hours.
China is looking westward. It wants to be nearer the oil-rich Gulf, while keeping a hawk’s eye on the sensitive region from its vantage foot-hold in Gwadar. It also seeks access the potentially-rich Central Asia via Afghanistan, for which Pakistan’s bridging role is vital. Xi was emphatic in his pronouncements in Islamabad for Afghanistan’s transition to normalcy and peace with help from its neighbouring countries, most importantly Pakistan—the fulcrum of China’s regional ambition.
But a pragmatist and business-oriented China is conscious of the fact that in the context of Afghanistan’s future Pakistan is as much a part of the problem as of solution. That’s where India enters into the equation.
Pakistan may well be the pivot of China’s grand and ambitious vision for an enterprising, economically vibrant region in which China may invest its abundance of cash but also cash the new markets this would open up for its goods and services. But the slogan of ‘One Belt, One Road’ encompassing the vast region, from the mouth of the Gulf to the east coast of China, will have to have active Indian participation, too.
Xi has already been to India—in September last year—and PM Modi is scheduled to visit China in the next few weeks. With an eye on India’s active role in the New Silk Road, as well as in the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ that would also rope in the ASEAN countries, Xi was extra-careful in not mentioning the ‘K’ word in the context of Pakistan’s regional role.
To the chagrin of some uppity India-phobes in the ranks of Pakistani intelligentsia, Nawaz too desisted from injecting any of the dispute lexicon in his discourse. The seasoned businessman in him can appreciate the need to cultivate India’s interest into the grand scheme that—with a lot of help from his Chinese friends—would not only enrich Pakistan, economically, but also take a lot of sting out of the region’s political malaise.
It may entirely be co-incidental but all three major pan-Himalayan countries—China, India and Pakistan—currently have leaders born after their birth as sovereign nations. Xi, Modi and Nawaz, all in their early to mid-60s, aren’t saddled with the pre-independence baggage, of phobias and prejudices that handicapped earlier generations. All three believe in the primacy of market-place over politics.That may be a great intangible asset to guide and enlighten them viscerally.
Cynics may just laugh it off as inconsequential. But dreamers will not. And history has more been made by dreamers than cynics.