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Home >Opinion >Views >Pakistan seems all but trapped in a time warp of its own making

Pakistan might be reeling under debt and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) might be facing serious problems, but when it comes to Sino-Pakistan relations, rhetoric is all that matters. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, met in the south China island province of Hainan last week and grandly proclaimed that “the joint construction of the belt and road should be accelerated to bring more benefits to the two peoples." At a time when there are serious doubts about the viability of CPEC projects, it was important for the two nations to send out a message that all’s well. This $62 billion flagship project of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vanity agenda, the Belt and Road Initiative, is critical for the overall health of the Sino-Pakistan engagement, which is otherwise held together only by their anti-India foreign policy frameworks. Xi’s likely visit to Pakistan, deferred from earlier this year, has only added a sense of urgency to this dynamic.

China has been forced to pump in some more money and Pakistan has been forced to take on more debt only to sustain the façade of a productive economic engagement. Amid increased delays and a funding crunch, Pakistan has had to roll back several projects, and China has complained of security concerns and an inept administration. But then, there is always the India factor to tide over these mundane matters.

And so the second round of the China-Pakistan foreign ministers’ strategic dialogue saw the Pakistani side briefing “the Chinese side on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, including its concerns, position and current urgent issues", and the Chinese side reiterating that “the Kashmir issue is a dispute left over from history between India and Pakistan", which is an objective fact, and that “the dispute should be resolved peacefully and properly through the [United Nations] Charter, relevant Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements"; further, that “China opposes any unilateral actions that complicate the situation."

China has been trying to raise the Kashmir issue at the United Nations Security Council at the behest of Pakistan since last August, when India revoked Article 370, but has been repeatedly rebuffed by other powers. Yet, it has not given up, if only to show Islamabad how much it cares. In their joint statement, China underscored once again that Pakistan was “its staunchest partner in the region" and it would “firmly support" the country “in safeguarding its territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence" and in “striving for a better external security environment".

China’s growing salience in the Pakistani foreign policy calculus can also be gauged by the recent deterioration in Saudi-Pakistan ties. Earlier this month, Pakistan took a loan from China to repay a $1 billion Saudi loan that was called in after Islamabad tried to pile pressure on Saudi Arabia to mobilize the Islamic world on the issue of Kashmir. Riyadh had helped Islamabad with a $6.2 billion package in 2018 to tide over a serious economic crisis. But Pakistan’s Kashmir obsession led to a serious disagreement when Saudi Arabia declined to entertain Islamabad’s call for convening a special session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the Kashmir issue.

And then this month, against the backdrop of the first anniversary of Article 370’s revocation, Shah Mahmood Qureshi publicly challenged Riyadh, saying, “Today, I am telling the OIC to convene the meeting of the council of foreign ministers. If they cannot do it, then I will be compelled to ask the Prime Minister [Imran Khan] to call a meeting of Islamic countries [Iran, Turkey and Malaysia] that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir." At a time when fault-lines in the Islamic world are hardening and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to challenge Saudi Arabia’s role as guarantor of the Islamic world, this rant would have rankled in Riyadh.

In a damage-control exercise soon after, Pakistan’s army chief general Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Saudi Arabia on 17 August to placate the Saudi leadership. But more humiliation awaited him; unlike his past visits, he could not get to meet crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). These are remarkable developments in a longstanding relationship in which the Saudis have bailed out Pakistan repeatedly.

Given its economic dependence on Riyadh, Pakistan cannot afford to alienate Saudi Arabia. Islamabad is trying to rally China’s support, but it cannot replace what Riyadh has been able to offer. Not surprisingly, Pakistan has begun to backtrack and is trying to mend fences with the Saudi regime. But it is a sign of changing geopolitical realities that Riyadh is today keener on its ties with India than Pakistan. As MBS tries to modernize the Saudi economy by reducing dependence on oil, close economic ties with India are going to be critical.

A recent deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, resulting in the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the two, has further opened up possibilities in West Asia. India has been able to leverage its economic heft effectively, and, in the process, generated positive diplomatic externalities. While it would be far-fetched to suggest that there has been a permanent rupture in Pakistan- Saudi ties, the fact that Riyadh today doesn’t want to toe the Pakistani line when it comes to its engagement with India is a significant achievement of Indian diplomacy.

Pakistan’s reliance on China continues to grow, and bereft of other major partners around the world, Beijing’s control over Pakistan is only likely to get stronger. It is for Pakistan to decide if it is prepared to exist as a glorified colony of China. But even as the world changes rapidly, Pakistan’s India obsession has meant that its foreign policy choices are not governed by evolving ground realities, but by its ideological antipathy towards New Delhi. The times they are a-changin’ but Pakistan, it would seem, remains trapped in a time warp of its own making.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College London and director of research at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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