Pakistan and China had been maintaining excellent cooperation in the fields of politics, economy, trade, culture and tourism. Many who have travelled to or lived in Pakistan have a deep impression of the special warmth with which the Pakistani people treat Chinese people. For a long time now, “Pak dear” (“巴铁”) has become a buzzword in China symbolizing friendly relations between China and Pakistan.
On the 6th of this month, work formally started on the Karachi-Lahore highway, the largest road project under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. As a flagship project of the “One Belt One Road” initiative, every bit of progress made in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has attracted worldwide attention . But there are also news about the unrelenting protests against the CPEC in Pakistan. Some anti-government protesters have even raised the banner of “Chinese people get lost”. Some people are puzzled by this. How come “Pak dear” is no longer that “dear”? And some others think this is an indication that the future of China-Pakistan political and economic relations may be uncertain. However, Pakistan’s so called opposition to CPEC is nothing but a “ploy for covering up the real intentions”; China is not the actual target of the protesters.
Pakistan had never been a monolithic country. On the one hand, Pakistan is an ethnically diverse country, with differences in political ideologies and economic interests existing between the major ethnic group (Punjabis, accounting for 63% of the population) and minor ethnic groups (Sindhis, Pashtuns and Baluchis). And the Army, an independent interest group, is often at odds with the democratically elected government. It is a political characteristic Pakistan won’t be able to get rid of soon. On the other hand, the greatest problem with Pakistan’s economy is lack of self-reliance. The domestic savings rate is only 8.5% and investment rate also a mere 15%. Lack of investment is causing Pakistan’s domestic infrastructure bottlenecks to become more prominent. The economy has already fallen into a low-level equilibrium, and their only choice of breaking out of this block is to count on outside funding. In the eyes of different interest groups of Pakistan, the projects along the CPEC and the large influx of Chinese investment thus attracted is nothing but a huge piece of cake.
Right from the time of commencement of preparations for implementation of CPEC, it has been drawn into a war of interests. The Pakistan government had initially insisted on giving priority to the construction of the eastern-line of the project, which aroused protests from many political parties and provinces like Baluchistan. So the war of interests for this piece of cake always existed between the Pashtuns and Baluchis along the western-line and the Punjabis along the eastern-line. The western-line was at a disadvantage in this contest because of the poor natural conditions, sparse population, backward economy and poor security situation. In Pakistan, the game of economic interests is often not limited within the Parliament, it will also evolve into a variety of street violence and armed conflict, and this is the reason for the war of interests surrounding the CPEC within Pakistan as we know it.
Of late, the Pakistan military also is demanding the right of speech regarding the CPEC project because of the huge significance the project carries towards national defense. In future, whether the Sharif government will be able to find an equilibrium between these different interest groups is an unresolved question. Nevertheless, these are clearly not issues that pertain to the CPEC itself. If Pakistan can find a balance among the competing interests, it will in fact also lead to a corresponding reduction in the risk of uncertainty faced by Chinese investment in Pakistan.
There is a picture of a Pakistani person holding a banner showing “Chinese people get lost” circulating over the net. In fact the name signed below the slogan is of an armed separatist organization which was declared as a terrorist outfit and banned by the Pakistan government as early as 2013. In Pakistan, anti-China sentiment had always been non-mainstream, even in the non- mainstream the most marginalized. Maintaining friendly relations with China is indeed a rare consensus between the ruling and opposition parties. Apart from the existing mutual trust accumulated in political economic and trade cooperation, this also is decided by Pakistan’s strategic security environment.
(The writer is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Asia-Pacific and Global Strategy in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)