What Protests in Pakistan Against Imran Khan’s Arrest Mean for China
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What Protests in Pakistan Against Imran Khan’s Arrest Mean for China


APLN member C. Uday Bhaskar argues that public anger at the previously sacrosanct institution of the army, which Beijing has close links with, could risk Chinese interests in Pakistan, including the belt and road ‘economic corridor’. Read the original article here.

Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan may have been released on bail but the country remains in a tumultuous spiral after his heavy-handed arrest at the Islamabad High Court last week by the paramilitary Rangers.

The ugly arrest and its sheer impunity – carried out by soldiers rather than the police – sparked nationwide, anti-army protests by Khan’s supporters. This assault on the army is unprecedented in Pakistan. With at least nine reported dead and thousands arrested, the situation remains tense.

In recent days, the stand-off between Khan – who is seen as having the support of the chief justice – and the army chief, General Asim Munir, has revealed the country’s many layers of institutional discord. This political turbulence has grave implications for Pakistan and its neighbours, primarily China.

At the heart of the turmoil is an old issue of governance – the nature of civil-military relations in a country where democracy remains fragile and distorted.

It was barely a decade after Pakistan’s formation in August 1947 that the army decided to seize power. Since this first coup, by General Ayub Khan in 1958, three more army chiefs have been in power – ostensibly to stabilise the nation – the last one being General Pervez Musharraf, who ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999.

Over the decades, the global community has frowned upon this violation of the democratic norm by the all-powerful Pakistani army. Yet China made the strategic decision to draw closer to the Pakistani military. This determination was arrived at during the Mao years in the mid-1960s and the catalyst was Beijing’s anxiety about and animus towards India – sentiments shared in even greater measure by Pakistan.

As a result, the relationship between both country’s militaries became more robust and acquired an extraordinary strategic depth, particularly in relation to missiles, and even, some suggest, nuclear weapons. It is as opaque as it is substantive: during the Cold War decades and post-September 11 years, China has been a steadfast ally, particularly in the UN Security Council when Pakistan is accused of harbouring terrorists.

Sino-Pakistan relations have been described since the early years in lofty terms as being “ironclad”. This description was once again used at the fourth Pakistan-China Strategic Dialogue between their foreign ministers in Islamabad on May 5-6, a few days before Khan’s arrest.

A statement released after the meeting noted: “The two foreign ministers underlined that Pakistan-China friendship was a historic reality and conscious choice of the two nations. As ‘All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partners’, Pakistan and China enjoy complete mutual trust, and their ironclad friendship enjoys complete consensus in both countries.”

Alas, recent attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan are a blot on relations and a source of concern for both sides.

The crown jewel of the Sino-Pakistan relationship is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The strategic dialogue statement said: “Welcoming the completion of a decade of CPEC in 2023, the two sides hailed CPEC as a shining example of Belt and Road cooperation which has accelerated socio-economic development, job creation and improvement of people’s livelihoods in Pakistan.”

But this rosy assessment is not borne out by the developments of the last few years, during which the CPEC project has stalled. And the uproar over Khan’s arrest has the potential to upset China’s interests in Pakistan.
Beijing relies on the military as an institution to protect and advance its interests – among which CPEC is a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative, the grand Chinese-led connectivity project with strategic underpinnings that has President Xi Jinping’s personal stamp on it.

Khan’s botched arrest has produced a corrosive outcome, namely that the army – an institution that has until now been largely deemed above review and reproach by the people – is being denigrated by irate citizens for its brazen conduct over the decades. The list of transgressions include subverting democracy, nurturing Islamist terror groups, feathering their nest and bleeding the state exchequer.

The fiasco has also revealed fissures within the army, both among the senior officers and those below officer rank, with some supporting the army chief and others in sympathy with Khan.

Whether the army top brass will close ranks soon – once some of the pro-Khan corps commanders retire over the next few months – is moot. The institutional credibility of the Pakistani army has taken a beating and Beijing will have to review its options depending on the modus vivendi that Pakistan is able to arrive at.

If Khan emerges the victor in the stand-off and elections are held, possibly towards the end of the year, it is very likely that he will be elected on a sympathy vote – as the only politician who managed to stand up to the army. This would be a heady victory for civilian rule and democracy in Pakistan. But it may not be as welcome in Beijing given that Khan, while prime minister, was not quite as enthused about the CPEC and its long-term cost and benefit implications for the citizens of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s future has to be decided by its people and while the prospect of the army willingly giving up its entrenched power is highly desirable, the chance of that happening is low. Beijing will have to be astute in reading the tea leaves stirred up by the Khan imbroglio.

Illustration: Craig Stephens

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