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South Asia

Chinese engineer’s disappearance takes on geopolitical significance

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Thirty-six-year-old Chinese engineer Pingzhi Liu went missing almost a month ago. It took Pakistani authorities three weeks to classify Mr. Liu’s disappearance as a likely kidnapping that could have significant political and economic consequences.

Identifying the mysterious disappearance as a kidnapping is not only embarrassing because Mr. Liu was one of thousands of Chinese nationals working in Pakistan that are guarded by a specially created 15,000-man Pakistani military unit.

It is also awkward because it coincides with apparent Chinese questioning of aspects of the $56-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of China’s Belt and Road initiative, and increasingly strained relations between Pakistan and the United States.

Mr. Liu was accorded military protection even though his project, the Karot Hydropower Plant, located near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, is not part of CPEC. Karot was the first project financed by China’s state-owned $40 billion Silk Road Fund, established in 2014 by President Xi Jinping to foster increased investment in Eurasia.

Mr. Liu went missing on December 20 while on night duty. He was last seen walking out of a tunnel at around 3.30am while talking on his phone. No claim for his potential kidnapping or ransom has been made.

The fact that Mr. Liu was working on a project in Punjab rather than Balochistan, a troubled region with a history of attacks on Chinese personnel, has set alarm bells off.

China last month warned its nationals in Pakistan, a country plagued by religious and ethnic militancy, of plans for a series of imminent terrorist attacks on Chinese targets

“It is understood that terrorists plan in the near term to launch a series of attacks against Chinese organisations and personnel in Pakistan,” the Chinese embassy in Pakistan said in a statement on its website.

The embassy warned all “Chinese-invested organisations and Chinese citizens to increase security awareness, strengthen internal precautions, reduce trips outside as much as possible, and avoid crowded public spaces”.

Police have twice detained for interrogation Chinese and Pakistani workers associated with the Karot project. They are also introducing security and vetting measures for Pakistani nationals working with Chinese personnel.

If proven to be a kidnapping, Mr. Liu’s disappearance could not have come at a more awkward moment. China has signalled that it is considering freezing further CPEC-related investment until the country’s domestic situation stabilizes. China is believed to have so far invested $29 billion of the $56 billion committed.

“Political events in Pakistan have sent China in a watchful mood… I am concerned if we continue to throw surprises to the outside world, then anyone can be forced to rethink their economic investments,” Pakistan’s chief CPEC negotiator, Ahsan Iqbal, told Pakistani daily The News.

China had earlier decided to redevelop criteria for the funding of CPEC-related infrastructure projects in an apparent 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 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 – suggested that Beijing was not averse to exploiting its massive investment in the Belt and Road to shape the political environment in key countries in its authoritarian mould.

The possible investment freeze threw into doubt China’s reliability as Pakistan’s all-weather friend at the very moment that the Trump administration announced that it was cutting almost all security aid to Pakistan, believed to total more than $1 billion, until it deals with militant networks operating on its soil.

Pakistan, in response and in advance of a visit by a United Nations Security Council team to evaluate Pakistani compliance with its resolutions, has sought to crack down on the fundraising and political activities of Muhammad Hafez Saeed, an internationally designated terrorist accused of having masterminded the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

Pakistan’s predicament could worsen if Mr. Trump, who has targeted Pakistan in blunt tweets in the past month, decides to tighten the screws beyond cutting aid by taking further punitive action such as sanctioning Pakistani military officials, revoking Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status; increasing drone strikes beyond Pakistan’s tribal areas; designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror, and/or pressuring international financial institutions to blacklist Pakistan.

The sensitivity of the timing of Mr. Liu’s disappearance was heightened by the fact that some in Pakistan appear to doubt whether CPEC will be the magic wand for Pakistan’s economy and regional geopolitical position that Pakistani and Chinese leaders make it out to be.

Criticism of CPEC has focused on doubts about the financial viability of various projects, Pakistan’s ability to repay related debts, a lack of transparency, and assertions that Chinese nationals were usurping Pakistani jobs.

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.”

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.

The vanishing of Mr. Liu, if proven to be a criminally or politically motivated kidnapping, threatens in the current environment to put Pakistan between a rock and a hard place. Its relationship with its traditional ally, the United States, is on the rocks while its ties to China are proving to be more complex than Pakistani leaders had envisioned.

Amid domestic political instability, anti-government protests, and pressure to come clean in its getting a grip on militancy, Pakistani democracy may be saddled with the bill.

While neither the United States nor China can afford a complete rupture, neither has a clear strategy to help Pakistan stabilize. China’s solution appears to be tacitly supporting a greater role of the military in Pakistani politics – a formula that has in the past failed to produce results and is more part of the problem than part of the solution.

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 “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region

Kagusthan Ariaratnam

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Addressing an event last week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Hambantota Port (in southern Sri Lanka) is a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.”

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has denied US’ claims that China might build a “forward military base” at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which has been leased out to Beijing by Colombo. Sri Lanka failed to pay a Chinese loan of $1.4 billion and had to lease the China-developed port to Beijing for 99 years. Both New Delhi and Washington had in the past expressed concerns that Beijing could use the harbor for military purposes.

Image courtesy of Google

The USA, China, and India are the major powers playing their key role in the “Neo-Cold War” in Central Asian landmass and the strategic sea lanes of the world in the Indian Ocean where 90% of the world trade is being transported everyday including oil. It is this extension of the shadowy Cold War race that can be viewed as the reason for the recent comment made by the US Vice President Mike Pence that China is using “debt diplomacy” to expand its global footprint and Hambantota “may soon become a forward military base for China’s expanding navy”.

According to some analysts, the deep-water port, which is near a main shipping route between Asia and Europe, is likely to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In his book “Monsoon” Robert D. Kaplan (2010), a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes the following:

[…] the Indian Ocean will turn into the heart of a new geopolitical map, shifting from a unilateral world power to multilateral power cooperation. This transition is caused by the changing economic and military conditions of the USA, China and India. The Indian Ocean will play a big role in the 21st century’s confrontation for geopolitical power. The greater Indian Ocean region covers an arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Its western reaches include Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug trafficking […]

Two third of the global maritime trade passes through a handful of relatively narrow shipping lanes, among which five geographic “chokepoints” or narrow channels that are gateway to and from Indian ocean: (1) Strait of Hormuz (2) Bab el-Mandab Passage (3) Palk Strait (4) Malacca and Singapore Straits and (5) Sunda Strait.

While Lutz Kleveman (2003), argues that the Central Asia is increasingly becoming the most important geostrategic region for the future commodities, Michael Richardson (2004) on the other hand explains that the global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through the strategic international straits, waterways, and canals in the Indian Ocean.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)  report published in 2017, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit” (p.1). These channels are critically important to the world trade because so much of it passes through them. For instance, half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers through these maritime routes. The blockage of a chokepoint, even for a day, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and thus these chokepoints are critical part of global energy security.  Hence, whoever control these chockpoints, waterways, and sea routes in the Indian Ocean maritime domain will reshape the region as an emerging global power.

In a recent analysis of globalization and its impact on Central Asia and Indian Ocean region, researcher Daniel Alphonsus (2015), notes that the twists and turns of political, economic and military turbulence were significant to all great players’ grand strategies:

(1) the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the future Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; (2) Project Mausam, India’s struggle to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, broadly viewed as its answer to the MSR; and (3) the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. (p.3)

India the superpower of the subcontinent, has long feared China’s role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, an Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China’s economic and military interests “risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba” – a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro’s Cuba right on the United States’ doorstep. Located at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives Sri Lanka the strategic and economic weight in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the center of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. Furthermore, alongside the MSR, China is building an energy pipeline through Pakistan to secure Arabian petroleum, which is a measure intended to bypass the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca altogether.

A recent study done by a panel of experts and reported by the New York Times reveal that how the power has increasingly shifted towards China from the traditional US led world order in the past five years among small nation states in the region. The critical role played by the strategic sea ports China has been building in the rims of Indian Ocean including Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Port of Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly validates the argument that how these small states are being used as proxies in this power projection.

This ongoing political, economic and military rivalry between these global powers who are seeking sphere of influence in one of the world’s most important geostrategic regions is the beginning of a “Neo-Cold War” that Joseph Troupe refers as the post-Soviet era geopolitical conflict resulting from the multipolar New world order.

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South Asia

IMF bail-out Package and Pakistan

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Pakistan may approach IMF to bail-out the current economic crisis. It is not the first time that Pakistan will knock the doors of IMF. Since 1965, Pakistan has been to IMF 17 times. Almost all of the governments has availed IMF packages. Usually, IMF is a temporary relief and provide oxygen for short time so that the patient may recover and try to be self-sustained. The major role of IMF is to improve the governance or reforms, how the ill-economy of a country may recover quickly and become self-sustained. After having oxygen cylinder for 17 times within 5 decades, Pakistan’s economy could not recover to a stage, where we can be self-sustained and no more looking for IMF again and again. This is a question asked by the common man in Pakistan to their leadership.  People are worried that for how long do we have to run after IMF package? The nation has enjoyed 70 decades of independence and expects to be mature enough to survive under all circumstances without depending on a ventilator.

The immediate impact of decision to approach IMF, is the devaluation of Pakistani Rupees. By depreciating only one rupee to US dollar, our foreign debt increases 95 billion rupees.  Today we witness a depreciation of rupee by 15 approximately (fluctuating), means the increase in foreign debt by 1425 billion rupees. Yet, we have not negotiated with IMF regarding depreciation of Rupees. Usually IMF demand major depreciation but all government understands the implications of sharp devaluation, always try to bargain with IMF to the best of their capacity. I am sure, Government of Pakistan will also negotiate and get the best bargain.

IMF always imposes conditions to generate more revenue and the easiest way to create more income is imposing tax on major commodities including Gas, Electricity and Fuel. Pakistan has already increased the prices of Gas, Electricity and Fuel. It has had direct impact on basic necessities and commodities of life. We can witness a price hike of basic food, consumer items and so on. Except salaries, everything has gone up. While negotiating with IMF formally, we do not know how much tax will be increased and how much burden will be put on the common man.

We believe, our rulers know our capacity and will keep in mind the life of a common man and may not exceed the limit of burden to common man beyond its capacity. We are optimistic that all decisions will be taken in the best interest of the nation.

It is true, that Pakistan has been to IMF so many times, so this might be a justification for the PTI Government to avail IMF package. But, there are people with different approach. They have voted for change and for “Naya” (new) Pakistan. They do not expect from PTI to behave like previous several governments. If PTI uses the logic of previous governments, may not satisfy many people in Pakistan.

Especially, when Pakistan was in a position to take-off economically, we surrendered half way, may not be accepted by many people in Pakistan.

The government has explained that other options like economic assistance from friendly countries was also very expensive, so that they have preferred IMF as more competitive package. I wish, Government may educate public on the comparison of available options, their terms and conditions, their interest rate, their political conditions, etc. There might be something confidential, Government may avoid or hide, one may not mind and understand the sensitivity of some of the issues. But all permissible information on the terms and conditions of all options in comparison, may be placed on Ministry of Finance’s website or any other mode of dissemination of knowledge to its public.

Against the tradition, people of Pakistan have voted Imran Khan, who so ever was given ticket of PTI, public has voted him or her blindly in trust to Imran Khan. A few of his candidates might not be having very high capabilities or very good reputation, but, public has trusted Imran Khan blindly. Imran Khan is the third most popular leader in Pakistan, after Jinnah the father of nation, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Former Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1970s.

People of Pakistan have blindly trusted in Imran Khan and possess very high expectations from him. I know, Imran Khan understands it very well. He is honest, brave and visionary leader and I believe he will not disappoint his voters.

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Now India denies a friendly hand: Imran Khan debuts against arrogant neighbors

Sisir Devkota

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Imran Khan is facing the brunt for overly appeasing its arch rival-India. On September 22, Khan tweeted that he was disappointed over India’s arrogant reply to resume bilateral talks in the UNGA and that he had encountered many “small men” in big offices unable to perceive the larger picture.I am observing a south Asian order changing with Khan’s rise in Pakistani politics. We in Nepal need to grasp the possible reality before circumstances shall engulf our interests.

Observation 1

Narendra Modi was undoubtedly “The Prince”of South Asia from Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century classic political narrative. I sense the old prince acting in distress over the rise of a new one. Imran Khan’s invitation for a ministerial level meeting in New York; amidst the eyes of foreign diplomats could not have been a better approach by Pakistan in a long time. Instead, Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj dismissed the offer, blaming Pakistan’s double standard in killing Indian forces and releasing Burhan Wani’s (India’s terrorist and Pakistan’s martyr) postal stamps. Khan did not sanction the postal release, but as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he must be held accountable for failing to stop the killings,just when talks were supposed to happen. He should have addressed the highly sensitive Indian government. But, I do empathize with Khan’s statement, “small men in big offices”; as he clearly outlined the exact problem. He directly called upon the Indian government to think bigger and escape circumstances to solve historical problems. Narendra Modi has developed a new rhetoric these days; that India is not going to keep quiet over Pakistan’s actions. It fits the nature of Machiavelli’s Prince as an authority which can maintain national virtue. Unfortunately, I do not buy Modi’s rhetoric. The Prince has come a bit late in his tenure to act for Indian virtues. I am sure many at the UNGA would have noticed India’s apprehension in the same manner. I suspect that the ex-prince is facing insecurities over the fear of losing his charisma. Nepal, in particular was charmed by his personality when he first visited our capital, with promises that flooded our heart. And then, we faced his double standard; right after the massive earthquake in 2015. Nobody in Nepal will sympathize with Swaraj’s justification of cancelling the meeting.

Observation 2

Let me explain the source of insecurity. Modi has thrived by endorsing his personality. A tea man who worked for the railways under great financial hardships, became the poster man of India. He generated hope and trust that his counterparts had lost over the years. His eloquent stage performance can fool the harshest of critics into sympathizing his cause. People have only realized later; many macro economists in India now argue that demonetization was, perhaps, one of the worst decisions for India’s sake. Narendra Modi is India sounds truer than Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India.

Imran Khan, a former cricketer does not spring the same impression as Modi. Khan, a world champion in 1992, is known for his vision and leadership in Cricket. Comparatively, Khan does not need to sell his poster in South Asia. He does not cry over his speeches to garner mass euphoria. Ask anybody who’s into the sport and they will explain you the legend behind his name. I suspect that Modi has realized that he is going to lose the stardom in the face of Pakistan’s newly elected democratic leader. After all, the Indian PM cannot match Imran’s many achievements in both politics and cricket. I suspect that Modi has realized the fundamental difference in how his subjects inside India and beyond are going to perceive Imran’s personality. I expect more artificial discourses from India to tarnish Imran’s capabilities.

Nepal & Pakistan

You will not find Pakistan associated with Nepal so often than with India. Frankly, Nepal has never sympathized with Indian cause against Pakistan. We have developed a healthy and constructive foreign relations with the Islamic republic. However, there has always been a problem of one neighbor keeping eyes on our dealings with another. Indian interests have hindered proximity with past governments. Now, Imran Khan has facilitated the platform for deeper relations. He does not carry the baggage of his predecessors. He is a global icon, a cricket legend and a studious politician. He is not the result of mass hysteria. Imran Khan has pledged to improve Pakistan’s economy, reinstate foreign ties and boost regional trade. For me, he is South Asia’s new Machiavellian prince; one that can be at least trusted when he speaks.

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