Changes in Pakistan’s external environment have pushed it towards seeking a closer alliance with China. This is happening in response to the hardening of Washington’s position towards Islamabad in the context of Donald Trump’s evolving approach towards Afghanistan. The White House believes that America’s position in Afghanistan is due to Pakistan’s tolerance of extremists who are operating out of the sanctuaries they have established in the country’s tribal areas. The Trump administration is also developing close relations with India. In late November, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, went to India and was hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a study prepared for a Washington-based think tank, Shirin Tahir-Kheli and I concluded that Islamabad should give a clear message to Washington that while in the past it might have relied heavily on America’s financial assistance, that need not be the case any longer. Now, in China, Pakistan has a source for the needed capital. In the three periods when Washington was deeply engaged with Pakistan, capital inflows helped the country achieve high rates of economic growth. But Washington came into the country for its own reasons and left, often abruptly, when it no longer needed Pakistan.
But China has longer-term interests in the geographic space of which Pakistan is a part. The way China has begun to deal with its neighbourhood is sometimes referred to as ‘geo-economics’. This implies the use of economic instruments to achieve geopolitical goals. Robert Blackwill and Jennifer Harris explored the concept in their 2016 book War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft, calling China “the world’s leading practitioner of geo-economics, but it has also been perhaps the major factor in returning regional and global power projection back to an importantly economic (as opposed to political-military) exercise.”
Shunned and often scolded by the United States and shunted aside by Narendra Modi’s India, Pakistan has moved firmly into the Chinese orbit. This move will have positive consequences for both Pakistan and China. Given this dramatic shift in Pakistan’s external orientation, policymakers in Islamabad should keep a careful watch on how the Chinese are developing their approach to the world outside their borders. Three developments are influencing the way Beijing is looking at the world: reaction of the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, the consolidation of power in the hands of President Xi Jinping and the adoption by Beijing of a new economic growth model.
In a tweet followed by a television interview, President Trump called Xi the “king of China.” While the description is exaggerated, it does raise the question as to how Xi has been vaulted into a Chinese pantheon occupied only by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ is now celebrated as the guide to a ‘new era’ for China. The ‘new era’ is a term used repeatedly by Xi in his long address to the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party held in October 2017. Xi planned his rise carefully, using citizenry’s disgust with pervasive corruption in the Chinese political and economic systems to consolidate his hold. Pamir Consulting, a leading advisory firm working on China, provides some indication of the toll the anti-corruption drive has taken. The campaign led to the prosecution of 278,000 members of the Communist Party, including 440 ministerial or provincial officials, and 43 Central Committee members. The military was not spared, either. Under the campaign, 13,000 officers were sacked and more than 50 generals were imprisoned for corruption. Having thus cleared the decks, Xi brought in his own people. Of the 25 members of the Politburo, 17 are Xi’s allies while four of the seven members of the Standing Committee — the highest policymaking body in the country — are closely aligned with the president.
Having consolidated his hold over the Chinese system, Xi has begun to focus on the world at large. Five years ago when he was appointed Secretary General of the Communist Party and the country’s president, Xi spoke of China’s ambitions to be a regional power. In the long speech given at the 19th Party Congress, Xi raised his ambition and presented an agenda for China’s growth through 2050 that would turn his nation into a “modernised strong country that will dominate technology, finance and security and develop strong connections with the world.” Gideon Rachman, who contributes a widely read column to the Financial Times, recently wrote about Chinese challenge to the West. This is working on three fronts: ideological, economic and geopolitical. China’s political model can be sold to the rest of the world as an alternative to America’s promotion of democracy. In this endeavour, Beijing is being helped by the way Trump is governing in America. China is also increasingly confident that it can combine tight political control with continued rapid economic growth and technological innovation. China is now the leader in many new technologies. It is a leading presence in a range of fields, including robotics, drones, solar technology and artificial intelligence.
It is in geopolitics that China will have the greatest impact. While the United States has the capacity to challenge Beijing in the open seas, it is in land connectivity that the Chinese will rule supreme. The heavily promoted Belt and Road Initiative is aimed at developing “new markets for China across Eurasia — with infrastructure links across central and south Asia towards Europe and Africa,” notes Rachman. “Twenty Chinese cities are now connected to Europe by direct rail links and the amount of freight sent this way has quintupled since 2013, as routes such as Chengdu to Prague and Wuhan to Lyon establish themselves.” By placing itself in the Chinese orbit, Pakistan can take advantage of this evolving system based on the concept of ‘geo-economics’.