Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff in July this year categorically described the core of China-Pakistan relations. A report from Pakistani newspaper Dawn (August 3 2023) described his comments as follows: “Pakistan and China on vowed to cement their “all-weather” and “robust” ties with Chief of the Army Staff Gen Asim Munir noting the bilateral relationship has proven its resilience in the face of all challenges and President Xi Jinping reiterated that Beijing would always stand firm with Islamabad regardless of any change in the international landscape.
Speaking as chief guest at the 96th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China commemorated at GHQ, the army chief felicitated the PLA and lauded its role in China’s defense, security, and nation-building. While highlighting various facets of the deep-rooted ties between the two states, militaries, and peoples, he said, “Pakistan-China relationship is unique and robust that has proven its resilience in the face of all challenges.” Gen Munir stated that PLA and Pakistan Army were brothers in arms and “our relationship will continue to contribute towards safeguarding our collective interests”.
Chinese president assures Pakistan of ‘unwavering support. Meanwhile, President Xi said China would always stand firm with Pakistan regardless of any change in the international landscape and emphasized that both countries would continue to improve overall planning and deepen cooperation. In his congratulatory message on the Decade of CPEC, he said the two countries would continue to work jointly to carry forward the ironclad friendship, coordinate development and security, besides pursuing cooperation of higher standards. He said Beijing and Islamabad would also keep working to take their all-weather strategic cooperative partnership to new heights to make an even greater contribution to peace and prosperity in the two countries and the region. In the message,
President Xi said China would work with Pakistan to achieve high-standard and sustainable outcomes, and further build CPEC into an exemplary project of the Belt and Road Initiative. He said that China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was a flagship project of BRI and since its launch in 2013, both countries had been advancing it under the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits. The Chinese leader said CPEC had added new impetus to the economic and social development of Pakistan and laid a foundation for regional connectivity and integration. He said CPEC served as “a vivid testament to the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan”, and stressed the need for both nations to continue to improve overall planning and scale up bilateral cooperation under it.” Army Chief General Munir’s comment is of crucial importance because the foreign policy of the country is dictated by the army and has been so for decades. An exception was made for the first time in many years when Prime Minister Imran Khan was displaced by his colleagues in Parliament and lately, he has been sent to jail as his appeal was dismissed by the Pakistani Supreme Court challenging Imran Khan’s earlier appeal of sentencing him to prison.
The Imran Khan Conundrum
The Washington Post reported (August 9, 2023) that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif recommended dissolving Pakistan’s Parliament paving the way for a new election after his detained predecessor, Imran Khan, was banned from holding public office for five years.
Shortly afterward, President Arif Alvi approved the dissolution, just days before the Parliament’s term was to expire. Imran Khan who was arrested a few days back after a court sentenced him to three years in prison for corruption, could have been a top contender in the upcoming vote. As Imran Khan’s lawyers seek his release, Pakistan may now face weeks of political upheaval that could provide an opening for the country’s powerful military to seize more control while the interim caretaker government of Anwarul Haq Kaka takes over.
Most states have armies. In Pakistan, the army has a state. Imran Khan denies the accusations of concealing assets from the sale of state gifts during his time in office, and his legal team has appealed his conviction at a high court in Islamabad. But a hearing that followed did not result in his release on bail. The decision by Pakistan’s electoral commission to almost immediately bar him from office as a result of the conviction is “premature,” Imran Khan adviser Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari opined. He added that the “government is trying to eliminate Khan from the political landscape of Pakistan.”
The intent, Zulfiqar Bukhari said, is to bog Imran Khan down with “frivolous” cases. While the military and security forces have regained control after violent pro-Khan protests in May challenged their authority, the Pakistani leadership does not appear to have succeeded in breaking Imran Khan’s popularity among voters and supporters of his party, Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), or PTI.
Imran Khan was arrested after receiving a jail sentence for corruption “If general elections are held, the PTI will sweep the polls, not only in this province but across the country,” said a staunch supporter of a rival party. The unbroken enthusiasm for Imran Khan among many voters in northwestern Pakistan, where his party had struggled in recent years, suggests that his arrest is deepening a divide between the Pakistani establishment and people who feel disenfranchised.
While many voters cite easier access to health care and other popular policies introduced during Khan’s term, some also still admire the former cricket star for securing Pakistan’s victory at the Cricket World Cup in 1992, a triumph that paved the way for his quick rise in politics.
In an interview with the BBC before his arrest, Imran Khan had predicted that his party would continue to win in elections. “And because of that, they’re dismantling our democracy,” he said. While analysts agree that Imran Khan remains popular, some worry that his rhetoric is fueling tensions. “There is no sign of Khan losing support,” Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani political commentator, wrote in the Dawn newspaper recently.
Can Imran Khan Damage Pakistan’s Democratic Process?
Hussain cautioned that Imran Khan’s effort “to bring down the entire edifice” with his populist rhetoric “has done huge damage to the democratic process.” “A prolonged and empowered caretaker administration backed by the security establishment seems to be very much on the cards, putting democratic transition on hold,” Hussain wrote.
Many political analysts expect the Pakistani leadership to find a way to circumvent the requirement to hold elections within 90 days of the dissolution of Parliament. A Pakistani political commentator said the current governing coalition may be worried about how its 15-month term, which began after Khan was ousted by Parliament in April 2022, will be judged by voters if memories of its performance are still fresh. “This government has been unable to lessen the suffering of people when it comes to inflation and high prices,” he said.
But any government would probably have struggled to succeed, “given the precarious economic situation” when the coalition government took over from Imran Khan last year, he added. The Pakistani political analyst said Sharif’s government could also highlight progress on restoring ties with other countries, including the United States, over the past 15 months, after Imran Khan frustrated U.S. officials by suggesting that they were behind a conspiracy against him. But the government’s most consequential legacy may become its inability to address the deeper frustrations of Imran Khan’s supporters, with many feeling increasingly disconnected from political elites.
“What seems undeniable is that respect for orderly democratic processes in Pakistan has suffered a particularly severe blow over the last 15 tumultuous months,” wrote Marvin G. Weinbaum, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan studies program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an analysis. For Pakistan, it might be a blow “from which it may not recover,” he wrote. The possibility that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif was planning to debar Imran Khan’s political party, Tahreek-I-Insaf from the forthcoming general elections has come to a pass after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif recommended dissolving Pakistan’s Parliament paving the way for a new election after Imran Khan, was banned from holding public office for five years. Shortly afterward, President Arif Alvi approved the dissolution, just days before the Parliament’s term was to expire on Saturday. Imran Khan was arrested after a court sentenced him to three years in prison for corruption.
Crossing the floor due to corruption is nothing new in Pakistani politics, and more so when the Army has abandoned Imran Khan. It may be recalled that Imran Khan came to power as the blue-eyed boy of the army in 2018 and remained Prime Minister for four years.
After his ouster, Imran Khan accused the US administration of collusion with the Pakistan Army for his dismissal. The allegation was flatly denied by the Joe Biden administration. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif flew to London for guidance from his elder brother Nawaz Sharif, a three times Prime Minister, now living in exile accused of corruption charges. The problem of Shahbaz Sharif is that in the last provincial election in his home province of Punjab, he was resoundingly defeated by Imran Khan’s Tahreek-I-Insaf party. Imran Khan who remains immensely popular as a cricket legend in Pakistan was likely to repeat his impressive win if he was allowed to participate in the coming general elections. His future however remains in the dark. Pakistan has been suffering from an Orwellian system of governance as described by George Orwell in his famous book NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.
Violence is not new to Pakistan that started with the assassination of the first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan and subsequently of Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister in the Muslim world was assassinated in December 2007. A decade later, Parvez Musharraf, the general in charge of Pakistan at the time and President of Pakistan from 2001-2008, has suggested people in the establishment could have been involved in her murder.
Asked whether rogue elements within the establishment could have been in touch with the Taliban about the killing, General Pervez Musharraf replied: “Possibility. Yes indeed. Because society is polarized on religious lines. “And, he said, those elements could have had a bearing on her death. It’s a startling statement from a former Pakistani head of state reports BBC. Normally military leaders in Pakistan deny any suggestion of state complicity in violent jihadist attacks. In Neorealism, the structure of the international system is the driving force behind the state’s quest to seek power and security.
John Mearsheimer On Realism
As per Realist scholar, John Mearsheimer, five assumptions form the core of the Realist framework: a) International system is anarchic in nature. b) States are capable of militarily attacking one another. c) Intentions of other states are uncertain. d) Survival is the driving force behind state behavior. e) States continue to look for ways to ensure their own survival. Additionally, in the anarchic world, a superior authoritative power that dominates all great powers is absent and similarly, the assurances of security are non-existent. In such a world, the sole legitimate interest of every state is to ensure self-preservation by all means at its disposal. including building alliances and amassing power. The states, thus, define their interests in terms of power and security. (Mohammed Faisal. Research Fellow at the China-Pakistan Study Centre (CPSC), Institute of strategic studies.)
With the commencement of development work under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), both countries also increased their strategic coordination and converged on emerging issues in the regional security environments and at multilateral forums.
Coming back to Imran Khan and his future one of his close aides has said that Imran Khan has been slapped with more than 150 legal cases, including several on charges of corruption, terrorism, and inciting people to violence over deadly protests in May that saw his followers attack government and military property across the country. The cricket star-turned-politician remains the leading opposition figure despite his ouster. Independent analysts have described the asset concealment trial as the “worst in history and tantamount to the murder of justice.” Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb stated that Khan has been “proven guilty of illegal practices, corruption, concealing assets and wrongly declaring wealth in tax returns.” Any discussion on Pakistan without reference to Indo-Pakistan-China relations would be incomplete and grossly inadequate.
Again going back to Mohammed Faisal’s treatise in which he writes In the case of Pakistan and China, both are seeking to protect and project their interests in South Asia vis-à-vis India and the US. The strategic context of recent developments in Pakistan-China relations is rooted in the gradual emergence of two dyads in South Asia over the last decade: India and the US on one hand, and Pakistan and China on the other.
Over the past 15 years, the Asian geopolitical environment has undergone a huge transformation. India and the US have engaged in political, military, and economic cooperation to deepen their strategic partnership. It commenced in 2005, when Bush administration publicly stated that the strategic goal of helping India is to become a “major world power” in the coming decades. In July 2005, India and the US concluded a civil nuclear deal and signed a 10-year military cooperation agreement.
The Obama administration continued America’s engagement with India. In January 2015, President Obama renewed the 10-year military cooperation agreement. Six months later, a new defense framework agreement was concluded between them, which paved the way for synchronizing American and Indian militaries while developing protocols to grant each other the use of their respective logistical facilities.
Similarly, in India, Narendra Modi after becoming Prime Minister in 2014, also accelerated the pace of newly found engagement with the US. His national security team quickly removed bureaucratic delays. But then critics are not convinced of Narendra Modi’s adherence to the coattails of the US administration. After the British left India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru along with a few other world leaders initiated a non-alignment movement that continues to be the beacon of light of successive Prime Ministers of India. Meanwhile, the world has changed from the rule-based world that the leaders of the Yalta Conference that the victorious countries molded according to their will to the countries who now refuse to yield to the wishes of those who used to rule the waves or lived in splendid isolation surrounded by the two oceans. In the meanwhile China has risen from the days of the Nanking Massacre to claim its seat at the table of framing those rules.
Countries of South Asia however are caught between Chinese muscle flexing and India’s, albeit surreptitious, hunger for increased influence in the area. Pakistan which considers itself as the savior of hunted Muslims of the sub-continent forgetting that they had voted with their feet to remain in Nehru’s India before the arrival of BJP and Narendra Modi) remains a thorn in India’s side.
Added is the disquiet in Pakistan itself due to the destructive activities of Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan who get refuge in Afghanistan where the Taliban have recaptured power forcing the US to flee from the country. In this mix of India-China-Pakistan disputes, it is difficult to predict what lies ahead for Imran Khan and his political party.
A word of caution should be sounded for the US as the population of Southern Asia. The current population of Southern Asia (including Iran) is 2,029,829,646 as of August 8, 2023, based on the latest United Nations estimate. Southern Asia’s population is equivalent to 25.2% of the total world population. Southern Asia ranks number 1 in Asia among subregions ranked by population. The total land area is 6,400,127 Km2 (2,471,102 sq. miles). It would be unwise for the US and the Western bloc to ignore such a vast number of people and leave them to the mercy of muscle flexing country.
The US would be well advised to take stock that Imran Khan may be out of the picture for now, but is not necessarily gone for good. If his conviction is upheld, he will be ineligible to contest the next election. But because of a recently amended law that limits disqualifications to five years, he would only have to skip one vote. Khan won’t lapse into irrelevance in jail. Instead, his sentence could bolster the narrative that has helped fuel his popularity: that Pakistan’s corrupt political class has it in for him.