There are no two opinions that the twenty-first is destined to be Asia’s century. Asian states, therefore, particularly ours that is so strategically situated geopolitically, have to keep this in mind while doing their calculations. Some of our relationships in the Asian context are of vital importance and no one should be allowed to tinker with them. The relations between Pakistan and China fall in this category.
Before going further, some incontrovertible facts need to be put on record. Firstly, Pakistan is a proud nation of some two hundred million people rather than the collateral appendage of some outsiders’ scheme of things. China is heir to an ancient civilisation and, as a friendly neighbour, Pakistan has a lot to learn from it. Despite its inexplicable propensity to go gaga over anything that is West-oriented, Pakistan must not discount the imperative that its ultimate destiny may be linked with its neighborhood to the East. Talk of Pakistan-China ‘friendship’ has by now become something of a cliché. And much like a habit of long standing, it comes naturally to most pen-pushers who don’t even bother to delve into what they are driving at. Extolling of Pakistan-China close ties has, therefore, become something of a de rigueur in press parlance as well as after dinner repartee. This tendency, though natural in many ways, is not without its pitfalls.
An unpardonable error countries are apt to commit is living too much in the past. Most references to the subject in this blessed land begin by highlighting the ups of our bilateral ties in the past and end with a string of clichés. The pity is that what most people have settled for is to relive the high points of the past of this relationship embellished merely with hollow expressions of pious hopes of its continuation in the same vein. It needs to be emphasised that international relations must never be allowed to stagnate, but should rather be in a state of constant evolution.
The international scene has undergone a sea change over the turn of the millennium. Paradigms, such as they were, have lost the glimmer of old and, in most cases, will need to be formulated anew. It is in this context, that the relations between Pakistan and China in the twenty-first century would deserve to be re-evaluated, re-oriented and, indeed, re-vitalised. CPEC is an outstanding case in point. The promise of this visionary project must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to wither on the vine. At the same time it may hardly be opportune to go overboard about it.
Needless to add, age-old parameters must under no circumstances be allowed to crumble. One of the constants in the ever-evolving Pakistan-China relations has been the resolve not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. It may not be incorrect to surmise that it is this very constant – underlining the course of this relationship – that has aroused the wonder and, at times, the awe and jealousy of several interested outsiders.
China has been witness to several upheavals inside Pakistan over the decades. Besides its benevolent interest, China has scrupulously avoided any move or observation that could even remotely be construed as interference in this country’s internal affairs. Pakistan has responded in kind. There can be no justification to fiddle with this equilibrium.
Having put things in proper perspective, Sino-Pakistan relations must continue to evolve with the times. There would be no justification in moving the goal posts, though. For one thing, Pakistan has much to learn from China. China appears to be a country in a hurry, bent upon making up for the lost time. Development is taking place at a feverish pace. What is more, the development activity is not at all haphazard but is extremely well-planned. The infrastructure, the development projects and the industrial complexes are all parts of a giant jigsaw puzzle that appears to be emerging out of the Chinese landscape as a well- choreographed whole. Nothing appears to be either incongruous or misplaced; each piece of the puzzle is meticulously planned to fit in its proper place. There is much for Pakistan to learn from this.
Through its pragmatic policies over the past several years, China has successful shifted its emphasis from political issues to economic development. Not that China has sacrificed any of its principles in the process; just that it has taken a conscious decision to re-order its priorities to conform to its national interest and the evolving international environment.
Coming back to Pakistan-China relations, time is ripe to break out of the strait jacket of hollow slogans and come down to brass tacks. Realism demands that our relations be given stronger economic, commercial and cultural moorings. While we have been expending our energy in raising hollow slogans, other countries of the region have left us far behind. India, for instance, has continued to develop its economic and commercial ties with China to the extent that today the latter is India’s biggest trading partner.
Pakistan did start with an initial advantage, but we have not done enough to strengthen the moorings. In particular, the paucity of mutually beneficial economic joint ventures is noticeable, CPEC notwithstanding. Commercial exchanges too have become a little too one-sided. On our part, we have failed miserably to expand our exports base. The Free Trade Agreement that was heralded as a landmark can be effective only if we put our own house in order. And we must do it quickly or we are in imminent danger of missing the bus. That, needless to add, would be horrible to even contemplate!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.