Nawaz Sharif’s Exit and the Pakistan-China-India Triangle: Why Islamabad Needs a Serious Re-Think
Photo Credit: Dunya News
By Tridivesh Singh Maini

Nawaz Sharif’s Exit and the Pakistan-China-India Triangle: Why Islamabad Needs a Serious Re-Think

Aug. 31, 2017  |     |  0 comments

All eyes in the next few months, into the elections of 2018, will be on how Nawaz Sharif, who  resigned last month, as Prime Minister of Pakistan after being disqualified from Parliament by the Supreme Court, will play his cards vis-à-vis the Pakistan army. Will Sharif, who was also forced to resign as president of his party, PML-N, adopt an aggressive posture with the Pakistan army, or play it smartly? In his first two tenures as Prime Minister, his tussles with the army led to his removal, in his third he did not share particularly cordial relations with them, though he was more cautious and decided to step down once he was disqualified him from parliament. Yet, during a series of rallies which he undertook in his removal from office, he did target the army.

Speaking at a rally in Jhelum, a few days after his resignation Sharif said, “You choose a prime minister by voting for him, but then a judge or a military dictator tears up your vote. This needs to change if Pakistan is to progress … The average for a democratically elected prime minister in Pakistan is a year and a half. Dictators rule the country for 10 years but a prime minister cannot even complete his tenure.”

The army itself would not like to go in for a direct conflict with Sharif, given that his disqualification has been criticized by many who are not Sharif supporters, by any stretch of the imagination. This time, there is a new challenger in the form of JuD’s (a front for the terrorist group LeT which was responsible for the Mumbai attacks) Milli Muslim League who many believe will be backed by the army to cut Sharif to size.

It remains to be seen whether the Milli Muslim League can really pose any threat to Sharif in Punjab, and to what degree will the Pakistan army back this outfit. For now, it seems as though there is no real challenge to the PML-N in Punjab.

Beyond the Domestic Ramifications

If one were to look beyond the domestic ramifications, the first point which needs to be closely examined is how China, a close ally of Pakistan, has reacted to the instability within Pakistan, given that it is investing a mammoth USD 54 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC project is being touted not just as a game-changer for Pakistan, but is being watched very closely by India, since it passes through the disputed territory of Gilgit and Baltistan.

China’s foreign ministry has said that Sharif’s disqualification will have no impact whatsoever on CPEC. Only recently, the two sides also signed a number of agreements in the presence of recently appointed Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang to expand their bilateral relationship and look for greater cooperation not just in the sphere of infrastructure but also education. Both sides referred to the close ties between both countries which have got further strengthened by CPEC.

China has close ties with Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, the Chief Minister of Punjab and supremo of the PML-N, and has given a rousing welcome to his visits. The Chinese have also praised him on numerous occasions for his efficiency and ability to deliver on key projects.

One of China’s worries is that a change of guard, especially the election of the opposition PTI led by former cricketer Imran Khan will affect CPEC, given its geographical routes. As noted in The Global Times, “Variable factors posed by the removal of Sharif will be remarkably decreased if PML-N or (Pakistan) People’s Party wins the 2018 election because Punjab and Sindh along the east route are the political centres of the two parties.”

All parties genuinely committed to democracy will have to shun a zero-sum approach towards India, and will need to realize that Islamabad’s foreign policy cannot be run from either Beijing or Rawalpindi.

Yet, at the same time, the Chinese are comfortable with the Pakistan army, and would prefer to avoid any political chaos or disorder which could have an impact on the high stakes CPEC project. The Pakistan army is especially important as it ensures the security of the corridor. China had cultivated strong ties with the previous army chief, General Raheel Sharif. During his visit to China in August 2016, General Sharif visited Xinjiang and promised to crack down on groups like East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

China has also made sure to reach out to current army chief, Qamar Bajwa. At a reception hosted earlier this month at Rawalpindi, Bajwa hailed the friendship between China and Pakistan, saying, “Pakistan is indebted to China for its unflinching support to our perspective at all international forums, may it be expansion of Nuclear Suppliers Group, Kashmir Issue, or Pakistan’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.”

Finally, the strident anti-India stance of the Pakistan army is more in sync with Beijing’s strategic goals. It is true that post 2014, Nawaz Sharif too had made some uncharacteristically intemperate remarks pertaining to Kashmir, while also stating that Pakistan will extend all support to separatists, calling it a “freedom struggle.” Yet, he was in favour of a more harmonious relationship towards India, and one of the reasons for his tussle with the army is India. Each time there was hope of some sort of détente between both countries, the Pakistan establishment sabotaged it with a terrorist attack, as happened following his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2015 in Ufa, which was followed by a terror attack in Gurdaspur. Modi’s impromptu stopover in Lahore on December 25, 2015, to congratulate Nawaz Sharif for his granddaughter’s wedding and to wish him for his birthday, was likewise followed by the Pathankot terror attack on an air force base.

Need for Rebalancing Ties

At some stage, Pakistan will need to seriously think about recalibrating its relationship with China. Not only is there growing resentment within sections of the political class from other provinces with regard to CPEC, this resentment can also be seen in Pakistan’s business community and sections of the intelligentsia.

Pakistani Senator Tahir Mashhadi, chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Planning and Development, even went to the degree of saying, “Another East India Company is in the offing; national interests are not being protected. We are proud of the friendship between Pakistan and China, but the interests of the state should come first.”

With India strengthening ties with Washington, and President Trump’s recent no holds barred attack on Pakistan, where he categorically stated that Islamabad was providing safe havens to militants on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, during his televised addressed to the US nation on August 21,Pakistan’s ties with China are likely to remain strong, but does this imply that Islamabad remain an appendage and not explore economic ties with other countries. A number of analysts in Pakistan have pointed to the case of Bangladesh, which has strong economic ties with China, but which has also cultivated strong ties with India and Japan. Dhaka has strengthened economic ties with both Tokyo and New Delhi, and reaped the benefits of a strong relationship with India over the past decade.

Why Reaching Out to India Makes Sense

In addition to the lack of institutions, excessive dependence upon one power has been cited as one of the reasons for Pakistan’s failure. After his victory in 2013, Sharif had spoken about the need for trade, not aid, hinting on the need for a more equal relationship based on self-respect and dignity. Shahbaz Sharif too had reacted to the US President’s August 21, speech by stating that Pakistan should put an end to US assistance given, the ‘exaggerated statements being made about the so-called financial help both at local and international levels’. Islamabad’s relationship with Beijing is also one sided, both politically and economically, and Pakistan can not avoid this uncomfortable truth.

It may thus be the right time for Pakistan to bite the bullet, and draw a cue from Dhaka’s wise and pragmatic approach of enhancing connectivity, and strengthening trade ties for its own benefit.

Post 2018, Sharif could be in a position to resume meaningful engagement with India. A tougher stance against terror groups like JEM and LeT which now has a political front would be necessary. In the long run, all parties genuinely committed to democracy will have to shun a zero-sum approach towards India, and will need to realize that Islamabad’s foreign policy cannot be run from either Beijing or Rawalpindi, for the country’s progress and strengthening of democratic institutions.

Apart from this, it is important for India to grab opportunities, and pay closer attention to the resentment brewing against China, and the propping up of a new political outfit in Punjab and its ramifications. India needs to be pragmatic, and while there are not too many windows of opportunity, it should not lose out on those which are available.

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