As the Prime Minister boarded PAK 002 bound for Beijing, what was on his mind? We can only speculate.
Once the Gulfstream JG450 jet reached cruising altitude, he was probably finetuning his overarching negotiation strategy. As he sat watching the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, in which only a single Pakistani athlete was participating, he was probably pinning down the negotiation tactics with his cabinet ministers.
The economy’s revival must have topped the list. Prior to the journey, he had a web-based conversation with the people of Pakistan. He told a caller that inflation was the only problem that kept him up at night. But in the next sentence, he dismissed his responsibility for fixing the problem, by saying that inflation was a global problem.
Imran Khan is now in his fourth year. At the beginning, he committed to creating an Islamic Welfare State: a combination of the early Islamic state in Madinah, Swedish social democracy and Chinese economic policies. Such a state is nowhere in sight. It is based on an impossible premise.
In the meantime, three finance ministers have come and gone. The fourth one is in office. Inflation is not the only economic woe facing Pakistan. The economy is bedeviled by the “twin deficit syndrome.” When Covid slowed the economy down, imports began to line up with exports. As the economy began to pick up, imports began to outpace exports. In the federal budget, expenditures outrun revenues. Even the 5% growth rate in GDP that the government is projecting won’t make a difference, since it is being applied to a low base.
The pandemic is experiencing a resurgence and some medical experts are calling for a lockdown. However, the Prime Minister is hesitating because it would further impair his prospects.
Pakistan is caught in a vicious circle, borrowing repeatedly to pay off its past debts. Several economists have described this miasma, including Kaiser Bengali, Ashfaq Hasan Khan, Hafeez Pasha and Atif Mian.
Despite the devaluation of the Rupee – it stands at $0.0057 –exports have not picked up to offset the rise of imports. The economy has little manufacturing capacity and there is little world demand for Pakistan’s exports. The trade deficit is not going away.
As a byproduct of his visit to Beijing, Imran Khan has been invited to visit Moscow later this month to chat with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Russia is sensing an opportunity to create its version of the Quad by lining up with China, Pakistan and other countries
Tax revenues can’t keep up with government spending, much of which is spent on unproductive categories such as defense, with no oversight. The budget deficit is not going away.
Imran must have hoped that he would persuade the Chinese to kick-off Phase II of CPEC and invest in the special economic zones that have been carved out on the map. Perhaps he would have hoped to get some additional loans from China, to supplement the $3 billion loan from Saudi Arabia and the $6 billion loan from the IMF.
Second, he must have hoped that China would assist Pakistan in the economic and social revival of Afghanistan, where the situation is grim. Several Pakistani soldiers stationed near the border are being attacked and killed at will. The Afghans have not shown much interest in getting Pakistani advice or technical assistance.
Third, he must have hoped to learn from the Chinese on how to rein in dissidents such as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and Tehreek-e-Labbayk Pakistan (TLP). He knows –but cannot talk about – measures taken in the case of the Muslim population of Xinjiang.
Fourth, he must have pondered if he could persuade China to work with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council to pass a binding resolution calling on India and Pakistan to allow an UN-sponsored plebiscite to be held in Kashmir. Nothing short of that would break the logjam in the disputed territory.
Fifth, he must have considered if he could get new weaponry from the Chinese to placate the armed services at home, which would help ensure his continuing as Prime Minister.
Finally, he must have wondered if he could create strategic space for Pakistan so that it would be able to ward off the challenge posed by the Quad, which is led by the US and including arch-rival India.
That, presumably, was his agenda. However, one wonders what he did actually achieve.
All we have to go on is a 29-point summary, which is almost entirely qualitative in nature. Much of the verbiage consists of time-worn platitudes about all-weather friendship and iron brotherhood. But there are a few new things.
Pakistan is now claiming that not only is Taiwan a part of China, but so is Hong Kong and, most interestingly, Tibet. The people in Hong Kong have accepted the new political reality. The ones in Taiwan have not. In fact, Taiwan may emerge as a flashpoint between the US and China. Pakistan would have to reconsider how far to get involved in that clash.
China has agreed to kick-off CPEC Phase II and Chinese businesses are being encouraged to invest in Pakistan’s special economic zones. How much investment will flow into Pakistan? Some really optimistic numbers are beginning to be thrown around on social media, ranging between $10-20 billion. It is unlikely that these investments, if and when they materialise, will offset the limitations being placed on Pakistan by the IMF: higher income tax rates, higher energy prices, and tighter monetary and fiscal policies.
China has stated that no unilateral change should be made in Kashmir. The statement is anemic, fatuous and vague. It won’t change the ground realities.
No specific solutions are mentioned that would stabilise Afghanistan, other than potentially inviting it to join CPEC.
On the defense front, no new purchases were announced. Last month, Pakistan announced it had purchased Chinese J-10C Firebird fighter jets, to offset India’s acquisition of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters.
As a byproduct of his visit to Beijing, Imran Khan has been invited to visit Moscow later this month to chat with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Russia is sensing an opportunity to create its version of the Quad by lining up with China, Pakistan and other countries. It needs them to push back on the US, especially if Russia decides to invade Ukraine. Pakistan has little to gain by siding with Russia.
Only time will tell if Imran Khan’s visit represents a turning point in Sino-Pakistani ties, or just more of the same. While China has indeed invested heavily in Pakistan, and provided substantial military hardware over time, it did nothing to prevent the breakup of Pakistan in 1971, nor did it come to Pakistan’s aid in the Kashmir war of 1965 or the skirmish over Kargil in 1999.
Pakistan should avoid getting into a China-Russia alliance to counteract the West. That geopolitical trap will be just as bad as the debt trap at home.