In some ways, the very notion of a China-Pakistan year of friendship is misleading as China and Pakistan have enjoyed a decades long all-weather friendship that continues to strengthen, especially since Belt and Road connectivity has resulted in the inauguration of CPEC. But as a further sign of good will, during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), Pakistan’s Ambassador in Beijing, Masood Khalid declared that this year is to be specifically designated at one of China-Pakistan friendship.
Whilst this is a deeply fraternal gesture, it is imperative that the year of China-Pakistan friendship must entail more than just mutual feelings of warmth between the two neighbours. Instead, this year of friendship must also entail specific actions steps that can help the all-weather partnership to become all the more beneficial for both Pakistanis and Chinese.
The following steps can therefore be taken to insure maximum success for this year of bilateral friendship:
It has long been a misnomer in many geopolitical quarters that Belt and Road is somehow an exclusively Chinese driven initiative whilst likewise, similar voices indicate that CPEC is just a bilateral project between Pakistan and China. In reality, Belt and Road is a multilateral initiative that was first proposed by China, but it is one in which multiple partners in the wider Afro-Eurasian space are invited to collectively participate in win-win partnerships in which all sides bring new and exciting proposals to the table. The aims of such ultra-modern connectivity projects can be achieved best through working towards bespoke solutions aimed at expanding trade, capital exchange and cultural exchange across a wide array of multilateral partnerships.
CPEC in particular is not just a road leading from China to Pakistan’s port at Gwadar, but it is instead a global artery that plays a crucial role in ultimately linking China’s Pacific coast with not just the Indian Ocean region, but the wider Afro-Mediterranean region beyond Gwadar.
As such, Pakistan and China share a unique position in being able to explain to potential CPEC partners, the vast potential that investing in CPEC related projects holds. Already, largely because of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s diplomatic skills, Pakistan has transformed the UAE from a country which may have sought to rival Gwadar, into a solid partner that is now working with Pakistan on a win-win basis that looks to ensure Pakistan’s internal development. This of course necessarily indicates a boost for Gwadar and other key development zones.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s major investment to construct an oil refinery at Gwadar is a further example of win-win bilateral relations blossoming into win-win multilateral relations thanks to the global magnetism of CPEC. As China has always sought to attract the maximum amount of global capital towards all of its Belt and Road connectivity initiatives, Saudi investment in Gwadar is not just good for the local economy, but good for CPEC and Belt and Road more widely.
As Imran Khan further looks to enhance partnerships with Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar, there is every possibility that a wide variety of nations which have warm relations with Islamabad, will come to play a critical role in ensuring the success of CPEC on a win-win basis.
The task for Pakistan therefore is to expose this great potential to partner nations who may not yet fully realise that CPEC is all about building wider multilateral cooperative partnerships based on maximising the greatest amount of opportunity for the largest number of partner nations.
–Fighting Provocations Through Human-to-Human Connectivity
A largely western backed campaign of disinformation about the lives of Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has a clear geopolitical goal. The aim is to foster discontent among the Ummah (global Islamic community) but among Pakistanis in particular, which will ultimately be aimed at China’s state institutions. Were such provocations to succeed, they could jeopardise not only CPEC, but Pakistan’s long standing all-weather friendship with China.
Fortunately, both the Pakistani government and ordinary Pakistanis have collectively rejected this calculated provocation and instead, more and more Pakistanis are telling the wider world about their own positive experiences in Xinjiang. The inauguration of a new bus route from Lahore into Xinjiang can further help to break the information barrier by allowing Pakistanis to have easier access to Xinjiang and its rapidly developing urban centres.
As a country which thanks to the PTI government is pivoting back to a position of geopolitical non-alignment, the voice of Pakistanis regarding the vastly improved economic and social situation in Xinjiang is invaluable. Pakistani Muslims whose country neighbours China necessarily offer the world a level of credibility regarding Xinjiang that those from further abroad simply cannot. The asset that is human experience through direct connectivity should be used to the advantage of a wider campaign for peace and respect for every country’s cultural characteristics.
By enhancing opportunities for more cross border commerce and human-to-human connectivity, Pakistan and China can help to expose the blatant Sinophobic provocations regarding Xinjiang for what they are, whilst simultaneously working to strengthen cooperation in multiple sectors.
–Countering Extremism Through Education
China’s education system is among the finest in the world and beyond this, China’s ability to provide a high quality education even in remote and rural areas, serves as a important model for other nations looking to strengthen social harmony and economic productivity by creating a more educated and informed populace. For Pakistan, the war against extremism has two parts. First of all, there is the direct neutralisation of terrorism by the professionals of the Army and ISI and secondly, extremism is combated through an intensified drive to renew educational and vocational standards in parts of Pakistan that are susceptible to foreign backed anti-Pakistani extremism.
Just as 2013 saw PTI revolutionise the social environment in KP province, so too can other regional and national leaders in Pakistan learn from China’s own experiences in elevating the condition of the people through carefully regimented, modern and effective methods of education.
Education helps to fight poverty and the extremism which thrives in the swamp of poverty. Therefore, China and Pakistan can both share mutually important experiences in how improving education has helped to improve society for both the young and old and consequently build upon these experiences to continually develop ever better education methods.
Cultural exchange, whether in the arts, sport or sharing in one another’s national traditions is vitally important to building a partnership which involves not only megaprojects like CPEC and cooperation in the spheres of economic develop and security, but it further helps to demonstrate that cooperation is also able to feed the human desire for personal enlightenment and fraternal relations.
China’s continued drive for economic opening up and the Naya Pakistan that last year’s political change has ushered in, makes new areas of cultural cooperation all the more possible. For example, Pakistani cricketers could organise test matches in China, thus introducing Chinese to Pakistan’s most popular sport. Furthermore, Pakistan’s rich musical heritage could be brought to Chinese concert halls from Hong Kong to Beijing. Likewise, Chinese drummers, acrobats, scientists and stage actors could demonstrate their talents throughout Pakistan – thus benefiting both countries immensely. Cultural exchange can never be underestimated as a means of pursuing better holistic bilateral relations over extended periods of time.
A China-Pakistan year of friendship offers the perfect opportunity to expand these areas of exchange.
Because of the long and sustained friendship between the Chinese and Pakistani people, it is necessary to intensify these warm relations during a specifically designated year of friendship. Such win-win mutual pursuits across a variety of fields will serve to bring the two nations closer together at a time when key bilateral and multilateral friendships can help to overcome both external pressures and the growing pains implicit in any supreme drive towards long term sustainable development.