Saturday, October 31st, 2020
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The PTI government in its relatively short time in office has betrayed a tendency to go off half-cocked on important policy decisions and then be forced, once the implications come back amidst fresh controversies virtually every day, to retreat (popularly castigated as a habit of taking U-turns). The latest example of this style of governance is provided by the federal Minister of Planning and Development Khusro Bakhtiar being forced to deny in a press conference that Saudi Arabia was being made part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) framework. The federal Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhry accompanying Bakhtiar had announced two weeks ago that Saudi Arabia was being included in CPEC to turn it into a trilateral arrangement. Now Khusro Bakhtiar had to step in to do damage control amidst reports that China is perturbed at not being consulted prior to the announcement regarding Saudi Arabia's entry into CPEC. These reports say Pakistan didn't consult China before including Saudi Arabia despite China's assurances to the new PTI government that they were open to changes through mutual consultation. It would be well to remember that soon after its induction into office, the PTI government sent out mixed, if not negative vibes about CPEC, including interviews and statements by federal cabinet ministers and advisers hinting at concerns about the enormous debt burden being incurred by Pakistan because of Chinese investment in infrastructure, etc. The fact is that both countries had agreed to keep CPEC a bilateral project until 2020. China agreed to open CPEC to include Afghanistan in 2017. However, Pakistani officials say since the situation in Afghanistan is not improving, so Saudi Arabia has been included.

This manoeuvring by the government to include Saudi Arabia in CPEC without prior consultation with the principal stakeholder and financier of the whole project, i.e. China, smacks of an unprecedentedly unilateral approach. The Chinese may value our long-standing friendship enough not to embarrass us publicly on this, but the fact that they have been bypassed hardly constitutes wisdom. The Chinese Ambassador has come on record as pledging to reconsider CPEC or any of its detailed projects through mutual consultation. Pakistan cannot, indeed should not attempt to bypass or ignore our friendly benefactor. Although Khusro Bakhtiar spoke of other countries also joining CPEC, this cannot be dictated to China as a unilateral fiat. After all they are the ones investing $ 50 billion plus in a country that is hardly the destination of choice for global investors. Pakistan has ended up embarrassing if not annoying both allies - China and Saudi Arabia. This is hardly the way to conduct sensitive and delicate negotiations with actual or potential benefactors. The government's hope to get enough economic and financial help from China and Saudi Arabia (and possibly the UAE) to be able to avoid the IMF is hardly likely to be helped by this hasty, ham-handed manner of conducting economic diplomacy with strategic implications. The government is angling for deferred payments again for oil from Saudi Arabia and asking Riyadh to deposit funds with us to stave off a foreign currency reserves crunch. China has also been asked for similar deposits. But with this latest gaffe in the conduct of foreign relations, especially with two such critical allies, the government may well end up falling between both stools and be left in the tender embrace of the IMF after all.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2018

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