Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the opening ceremony of the first China International Import Expo in Shanghai on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP / Aly Song / Pool
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the opening ceremony of the first China International Import Expo in Shanghai on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP / Aly Song / Pool

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to China ended with him coming back home without any cash. The government led by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had been expecting immediate relief from China, but much to its disappointment, Beijing swiftly refused, stating that more talks were needed before any bailout package could be agreed.

Khan, who had been banking on China’s help to thwart an economic crisis, has been left with no option but to look toward the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance. China, an “all-weather friend,” said in a joint statement that in the near future it would bring more investment into Pakistan and would make efforts to get it membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group – but failed to offer any immediate cash.

As always, Beijing gave a message to Washington and New Delhi that it holds Pakistan as an important ally, but was this enough for the Pakistani government, which was looking for a lucrative loan package?

Khan and his cabinet before the visit created hype through the media that China would bail out Pakistan with a hefty loan, after which it would not need any assistance from the IMF. Lofty claims were made and as a result, everyone from the business community to the masses had very high but unrealistic hopes of Khan getting a better deal from Beijing than his predecessors.

However, Beijing never signaled any immediate assistance on any front. The hype was based only on assumptions and perhaps sloganeering from the PTI government to keep its vote bank satisfied.

The day Khan arrived in China, the tone was set, as the Chinese government instead of sending a high-level dignitary to receive him only sent its transport minister. Perhaps it was a signal that President Xi Jinping was not happy with the immature statements of Khan and his cabinet members regarding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

PTI in a bid to undermine its political rival Nawaz Sharif had long alleged that the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had been deliberately ignored by the Sharif administration in the CPEC project. Some of Khan’s cabinet members also hinted at revisiting CPEC as they assumed Sharif’s government had not negotiated good deals. This eventually annoyed Beijing, and right from the start of the PTI-led government’s term, China began maintaining a rather symbolic relationship with Islamabad instead of the traditionally cordial relations.

Beijing was also unimpressed by PTI’s lack of interest in countering criticism on China’s increasing influence over Pakistan and CPEC projects. For sure China considers Pakistan a useful transport corridor for its Road and Belt Initiative (BRI), as well as strategic partner in curtailing the influence of New Delhi over South Asia, but Khan’s failure to get additional and immediate financial support suggests that Beijing is trying to explore the priorities of the PTI-led government.

Probably Khan’s visit gave him a good understanding of the BRI from the Chinese perspective, but it had very little impact as far as finances are concerned. By not giving any immediate financial assistance, Beijing was probably signaling that while it wants to maintain the two countries’ historic cordial relationship, it does not want Pakistan to be dependent entirely on China for a way out of its economic woes.

Perhaps now that he is leading the government Khan needs to stop using rhetoric and sloganeering. As a result of his hopes of getting a bailout from China not being fulfilled, at the beginning of this week the Pakistan Stock Exchange saw a significant decline. After all, investors were expecting Khan to bring a relief package back home.

While Beijing prefers to adopt a wait-and-see policy on the issuance of new loans to Pakistan, Khan has to overcome the crisis of dwindling foreign reserves very soon, as the reserves held by the State Bank have touched the lowest point in recent history. This means that Khan will need to get an IMF loan package on strict terms and conditions. Since Pakistan is already choked with foreign debt, it is very unlikely that even an IMF bailout will help it solve its problems for the long term.

By and large, Khan’s China visit was a routine affair, with Beijing signing 16 new strategic accords with Islamabad, but from Khan’s perspective, as his “stardom” and celebrity status were not enough to persuade the Chinese to release an immediate loan, the visit did not meet his expectations.

That is why it is always important not to give birth to unrealistic and imaginary expectations. Perhaps Khan needs to understand that a good name in the cricket world is not enough to impress foreign countries, nor does it help in preparing solid economic policies. His economic team lacks understanding of the modern technology/manufacturing economy. His economic advisers are obsessed with somehow stopping corruption and, as a result, bringing billions of dollars of imagined looted public money into the national exchequer.

Khan’s obsession with a witch-hunt in a bid to undermine his opponents has been the only point of focus for him, and he does not realize that as the head of government he is supposed to give confidence to international investors by showing a positive image of the country. Instead, while delivering a speech at the Central Party School in Beijing, he only presented the weak points, saying that Pakistan is facing high-level corruption and money-laundering and that its institutions are not strong. The only praise he had was for himself, as he told the participants that he was working tirelessly to reduce all the evils in Pakistan.

Khan needs to realize that neither Beijing nor investors are interested in cricket. As well, though China is ranked only No 77 in the global perception index of Transparency International, its leaders never mention this fact while addressing an investment conference.

This recent visit of China is perhaps a wake-up call for Imran Khan to abandon his narcissist approach.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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