Quietly, Sino-Pakistani projects gather pace

Naveed Ahmad says co-operation is focused on pragmatic concerns like energy, infrastructure

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 6:16am


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There's much more to Pakistan-China relations than meets the eye. Both nations never really talk of real co-operation that involves big money and grand strategies. High-profile state visits, which have enormous symbolic and political value, are no guide to the real depth of relations.

Whether it's the joint development of a multi-role fighter jet or transfer of nuclear reactors for power production, co-operation has proceeded without fanfare. Pakistan recently negotiated the purchase of a 1,000MW nuclear reactor, in addition to the two already functioning in Punjab province. Yet there was no mention of this during the just-concluded visit of Premier Li Keqiang.

His official statement referred to work on several hydro, thermal and wind power projects in Pakistan. Moreover, neither side released any details of defence deals. Pakistanis who maintain a love-hate relationship with Washington microscopically probe contracts inked with US firms, while Chinese officials and businessmen avoid public oversight of any sort by keeping a low profile.

China mostly manages to win contracts without participating in a competitive bidding process, a concern repeatedly raised by many friendly nations.

Li's maiden visit to Pakistan came at a time when the country is the process of installing a newly elected government amid a serious financial crisis. Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister and about a start a third term, is desperate for a miracle.

Addressing the Senate in Islamabad, Li said: "We are ready to work with Pakistan to speed up the project of upgrading the Karakoram Highway, actively explore and develop the long-term plans of building a China-Pakistan economic corridor, expanding our shared interests."

Beijing is clearly eyeing its long-term economic and strategic needs, but Pakistan's leaders are scratching the bottom of the exchequer to present a decent budget for the next fiscal year. Islamabad borrowed US$7.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund in 2008 but fears stringent conditions for any further loans. Pakistan needs soft loans on deferred payments for now, a deal China is not willing to offer.

Both nations seemed to have learnt from the visit of former premier Wen Jiabao . Of some 50 agreements and 350 memorandums of understanding that were signed, only a dozen have become legally binding and materialised.

So, instead, Li's team is pragmatically focusing on easing Pakistan's energy woes and investing in infrastructure development. After all, control over Gwadar Port will be virtually meaningless without a stable Pakistan and a reliable logistics corridor all the way to relatively underdeveloped western China.

Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic