South Asia

China's Shadow Falls Upon the Pakistan Elections – Which Way Is Beijing Leaning?

While Imran Khan may have spoken about course correcting Pakistan’s foreign policy in the past, Beijing has had a much more comfortable relationship with the PML-N, especially with Shehbaz Sharif.

It is risky to predict the outcome of the upcoming Pakistan elections (analysts should avoid forecasts and stick to key trends). Most analysts believe that the Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has gained ground (as a consequence of support from the establishment, as well as from the sentencing of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz) and Shehbaz Sharif has not been able to mobilise cadres in a manner that his brother Nawaz Sharif could have.

What is conveniently discounted is the Sharif brothers’ popularity in the province of Punjab, which accounts for a substantial chunk of seats in parliament. Nawaz Sharif’s charisma and Shehbaz Sharif’s stellar governance record have done the trick in the past (in the parliamentary election of 2013, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) won a whopping 116 seats out of a total of 148 seats in Punjab). In the last decade, since the lawyers’ movement, there has also been an overall change in the Punjabi mindset (which was considered to be pro-establishment).

China’s comfort level with Shehbaz

Many analysts are also overlooking the fact that while Imran Khan may have recently made some significant remarks in the context of China, even going to the extent of saying that he would follow a similar economic model were he to come to power, and spoken about a course correction in Pakistan’s foreign policy in the past, Beijing has had a much more comfortable relationship with the PML-N, especially with Shehbaz Sharif, who it has praised for his efficiency. Shehbaz has managed to build a close rapport with the Chinese leadership and visited China in 2013, as well as in 2016.

Shehbaz Sharif. Credit: Reuters

Shehbaz Sharif. Credit: Reuters

Vice-minister of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Zheng Xiaosong, while praising the younger Sharif for his efforts and efficiency, went on to say that the title of “Punjab Speed” has now changed to “Shehbaz Speed”.

When Shehbaz was elected PML-N President, Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) International Department minister Song Tao sent a congratulatory letter to Shehbaz saying that the latter was: “an old friend of China who has made a commendable contribution to the enhancement of relations between our two countries and our two parties”.

Apart from Shehbaz Sharif’s administrative skills, the Chinese also realise that Punjab is key to the success of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), since some of the important projects of the CPEC are in Punjab. Hence, stability is crucial.

Chinese ambiguity vis-à-vis Imran Khan

On the other hand, Beijing has not been clear about its opinion of PTI chief Imran Khan even though a number of meetings have been held. In February 2016, Imran Khan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Pervaiz Khattak met with the Chinese ambassador and articulated their reservations with regard to CPEC. In October 2016, during his meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Sun Weidong, Imran Khan dubbed ‘CPEC’ as a gamechanger for Pakistan. The meeting was organised in the context of protests launched by his party, after Nawaz Sharif had been implicated in the Panama Leak and there was still no action initiated against him.

One of the key reasons for the meeting was the Chinese worry that Imran Khan was trying to sabotage the CPEC project through these protests. In December 2016, at a rally, Khan stated that while he had no problem with CPEC, he wanted greater transparency and demanded that three smaller provinces get their due. He said, “Our fight is against the federal government, not China. CPEC is a great gift from China and it can change the destiny of Pakistan. We want the prime minister to honour the pledges he made at the All Parties Conference in Islamabad.”

Imran Khan. Credit: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

For CPEC project to move smoothly, and in the long-term if China wants India to explore economic cooperation with Pakistan and China under the CPEC framework, it is essential for Pakistan to have a government which is keen to promote substantial economic linkages with India.

In this context, PML-N fits the bill. Shehbaz Sharif has a better relationship with the army as compared to Nawaz Sharif. Having been the chief minister of Punjab, he realises the benefits of better economic ties with India and has played a positive role in trying to improve links between the two Punjabs. In December 2013, Shahbaz visited his ancestral village Jatti Umra in India. In December 2017, when North India was engulfed in smog, he wrote to his Indian counterpart in Punjab (Amarinder Singh) to work jointly and find a solution.

While it is true that Imran Khan may be the favourite of the establishment and the Chinese rapport with Shehbaz does not mean that they will seek to directly influence the election result (though they would have put forward their views to the establishment). China would prefer a PML-N government led by Shehbaz Sharif rather than an Imran Khan led government, given the fact that he is unpredictable and inexperienced in governance and seems to lack a cohesive economic agenda. The Sharifs, on the other hand, with all their other shortcomings, are pro-business and have been successful in implementing big ticket projects.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based policy analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.