CPEC is slowing down and China is hesitant to finance Pakistan Railways. That doesn’t mean Beijing will back off.
Tara Kartha4 January, 2021 9:32 am IST
Pakistan Army officers at Corps Headquarters in Peshawar | @OfficialDGISPR
In a year that saw the world suddenly being brought to its knees, it might be academic suicide to try a little forecasting. But Covid or not, it is something that should be done within governments rather than the usual year-end ‘review’ that essentially ends up as a cut-and-paste exercise to hide bad assessments.
The task is not easy, but a forward look is vital to prevent nasty surprises from popping up, especially in a country that is located next to the powder keg that is Pakistan. This is going to be an exercise in gray with streaks of black, but it has to be done.
The first level of forecasting is somewhat easy – the army will continue to be the dominant force in Pakistan. But there’s a twist. A combined opposition while ranting against Prime Minister Imran Khan carefully stated that while it was against the ‘puppet’, and its controllers, it fully ‘respected’ the army. Even former PM Nawaz Sharif’s rant was directed against (extended) Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, together with the assurance that he had great regard for the army and its soldiers.
This is a tirade against the army chief in particular, which is curious since Sharif’s party actually supported Bajwa’s extension last year. As any army officer from a democracy will assert, extending an army chief’s tenure is bad news for everyone else down the line. As many as seven Generals were reported to have joined hands to block Bajwa’s extension when the Supreme Court decided to take it up. Expert opinion holds that 17 senior generals will retire if Bajwa completes his term, presumably in November 2022. That’s a lot of unhappiness.
It seems, therefore, that it is not entirely coincidental that the opposition in Pakistan is targeting Bajwa and his circle only. Add to that, the fact that he essentially ‘lost’ Kashmir to Article 370, and the circle is complete. The new year will not find an easy head at the top, either in the army, or by extension, in the Prime Minister’s Office. That, in turn, means that some adventurous action by Pakistan cannot be ruled out; not martial law, which is entirely unnecessary when the army is already in full control, but some populist action against enemy number one – India. Remember that General Pervez Musharraf came to power on the winds of Kargil. A group of generals could do the same.
The political maelstrom
Political forecasting is more difficult. The combined opposition in the form of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), unusually combining Left, Right and centrist parties, is being unified by the glue provided by the Pakistani ‘establishment’. There are few political leaders left who don’t have ‘accountability’ cases lodged against them, or have not been harassed in other ways. Fazlur Rehman has found his more than three-decade-old party split, with a breakaway faction under Maulana Sherani. Worse, Ali Wazir, the charismatic leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) found himself under arrest. Nawaz Sharif will have his passport withdrawn, while his strongman Khwaja Mohammed Asif was detained on accountability charges.
This onslaught may have created an ‘all for one and one for all’ spirit, but unity did come under strain when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) decided to contest Senate elections and by-elections, despite the PDM’s common agenda of mass resignations. But the 31 December deadline for this move has passed, and no party has done much about it. Neither is there any possibility that Imran Khan will resign by the demanded 31 January deadline.
Yet, each party has proved its strength to gather massive crowds at each venue, indicating that Pakistanis are ripe for change. The PDM cannot, however, sustain its jalsas at fever pitch indefinitely. It has to force a decision, and do it soon, probably through ‘Plan B’ – the threatened march to Islamabad or Rawalpindi. Sufficient numbers could spook the establishment into using force to disperse crowds. Which is probably why an offer of dialogue has been extended by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), even while it pooh pooh’s PDM unity. That offer has been rejected. Plan A or B, a crisis is possible by mid-2021 at least.
The economy suffers and so does CPEC
The boiling up of that crisis is directly linked to Pakistan’s dire economic situation where forecasts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), showing a yawning divide between GDP and inflation, are available, as does the World Bank’s, all of which are quite at variance with the rosy picture presented by the Pakistani State. To be fair, Pakistan was hardly alone in suffering the economic shock of the Covid pandemic and climate disasters. What is likely to hit is the slowdown of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), most apparent as the State Bank of Pakistan indicated a complete slump in imports of machinery, among other things, from China.
Reports also note Beijing’s hesitation to finance projects of the cash-strapped Pakistan Railways, while Pakistan is attempting to re-negotiate loans on the back of ‘malpractices’ by Chinese companies. If or when President Xi does visit Pakistan in 2021, what can be expected is large declarations and small investments, with the sum total not reaching anywhere near the much-acclaimed $60-billion mark. It’s the classic ‘chicken and egg’ situation. Pakistan needs more investment for growth, but it won’t come in till the economy does a little better. That doesn’t mean China is going to back off. But it does mean that there is no ‘game-changer’ available in 2021.
…And relations with India
In relations with India, forecasting is shaded with grays rather than an outright black. Faced with charges of having ‘sold out’ on Kashmir, the Pakistani government has reacted with full-blown invective, taking the Kashmir issue to every forum; produced a map claiming not just Kashmir but also Junagadh and Sir Creek; and is now providing a dossier on alleged Indian terrorism to anyone and everyone. Recently, Foreign Minister Qureshi, during his visit to the UAE, charged India with planning another surgical strike, and in a possible swipe at reinvigorated Indian diplomacy in West Asia, warned of attempts to garner approval from partners.
All of this is a decided black. Yet, Pakistan did not significantly up the ante during the recent District Development Council elections in Kashmir, nor (so far) open up a ‘third front’ when India is decidedly occupied with China.
The year 2021 will also see Pakistan adding Gilgit-Baltistan to its constitutionally mandated territory, in a significant ‘tit for tat’ move that should give it satisfaction. Meanwhile, both countries have carried on with the annual exchange of lists of nuclear installations and prisoners in each other’s territory, indicating they would carry on with standard activities despite neither having a High Commissioner in residence.
Overall, 2021 will see a significantly weaker Pakistan, across the parameters discussed here. It must be remembered, however, that Kargil occurred when Pakistan was reeling under severe financial stress after its nuclear tests of 1998, resulting in yet another ambitious general coming to power. Another adventure could serve to sideline the PDM, unify the army, and provide proof of Islamabad’s fidelity to Beijing. The trouble is it would have to be a successful adventure. That’s not so easy.
Yet, 1999 is not the same as 2021. Nawaz Sharif no longer has his thick mop of hair, and the future seems to be in the hands of youthful politicians like Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and the not-so-young Maryam Nawaz. Neither will move away from the army orbit. But there is little appetite internationally for Pakistan’s endless wars either against India or in Afghanistan. And that’s the crux of it all. In 2021, Pakistan will really have less reason to hold up its head and stare down its opponents. And everyone knows it. It’s just that someone has to tell that to the generals.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
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