Pakistan looks to China for trade, investment and hope
By Duncan Bartlett
High level talks have reportedly been taking place in Beijing this week aimed at deepening China’s trading links with Pakistan. The two countries are gradually dismantling tariff barriers and it expected that Pakistan’s exports to China will rise by at least $500 million per year as a result of the revised China Pakistan Free Trade Agreement.
A photo taken on October 24, 2014 shows large numbers of vehicles stuck in traffic jam near Karachi, Pakistan. [Photo: dfic.cn]
Pakistan faces many challenges, including entrenched poverty in some areas, high unemployment and security issue. It has therefore welcomed China’s invitation to increase trade, create jobs and bring investment. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi used his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January this year to express gratitude towards China and its President Xi Jinping.
The Prime Minister said China plans to spend $55bn on infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of its Belt and Road initiative to create a network of trade routes across the world. He spoke of the many opportunities associated with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and he told his audience in Davos that he expects China to help pay for new power plants, highways and airports. He talked of the modernization of railways and ports. He said new economic zones for export growth would attract international investment.
Gwadar: “The new Dubai”
One of the first points along the Belt and Road route from China to Europe lies on the southwestern coast of Pakistan: the port city of Gwadar. Initially, it was a small fishing village. However, in the grand vision of the planners it will become the region’s leading deep sea port - perhaps even, they say, one day growing to rival the huge port city of Dubai.
A five star hotel has already been built in Gwadar to accommodate Chinese guests. Both Pakistan and China dream of skyscrapers and cranes gleaming in the Arabian sunshine.
Some Pakistanis worry about committing precious land and resources to China. Yet as Pakistan struggles to retain friends elsewhere in the West, its strategic partnership with China grows closer.
The Trump factor
China is a country which has stood by Pakistan’s government and promised to “respect its sovereignty” despite its fraught relationship with Afghanistan and criticism over whether it was complicit in harboring terrorists. Those issues cause friction with the United States, which has been an ally to Pakistan for seventy years.
At the start of this year, President Trump threatened to withdraw America’s financial support for Pakistan. He tweeted that Pakistan has taken $33bn of US aid over the past fifteen years and given back “nothing but lies and deceit.” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi called the comments “deeply offensive.”
A sense of hope
Washington is wary of Pakistan’s ties to Beijing and wishes to prevent China from dominating Asia economically and diplomatically. However, the United States cannot offer Pakistan much hope for the future. By contrast, China offers a vision of Pakistan as peaceful, prosperous nation held in international respect.
It will take decades to establish whether such bold promises can be achieved. For the time being, the priority for China is to build aspiration within Pakistan for a brighter future.
(Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former presenter on the BBC World Service. )