Shehbaz visit to reinvigorate Pak-China ties | By Dr Imran Khalid

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Shehbaz visit to reinvigorate Pak-China ties

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is the first foreign head of a government visiting China following the conclusion of the 20th CPC National Congress, where the third term of President Xi Jinping was approved, reflecting the extra-ordinary closeness between the two neighboring countries.

He is visiting Beijing on 01 November for a two-day visit on the invitation of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. But factually speaking, this visit is much more than just a routine diplomatic visit.

For many decades, a tradition has been established by the successive prime ministers of Pakistan to visit Beijing within the first few weeks after taking charge of the office as a gesture to show importance given to China as a trusted and reliable friend.

But, owing to the strict Covid-19 protocol being followed by China and his own engagements with domestic political compulsions, Shehbaz Sharif had to delay his ritual trip to Beijing.

The prime agenda of the visit includes reviewing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and seeking debt restructuring.

Shehbaz Sharif is keen to seek $6.3 billion rollover of the Chinese loans. Besides this roll over, he is likely to negotiate more financial assistance in order to shore up its depleting foreign reserves.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC, an integral part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, is perhaps the most important strategic project for both countries, but for the last few years, it has been on low flame for various logistical and technical reasons.

Shehbaz Sharif, knowing well that Pakistan’s economic resurgence is inordinately dependent upon the timely completion of CPEC and its auxiliary projects, is desperate to utilize this visit that includes his meetings with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang as an opportunity to give a booster to the whole project with a renewed enthusiasm.

Last five years have seen a relatively sluggish phase in the CPEC – financial and technical problems as well as the targeted terrorist activities against the Chinese nationals working on these projects in Pakistan have been the key contributors to this delay.

Many forces are working against the CPEC, which are not happy with the prospects of economic and infrastructure development in this region.

For China, when compared with the Straits of Malacca, which provides a shortest maritime access to Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the CPEC is certainly the best alternative route that can ensure continuity of its supply chain operations through western part of China in the event of any major conflict with the United States or any other regional power.

The Straits of Malacca are vulnerable to any hostile actions from the United States and may immediately impede the energy imports of China, which in turn may have a negative impact on the Chinese economy.

The CPEC project will allow Chinese energy imports and trade exports to circumvent and bypass these contentious areas of the South China Sea and find a new artery in the West, and thereby decrease the possibility of the US-led interference.

But more than that, the CPEC offers immense opportunities for both countries to work together on a number of economic and development projects starting from Kashgar in Xinjiang and reaching Karachi and Gwadar, southern coastal cities in Pakistan via the Khunjerab Pass and several other nodal areas.

The visit is also expected to advance the wide-ranging bilateral cooperation agenda with the conclusion of a number of MoUs/agreements in diverse areas and consolidate the momentum of CPEC cooperation in the wake of the 11th meeting of the CPEC Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) on 27th October 2022.

Prime Minister Shehbaz is expected to sign the minutes of the JCC during this visit. The JCC has agreed to go ahead with the much delayed USD 10 billion Karachi to Peshawar rail line as a key part of the CPEC.

A few other agreements were made in the JCC meeting that included a new area of “Water Resource Management and Climate Change” which is of utmost significance in the wake of catastrophic floods in Pakistan that led to the destruction of gigantic proportions.

Another important topic would be the political situation in Afghanistan, which is facing a looming food crisis after the ill-planned withdrawal of the American forces in August last year.

The cash-strapped Afghanistan is facing two kinds of acute crises: political instability and humanitarian crisis.

Any spillover of the Afghanistan crisis, which is in close proximity to the CPEC route from Gwadar to Kashgar, poses serious threats to this mega project.

So, there is likelihood of elaborate discussions between President Xi Jinping and PM Shehbaz Sharif on this serious matter that may have a long-term impact on the overall project.

Both countries are eager to see peace and stability in Afghanistan. The terrorists – with bases in Afghanistan – have been involved in more than 250 terrorist activities in Pakistan in the last six months, specifically targeting the Chinese projects and assets to discourage the Chinese teams there.

Be it the Baloch nationalist movements or the Tehrik i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), both have strong base camps in Afghanistan, and they have been consistently targeting the CPEC projects in particular. This is the major cause of concern for both the countries.

Being the first head of government to personally congratulate President Xi Jinping on winning an unprecedented third term as President by the 20th National Congress of CCP, Shehbaz Sharif has definitely exhibited cordiality and warmth that is hallmark of exemplary friendship between the two countries.

In view of the determination and commitment of President Xi Jinping for the BRI and CPEC, Shehbaz Sharif is expected to return home with a lot of positivity and tangible hopes.

—The writer is political analyst, based in Karachi.

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