Instability in Pakistan may impact China ties, CPEC, IMF loans

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Beijing: China’s interactions with the new government in Pakistan may not have generated the necessary confidence to consolidate bilateral ties and in particular, give the necessary push to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

China never speaks publicly on internal matters of any country it deals with, more so, the “all-weather ally” Pakistan. But analysts note that President Xi Jinping’s telephonic talk with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the visit of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari have been cold and business-like and are shorn of the diplomatic rhetoric that generally marks such parleys.

Prime Minister Sharif’s suggestion that the CPEC be made trilateral and Turkey be included has added to the confusion. Sharif said this in Karachi while welcoming Turkish defence collaboration. It is not clear if it was a PR exercise with Turkey or if it has Beijing’s desire or consent. Beijing has not made public its reaction to this.

This adds to the slow and faltering progress on the CPEC projects, one of the main factors being security to Chinese personnel and property that successive Pakistan governments have failed to ensure.

Assuming China would like to include Turkey, it is coming when Turkey, having serious economic problems of its own is embroiled in the Ukraine war in Europe. This is also the period of political instability in Pakistan injected by the changes in April. They have persisted through May and shows no sign of abating, being further fuelled by the talks of early general elections.

China does not have electoral exercises like Pakistan, but is well aware of the uncertainties elections inject, before, during and after the polls. No long-term decisions are likely. It also notes the anti-American rhetoric on one side and, growing terror attacks against things with Chinese label on the other.

China this month closed down its Confucius Centres in Pakistan and its Chinese personnel returned home after the one on the Karachi University campus saw a woman suicide bomber, a Baloch, killing three Chinese who ran that centre. Other than CPEC, fatal attack on a cultural/educational institutions is a new challenge before China.

Speculation also persists that Pak army’s top brass is itself divided on whether to tactically support the Sharif Government and let it complete the remaining tenure of the National Assembly till July 2023, or let Imran Khan campaign for a snap poll, thus giving the latter “another chance.”

The army distrusts, in particular, London-exiled Nawaz Sharif, the three-time prime minister, who is seen as mentoring the government his younger brother leads.

Dawn newspaper in its editorial (May 22, 2022) writes of “parallel governance systems”, on one hand by those loyal to Nawaz scuttling key decisions meant to improve dire economic conditions, and on the other, those within the military-civil establishment who want Imran Khan back. Khan himself targets the government on every count and is slated to lead a ‘march’ on Islamabad on May 25.

Najam Sethi in his Friday Times editorial (May 21, 2022) underscored that polls could be held and completed in the next four months, for the new government to ‘select’ the next Army Chief. For the record, the present incumbent, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, already on extension, has let it be known that he is not keen to continue and may reject any further extension. The decision, either way, is crucial for the military to retain its hold over Pakistan’s polity that has come under unprecedented challenge.

The Pakistan Army has repeatedly declared itself ‘apolitical’, claiming to take no part in political goings-on. It has sought to curb lose media talk on its alleged role by injecting or strengthening a new factor in prosecution of critics, detention and trial of anyone who is found “attacking the state institutions,” the army in particular.

Analysts say not just the Chinese, the US and others will also want to watch Pakistan closely and this could delay the latter getting its urgently required bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

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