Never a dull moment

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    Xi Jinping’s visit is a great temporary boost for Nawaz Sharif, but can Pakistan deliver its part to make it an economic boost for itself

     

     

    Came Xi Jinping and came the lights. Left Xi Jinping and left the lights. During the Chinese president’s understandably much hyped visit there were no electricity outages in Islamabad’s VIP sectors, but seconds after his plane took off went the electricity. Thus ended the hype and hoopla. I suggest we sign a MoU with President Xi that he considers relocating to Islamabad so that we don’t have any outages and Nawaz Sharif’s promise of ending ‘load-shedding’ is met at least in our capital city.

    I wonder. With 23,000 megawatts of installed capacity already there and our governments unable to generate more than about 10,000 MW and 13,000 MW lying idle, how will it be able to run the extra coal-fired power plants? What do we need it for anyway? To export electricity to our loveable neighbours who might not like to buy it from us anyway for ‘strategic’ reasons? When China is gradually ending coal-fired power plants, why are they landing us with them? To start permanent coal export like to Pakistan? Won’t they not pollute our environment even more and turn certain mini-tycoons into maxi-Moguls?

    Which brings me to the most important part of President Xi Jinping’s speech in parliament: China looks to enhancing its economic relations with the whole of South Asia or SAARC (implicitly not with Pakistan alone) and that peace in the neighbourhood would be the best harbinger of economic progress. One cannot argue with that, but the problem lies in India run by a throwback Hindu extremist with Muslim blood on his hands. Xi knows that and his message is most to India that it should mend its differences with all its neighbours and stop acting like a regional bully and wannabe superpower. The message also implies that China wishes to extend its influence all over Asia, as it has done in Africa, the Middle East, South and North America. Move over, America? Not so fast, darling. No one can match America’s knowledge bank and innovation. The global reach of such countries might decline somewhat but they are never out.

    President Xi Jinping finally came to Pakistan last Monday and left on Tuesday. The old slogan, “Higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey” has been extended to the ironic phrase “Iron Clad” and “Iron Man” considering that our prime minister is a steel tycoon – ‘Man of Steel’, what, or should one spell steel with ‘a’ as the second last alphabet? Xi’s visit was aborted earlier due to Imran Khan’s and Dr Tahirul Qadri’s dharnas. Now Imran was dutifully at hand to shake hands with the Chinese president though Nawaz Sharif couldn’t help displaying his pettiness when he introduced him as the man who had delayed the visit. Imran was even present in parliament that he had resigned from to shake hands with Xi Jinping again. Dr Tahirul Qadri was nowhere in sight. Confusion, utter confusion, wherefore is thy source?

    The Saudis requested airplanes, ships and ground troops in support of its operations in Yemen

    When Premier Zhou Enlai, the greatest statesman of our times, was asked his opinion on the French Revolution, he replied, “It’s too early to judge”. Similarly, it’s too early to judge and analyse the implications of President Xi Jinping’s visit. It will take time to study the 51 instruments signed, mostly MoUs. MoU is just that, ‘Memorandum of Understanding’, an expression of intent and wishes, not a treaty or contract. The Chinese and Pakistanis love signing ceremonies with the added advantage that it gives Pakistani leaders grist for their propaganda mills. So let the hype end and the dust settle before making a judgment. $45 billion is a lot of money: one has to see the forms in which it is coming, its nature and terms. How much is joint venture investment, how much loans at what interest rates? Will we be able to service and pay them back or will it only add to our debt burden? Will we be able to fulfil our part of the bargain? Can we provide security to Chinese personnel working here? Do we have the human capacity and capability or will we have to build it, which takes a long time? Better manpower and management are there with the army at least (it built the Karakorum Highway with China), but do the civilians have enough capability? Will the private sector be able to raise loans from banks already strapped for cash since they have lent 67 percent of their liquidity to the government since the State Bank cannot do so any longer on the orders of the IMF… and so on. In short, I will wait to see the financial closures of each project before coming to any conclusion. But one thing is certain: it will give Nawaz Sharif and Co. much to boast about in the coming days until painful reality returns. We first started much before Nawaz Sharif’s third government. But he who is present at the altar gets the bride with her huge dowry, regardless of he who started wooing her first – at the right place at the right time.

    I would never trade living in Pakistan for any other. There’s never a dull moment here, from the Chinese president’s visit to the by-election in Karachi to the Saudi-Yemen fracas and the Saudi angst with Nawaz Sharif to God knows what. So Nawaz Sharif repaired to Riyadh after Xi’s visit to try and repair ties.

    Some suggested after my last article that the India-Iran Strategic Cooperation agreement is a myth. Not so. Iran’s President Mohammed Khatami was invited as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in January 2003: that is when he signed the agreement with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Introducing the ‘The “Strategic Partnership” between India and Iran” for the Asia Program Special Report of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Robert Hathaway introduced Jalil Rosenthal and Sunil Dasgupta’s essays. Dasgupta says that, “Pakistani defence planners cannot completely rule out the possibility that in a future war between India and Pakistan, New Delhi may have access to Iranian military bases.” Such an occurrence, Rosenthal notes, would present Islamabad with the spectre of a two-front war and must of necessity alter Pakistan’s strategic calculations in a fundamental manner… a close political, economic, and possibly military ‘alliance’ between India and Iran ‘poses a serious challenge’ to important Pakistani interests.” Christine Fair, writing in the same report and calls the report of Iran allowing military bases to India bogus but goes on to add that, “astute observers” have remarked that, “the new defence relationship between India and Iran affords New Delhi a number of advantages.” She quotes a Pakistani security analyst: “Any Indian presence on Iranian military bases, even if it is solely for the purpose of training the Iranians, would allow India a more subtle ‘operational’ use of early warning, intelligence gathering, etcetera, facilities against Pakistan. An Indian military presence in Iran with or without strike capability would enable India in the event of war with Pakistan to create a ‘holding threat’ along its western borders.” Xi Jinping said in parliament that any threat to Pakistan’s integrity and independence would be taken as a threat to China’s integrity and independence. It’s obvious what it implies: no need to spell it out in writing for morons who don’t understand till the first Indian bullet is fired from Iran. I would like to know since when the victorious Iranian military needed Indian training anyway or is it a smokescreen? You believe India and Iran if you wish: I don’t. But note one thing: Since the departure of Vajpayee things may change between India and Iran in this regard.

    More importantly, why is Saudi Arabia so upset with Nawaz Sharif? Sajjad Ashraf, former Pakistani diplomat and now adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore tells us why in his article ‘Saudi Debt’. “Stung by his complete failure to muster the parliamentary support needed to join in a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is now counting the costs of his $1.5 billion folly.

    “Sharif was put on the spot when the official Saudi news agency released a statement, after King Salman and Sharif spoke by phone last week, stating that Pakistan promised to place its military potential at Saudi disposal. The Saudis requested airplanes, ships and ground troops in support of its operations in Yemen. In the absence of a denial and with an active ministerial campaign in support of Saudi Arabia, it is near certain that Sharif did give an understanding of this nature to the Saudi King, when Sharif visited Saudi Arabia at short notice during March this year.

    So there you have it. The sages have said since time immemorial that a trader should never be a ruler

    “Sharif and the Saudi royals have cultivated good relations for some time. The Saudis softened their nuclear sanctions on Pakistan in 1998 when, as prime minister, Sharif decided to conduct Pakistan’s first nuclear testing. They gave billions of dollars worth of oil to Pakistan on deferred payment terms but effectively free for five years. The Saudi government later denied this facility when General Pervez Musharraf, who succeeded Sharif, asked for its extension.

    “The Saudis made a calculated investment. After saving the Sharif family from Musharraf’s jails, they hosted them in style during their years in exile. They backed Sharifs to set up multi-million dollar enterprises based in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. When the political space opened up in Pakistan, they sent Sharif back in 2007 on board a royal Saudi plane to prevent his deportation. Musharraf had thwarted Sharif’s earlier attempt to return, breaking what had been a solid commitment of a maximum ten-year exile. Sharif and his family owe much of their new billions to Saudi patronage. As such, Sharif ‘is very much Saudi Arabia’s man in Pakistan,’ as a Saudi prince put it.

    “And in 2014, when the Pakistani rupee was sinking, a mysterious deposit of US$1.5 billion showed up in Pakistan’s central bank reserves — ‘from a friend’, who did not wish to be named. Pakistanis who questioned the wisdom of accepting this money were misleadingly told there was no quid pro quo. But it is now payback time for Sharif’s debt to the Saudis.

    “There were signs that something was afoot. Saudi Arabia was the first country that Army Chief General Raheel Sharif visited after assuming command in 2014. The Saudi foreign minister and the crown prince, now King Salman, visited Pakistan early last year in quick succession. Reports of Saudi purchases of Pakistani arms rapidly gained currency. Last month, before the Saudi offensive was launched in Yemen, Sharif was literally summoned to Saudi Arabia at short notice and in a most unusual departure from protocol the Saudi King Salman, the crown prince and the whole cabinet received him at Riyadh airport.”

    Sajjad Ashraf goes one to say: “The Saudis hold another strong card. Pakistani expatriates living in the kingdom send over US$8 billion home annually, a figure that represents almost half of Pakistan’s total US$16 billion in offshore remittances and helps to shore up the sagging economy.

    “Yet again, despite pretentions otherwise, Sharif’s personal obligation to the Saudi royal household is casting a heavy shadow over issues of national interest.”

    So there you have it. The sages have said since time immemorial that a trader should never be a ruler. ‘Trader’ also includes businessman and industrialist. There is great wisdom in this advice for it saves a country from the conflict of interest that a trader-ruler will be trapped in and compromise his country’s interests.

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