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China leverages Belt and Road investment to shape Pakistan’s political environment

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese decision to redevelop criteria for the funding of infrastructure projects that are part of the $50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key pillar of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road Initiative, seemingly amounts to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time that the armed forces are flexing their political muscle.

The Chinese decision that has reportedly led to the suspension of funding for three major road projects valued at a total of $850 million – the upgrading of the Dera Ismail Khan-Zhob motorway and the Karakorum highway as well as construction of a 110-kilometre road linking Khuzdar and Basima – suggests that Beijing is not averse to exploiting its massive investment in the Belt and Road, an effort to link Eurasian infrastructure to China, to shape the political environment in key countries in its authoritarian mould.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves Chinese interest in keeping Asia’s other giant, India, off balance. Chinese personnel and assets have nonetheless been targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan.

The suspension of funding coincided with apparent efforts by the military to increase its political sway by supporting militant and hard-line Sunni Muslim groups opposed to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) headed by disgraced former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Former Pakistani strongman General Pervez Musharraf, in the latest manifestation of links between the circles close to the military and hardliners, announced earlier this month that he was discussing an alliance with Milli Muslim League (MML).

MML was recently established by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who was designated a terrorist by the United Nations and the US Justice Department that put a $10 million bounty on his head and stands accused of having masterminded the 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which 164 people were killed.

Mr. Saeed, the leader of Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), widely seen as a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), one of the largest and most violent groups in South Asia, was last month freed by a court in Lahore from ten months of house arrest.

Speaking on Pakistani television, Mr. Musharraf pronounced himself “the greatest supporter of LeT.” Acknowledging that he had met with Mr. Saeed, Mr. Musharraf appeared to confirm long-standing suspicions that the military supported LeT as a proxy in Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir.

“Because I have always been in favour of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir. This is the biggest force and they have been declared terrorists by India and the US jointly,” Mr. Musharraf said.

Parallel to Mr. Musharraf’s endorsement of LeT, the military displayed its political influence by mediating an end to a weeks-long blockade of a main artery leading into Islamabad to protest a perceived softening of the government’s adherence to Islam in a proposed piece of legislation.

Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TPL), the organizer of the protest, is a political front for Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLR), which glorifies Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law,

The TPL is a political expression of the Barelvi strand of Sunni Islam that throughout the decades was long viewed as more moderate than the other dominant strand in Pakistan, the Saudi-supported Deobandis, whose militancy dates to the US-Saudi-backed Islamist insurgency in the 1980s that forced Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Suggestions that the protesters were supported by the military  were reinforced by video circulating on social media and the negotiation of an end to the blockade that involved the forced resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid and the dropping of all charges against protesters.

Chinese support for the military’s role has long been evident with its repeated veto in the UN Security Council of US, European and Indian efforts to get Masood Azhar, a prominent Pakistani militant designated as a global terrorist. Mr. Azhar is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military. Prior to the Mumbai attacks, China also blocked Mr. Saeed’s designation.

Mr. Azhar, a fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for an attack last year on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station. The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Criteria for the funding of the road projects, once redrafted, are expected to benefit the military’s engineering and construction company, Frontier Works Organization.

The suspension was projected as an effort to avoid corruption in CPEC in the wake of Mr. Sharif’s ousting as prime minister after documents leaked from a Panama law firm linked his children to offshore companies and assets. Long viewed as a nemesis of the military, Mr. Sharif demise served the interests of the armed forces.

The suggestion failed to stand up to scrutiny given that some Chinese companies have been granted CPEC contracts despite allegations of corruption. In one instance, the China Gezhouba Corporation (CGGC), was awarded the development of Pakistan’s $4.5 billion, 969 MW Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project, despite having been blacklisted by the World Bank.

Chinese backing for a more prominent role of the military in economic and political life comes amid increased Pakistani scrutiny of CPEC.

In a rare challenging of Chinese commercial terms, Pakistan recently withdrew from a Chinese-funded dam-building project.

Pakistani Water and Power Development Authority chairman Muzammil Hussain charged that “Chinese conditions for financing the Diamer-Bhasha Dam were not doable and against our interests.” China and Pakistan were also at odds over ownership of the $14 billion, 4,500 megawatts (MW)-hydropower project on the Indus River in the country’s problematic region of Gilgit-Baltistan near disputed Kashmir.

Earlier, a State Bank of Pakistan study concluded that exports of marble to China, Pakistan’s foremost rough-hewn, freshly-excavated marble export market, and the re-export to Pakistan of Pakistani semi-processed marble was “hurting Pakistan’s marble industry to a significant extent.”

A report by the Pakistani Senate, that has repeatedly criticized CPEC’s lack of transparency and Chinese commercial policies, concluded that China would for the next four decades get 91 percent of the revenues generated by the port of Gwadar.

Greater military involvement in CPEC would weaken China’s critics and enhance Chinese confidence in Pakistan’s ability to tackle security concerns. The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned last week that militants were targeting the embassy and Chinese nationals.

“Beijing is keen to give the Pakistani Army the lead role in the CPEC projects as Pakistani ministries charged with carrying out the projects have incurred delays because of infighting. Concerns that the project bypasses Pakistan’s poorer regions and will mainly benefit the financially-strong province of Punjab has made politicians argue with regards to the benefits of CPEC… The Chinese are not used to such harsh disagreements,” the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) said in a commentary.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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South Asia

The U.S Lauded Pakistan’s Assistance in Fighting COVID-19

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The United States has thanked Pakistan for its donation of protective gear and surgical masks to support the fight against coronavirus. In a Tweet, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appreciated Pakistan’s goodwill donation of surgical masks and protective suits to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said this delivery is a symbol of Pak-US solidarity in the fight against COVID-19 and termed it a “partnership for the prosperity of the two countries.”

Meanwhile, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, in her tweet, also expressed gratitude to Pakistan for the goodwill donation. She said our countries’ health partnership and the coordinated response would help defeat this virus and rebuild our prosperity.

Earlier, the consignment of Personal Protective Equipment from Pakistan via a C-130 flight from Islamabad landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. The equipment was also handed over to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency for onward delivery to the US armed forces.

Pakistan values its Seven Decades-long friendship with the US.  Although, it is meager Medical Supplies, yet as a token of friendships values a lot. Pakistan is also facing a huge challenge of the outbreak, and the rapid growth is alarming in Pakistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan is a responsible nation and always willing to share its part of responsibility in any part of the World. Either it is a natural disaster or warlike disaster, Pakistan always played its role on the front line as a volunteer. Pakistan is a country with the highest number of philanthropists per million population.

The US was one of the few first countries that recognized Pakistan in 1947 after getting independence from British rule. Pakistan was a close ally with the US in the cold war era and the Afghan War. Pakistan was a frontline ally with the US in its War on terror. Pakistan enjoyed non-NATO close ally status. Definitely, Pakistan was also beneficiary of US AID and assistance. Either it was on Economic front, or S&T, Defense or Education, Military or civilian, Agriculture or Industry, almost all areas witnessed the US assistance in the past. The US is a major trading partner with Pakistan too.

Pakistan has no objection if the US changed its priorities and aligned itself with India. The US is aiming to strengthen India to counter China, but India used all of the American assistance to counter Pakistan. The US may keep balance and restrict its assistance to India to a condition not to use against Pakistan. There can be designed a monitoring and tracking system to check that American assistance is not used against Pakistan directly or indirectly. A close monitoring system may be deployed on India and verifiable by any third party. I believe “there is the way if there is a will.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan is a visionary leader and peace-loving in nature. His declared-policy  to be a partner in peace with any country in any part of the World is well appreciated widely. Pakistan was a victim of the Afghan War for the last four decades and learned a bitter lesson. War means disaster; War means a net loss of human lives and economy; War means no victory for either side. Pakistan will be no longer partner wth any one in War with any country.

Pakistan’s strategic location, where it connects almost half of the World and at the major trade route – Middle-East to rest of the World, is vital for maintaining peace and stability of this region as well as the whole World. Pakistan is a nation of 220 Million, with its 70% population of youth under the age of 40 years. Pakistan is a resilient nation and can survive under any circumstances.

Pakistan wanted to keep traditional friendship with the US and strongly wish an early resumption. Pakistan wanted to contribute its potential to global peace and stability. In the past, especially in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Pakistan kept close alliance with the US while maintaining its strategic relations with China. I hope the US may not object to Pakistan’s strategic interest with China or Russia while restoring traditional friendship with Pakistan.

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The Need for Pakistan’s Digitalisation Policy

Syeda Dhanak Hashmi

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Change is the only constant and one has to keep evolving through new trends in order to compete with the changing dynamics of the world. There is no denying the fact that any country’s economic growth is now directly linked to one factor i.e., adoption of information and communications technology. The adoption of digitalisation is the new reality where majority of population has access to mobile phones and internet than to basic necessities of life. Digitalisation is not a choice, it is the need of the hour, therefore, the governments are now determining their policies and strategies for digitalising every sector, to promote and strengthen their socio-economic fabric.

Keeping in view the current scenario, the COVID-19 has had a major impact on almost all socio-economic sectors, the digital world has never been more important than it is today, Digitalisation is the new normal where consumers are buying everything online whether it is to buy groceries and essentials or to socialise and virtually reach with friends and family. During this critical time, many of these adoptions will persist long even after the situation has stabilised.

Globally countries are adopting new ways through digitalisation to ease the life of their citizens by providing them with improved and rapid amenities. The access to free internet services made it possible to pave the way for effective digitalization. An exponential increase is observed in the number of internet providers and consumers which demonstrates that the world is adapting with the concept of digitalization. It is witnessed that the developed countries has already shifted all their services from the outdated ways to online portals to facilitate the masses. In recent years, Pakistan is also evolving its IT sector promptly by introducing the latest technological mechanisms in the country.

The present government has taken up the task to digitalize the entire country and is working hard to create an e-governance system to bring down corruption, to ensure accountability process and also to augment the productivity in the country. The government has been taking great strides in the advancement of technology- from the Mohafiz app to digitizing the Postal service and the introduction of Tax Asaan mobile app which provides taxpayers with quick access of verification features like active Taxpayers list (ATL), NTN/STRN inquiry and exemption certificate etc. and many more. The PTI government has been proactive in the inclusion of technology within various segments and has also launched the online FIR system where people can submit their complaints online, and will be facilitated by government officials.

Nevertheless one might assume that digitalisation and government don’t blend,but in reality this fusion is helping the government agencies and officials to represent their agendas and administrative progress directly to the people through social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.).Perhaps the defined role of government social media accounts is to serve as a source of unrestricted updates. This includes everything from present initiatives to upcoming policy reforms and breaking news. Therefore, news should be a foundation of your content strategy as a government account. For instance, we are currently seeing social media crisis management in action for government organisations, including real-time updates in response to COVID-19. This illustrates that social media actually serves as a first hand source of information and provides people with timely updates. This is the brilliance of digitalisation and government that the voters and opposition are already there and the government has only one job that is to publish content which engages the attention from the public. This also suggests educating your followers by clarifying potential misinformation, keeping in view the fact that how quickly fabricated content can spread through social media, the government accounts serve as an important source for authentic information.

Statically, as per Pakistan’s Digital2020 Report, Feb 2020: there were 76.38 million internet users in Pakistan in January 2020 which illustrates that the number of internet users has increased by 11 million (+17%) between 2019 and 2020 and internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 35%. As far as the social media users in Pakistan are concerned, the number has increased by 2.4 million (+7.0%) between April 2019 and January 2020 which shows that there were 37.00 million social media users in Pakistan in January 2020 and the penetration rate stood at 17%.The source of this penetration depends widely on mobile connections in Pakistan. Reportedly, there were 164.9 million mobile connections in Pakistan in January 2020. The number of mobile connections increased by 9.6 million (+6.2%) between January 2019 and January 2020. Surprisingly, the number of mobile connections in Pakistan was equivalent to 75% of the total population in January, 2020.

With these growth trends projected to persist in the future, Pakistan is dire need of a comprehensive ‘Digitalisation Policy’. There should be a policy that must be implemented in its true spirits, and the government should devise an efficient monitoring mechanism to evaluate the vitality of that policy.

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South Asia

South Asia: A COVID-19 Outlier?

Noor Aftab

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International observers remain baffled at the rate of spread and impact of Corona on one of the most populous regions in the world. South Asia is home to more than a 5th of the world’s population. As is the case with other trends related to Corona, it is still not clear why the virus did not see the surge in the region that was experienced in other parts of the globe.

South Asia had been deemed as the perfect hotbed for the Coronavirus. It is densely populated, has poor public health institutions, and is geographically close to China, where the virus originated. Its people are also affected by severe levels of poverty, malnutrition, and hunger. While the countries share a similar heritage, the region happens to be one of the most poorly connected in the world, owing to bad road networks and toxic bilateral relations between some of the countries.

Despite strict guidelines from respective governments, social distancing norms are incompatible with South Asian society. It is a privilege only the elite can afford, as a vast majority of the people live in close proximity with their family members. The region also comprises of fairly religious societies, and governments have faced challenges in the prevention of congregational worship. In Pakistan, Khan was severely criticized for allowing communal prayer during the month of Ramadan.

It can be argued that the relatively lower numbers can be accounted for by low testing rates but if the health care systems in these countries had been choking up, it would have been very difficult to hide.

India, the economic giant in the region, can boast of imposing the strictest lockdown in the world. While the fatality rate is increasing with every passing day, the number of deaths is nowhere near that of Europe or the US. Migrant workers paid a heavy price for the lockdown, which was announced without prior notice, leaving millions displaced. The economic cost of the lockdown has been astounding, as an estimated 122 million Indians lost their jobs in April alone. India’s unemployment rate is now at a record peak of 27.1%,

Similarly, in Bangladesh, researchers from Dhaka University predict that around 15 million people from different sectors will become unemployed in the country due to slowdown of businesses. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar, predicted that around 18 million people might lose their jobs as a result of the lockdown.

Modi and Khan have recently eased lockdowns in India and Pakistan respectively, in spite of increasing cases, as they expressed concern for low-income groups and daily wage earners in their countries. Their concerns regarding their economies may be well-founded. According to a recent Yale study, social distancing measures may be more effective in saving lives in higher-income countries. Whereas, in lower-income countries a complete lockdown may be counterproductive, significantly increasing the economic costs. Economic benefits generated by social distancing are estimated to be 240 times larger for the United States, or 70 times larger for Germany, compared to the value created in Pakistan. The value of savings would be 59% of the GDP for the US, 85% of the GDP for Germany as opposed to 14% of Bangladesh and 19% of India’s GDP.

There are several theories about the conservative spread of the virus in South Asia. None of them have been substantiated as yet. It could be that the pandemic was taken more seriously in these developing economies because there was an acceptance of the fact that they weren’t well equipped to deal with the crisis in case it hit them with full force. Some experts credit the warmer and humid climate of the region to have kept the spread of the disease in check. Others are talking about the protection offered to South Asians by the vaccine for Tuberculosis, BCG and possibly a weaker strain of the virus in this region.

One of the more plausible explanations for this trend seems to be the extremely young population of the region. The average age of an Indian is 26.8 years. The number is less than 25 years in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. In contrast, the average age of a citizen is 45 in Italy and above 40 in Germany, France and the UK. According to the Yale study, Populations in rich countries tend to skew older, and so the mortality rate is expected to be higher in those countries, in spite of the disparity in healthcare capacity.

According to Jacob John, a virologist from India, it is not sensible to compare the situation in South Asia with Europe yet, as the region is over a month behind in terms of timeline. Therefore, the April of Europe should be compared to June in India. The epidemic is developing in different countries at different rates and it has not yet reached its full maturity in the region.

There is little doubt about the fact that Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for global leaders of our times. Policy has to evolve constantly according to the trajectory of the virus in the concerned country. The choice between lives and livelihoods can never be an easy one to make.

While it’s too soon to declare any country’s approach a success, it can be acknowledged that South Asian countries enforced stringent lockdowns at a relatively early stage compared to many in the West. However, locking down for over a month hasn’t necessarily slowed down the spread of the disease and the reversal of restrictions could lead to spikes in rates of infections. This in tandem with increasing economic constraints makes it a complex dilemma for policymakers. As the virus is yet to peak in the region in the coming months, the real challenge for the leadership lies in expanding their capacity to deal with the worsening situation.

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