How Pakistan’s new prime minister completes a favourable picture for China in the region

Posted: September 11, 2022 in South China Morning Post
Tags: , , , , ,

Still catching up on myself after my extended delinquency, here posting something about Pakistan in the wake of Shabhaz Sharif’s rise to power in the South China Morning Post. Think it still holds water reasonably well now, though I am not sure I quite see China seeing a field of friends across its border any more. Suspect it is more complicated than that, but then it always is. This coming week and the SCO Summit and President Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is going to be a really interesting attempt to connect with something. Be interesting to see how it plays out.

How Pakistan’s new prime minister completes a favourable picture for China in the region

– Shehbaz Sharif’s rise to power in Pakistan puts China in an advantageous position as its western neighbours all have governments friendly to Beijing.

– This also means China has a stake in the many problems that emanate from this region, though, and will be forced to take a more active role.

Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The election of Shahbaz Sharif as prime minister of Pakistan by legislators completes a series of events which place China in a favourable place in its Eurasian neighbourhood. Beijing now has a leader in Islamabad with whom it has had a successful relationship in the past.

China is also increasingly presenting itself as the closest partner to the new Taliban government in Kabul, and in Central Asia it faces a region where Russia – the other major power – is distracted by a disastrous war of its own choosing in Ukraine. China’s march of influence westward is continuing, but Beijing has still made no clear decision about what it will do with this influence.

When Nawaz Sharif – Shahbaz Sharif’s brother – was prime minister, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was jokingly called the “China-Punjab Economic Corridor” because many of the largest, juiciest investments appeared to be going to Nawaz Sharif’s home province of Punjab. At the time, the chief minister of Punjab was Shahbaz Sharif.

The reality is that the economic ­corridor’s investment has been fairly spread out around Pakistan, though completion rates seem better in Punjab and Sindh. However, it is worth noting that Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous region, so perhaps the focus of Chinese investment there is hardly surprising. 

The tilt towards Punjab also reflected the fact that Beijing liked Shahbaz Sharif and found him a competent leader to engage with. Pakistan has a challenging political and economic environment, and in Punjab China found someone who could deliver. 

Now Sharif has ascended to power after the tumultuous reign of former cricket star Imran Khan. While Beijing has been careful to avoid expressing a preference for one leader over another, China likes having decisive and effective leaders in charge.

Khan was acceptable because he was seen as being the military’s man initially. He was also happy to be outspoken in his support for Beijing while China came under fire for what is happening in Xinjiang. But China has faced growing problems in Pakistan in the past few years as its interests and nationals are increasingly targeted by militants. 

China has always been happy dealing with military men because of their ability to deliver on outcomes. Beijing was in many ways most content when former general Pervez Musharraf was in charge in Islamabad. A former commando, he tended to tackle problems headfirst and actively sought to make sure China was happy even when this caused him problems at home. 

But Sharif is an excellent alternative from Beijing’s perspective. This completes a picture for Beijing where it is dealing with authorities across its western borders with whom it seems satisfied. In Kabul, Beijing has shown itself to be a powerful player in tightly embracing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan government.

In Central Asia, China has a series of leaders who are either willing to quietly engage to advance whatever goals it wants or are actively eager to cultivate a positive economic relationship. In Kazakhstan, it has a leader who studied and worked in China and speaks Mandarin. This is a highly advantageous environment for Beijing. 

However, Central Asia is also a highly troubled region, as we have seen in the past 12 months with the collapse of the Republic of Afghanistan and the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Also, non-state groups in the region increasingly see China as an adversary they are eager to focus on.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor continues to be a narrative focus for Balochistan separatists in Pakistan, while Islamic State Khorasan has referred to China as an adversary in its literature and deployed a suicide bomber last October in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. At a less violent level, nationalists in Kyrgyzstan have expressed anger towards China and attacked Chinese nationals, while public polling across Central Asia often places China in a negative light.

Beijing thus faces a major dilemma on a shortening horizon. It can no longer claim to have only passive influence across its Eurasian borders or face hostile authorities in power. It now has governments in power across the board that seem eager to actively please China. This also means China increasingly has a stake in the many  problems that emanate from this region.

As the power closest to the governments in both Kabul and Islamabad, China now has little excuse for not trying to mediate the tense relations that continue to exist between the two capitals. As one of the largest investors in and increasingly the largest trading partner with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it will start to look odd if Beijing does not try to help the two smooth over their occasionally violent border relations.

Should further trouble erupt and Moscow is too preoccupied elsewhere to do something about it, Beijing will have to think about how it will manage the  situation. Its currently passive approach might not always work out.

China is increasingly the most  consequential actor in Eurasia, and it now has governments in power across the region who actively recognise that fact and are eager to please Beijing.

This both puts Beijing in a position of power but also one of great responsibility. It remains to be seen how China will rise to this challenge.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate  fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at  the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

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