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South Asia

Pakistan: In the boxing ring among two global heavyweights

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Recent criticism of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project by the United States, has understandably drawn attention within Pakistan, as well as outside the region. US,for long has been critical of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in general, and some of the BRI projects in South Asia – especially the CPEC project. A report by the Centre for Global Development (CGD, Washington DC) published in 2018 argued, that the BRI project will lead to a situation where borrowings, by countries which have signed up for the project, will build up to a degree where debts become unsustainable (this situation has been dubbed as ‘debt trap’). Pakistan was identified as one of the 8 countries, which may land up in a  ‘debt trap’ (the only other South Asian country was Maldives). Beijing and Islamabad have on more than one occasion, reacted strongly to criticism of the project and rubbished claims that Pakistan’s debts are unsunstainable.

Apart from the US, India too has been critical of the CPEC project. The main objection of India, to the CPEC project has been the fact, that it passes through the disputed territory of Gilgit and Baltistan.

US skepticism with regard to CPEC.

If one were to look at recent US criticism of CPEC, Alice Wells Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, first criticized the project for the clear lack of transparency, as well as not being economically sustainable in November 2019, during the course of an interaction at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington DC. Wells, reiterated her criticism of CPEC, during her visit to Pakistan in January 2020. The Senior State Department Official, also made the point, that a number of firms, which had been blacklisted by the World Bank, had been awarded contracts through CPEC.

The Pakistan PM, Imran Khan and other senior politicians, reacted strongly to  Wells criticism arguing, that the project would play a crucial role in the country’s economic progress. It would be pertinent to point out, that there are a number of lobbies in Pakistan, which while being critical of the US, have for long being questioning the long term implications of the Pakistan-China economic relationship in general, and the lack of transparency with regard to the CPEC project in particular. This includes, both strategic commentators, and sections of the business community and even a section of the political class.  The main criticisms of the project are; doubts with regard to the economic sustainability of the project, and the fact that certain provinces are reaping the benefits of the project, while others such as Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) have been left out . It would be pertinent to point out, that Imran Khan when in opposition, had himself put forward his misgivings with regard to the project. Even senior members of his Cabinet had spoken about the need for renegotiating the terms and conditions of CPEC. Beijing did not take kindly to such remarks and since then Imran Khan and his colleagues have been cautious and gone the extra mile in defending the CPEC project.

Alice Wells recent criticism has once again brought to the fore important issues with regard to CPEC.An article in Dawn titled ‘Alice’s mis (adventures)’begins by questioning Washington’s dealings with Pakistan, and it’s patronage of military regimes. The article also makes the point, that if US aid has not been utilized properly, America is to be blamed for following a myopic and transactional approach towards Pakistan, where the interests of the Pakistani people have been ignored. It then examines in detail, the lack of transparency of the CPEC Project, and how the structure, terms and conditions of Chinese loans could prove to be a challenge in the long run.

Most significantly, Wells’ remarks have once again raised the question of how Pakistan needs to approach its outside relations with Great Powers, especially US and China and how it can balance ties. The article in Dawn states:

‘Islamabad must realise, that it doesn’t belong in the boxing ring among two global heavyweights and should refrain from reacting irresponsibly’.

This is important, because in recent years after Washington-Islamabad ties have gone downhill, many in Pakistan, especially the establishment, have virtually put all Pakistan’s eggs in the Chinese basket. As mentioned earlier, this has not gone down well with members of Pakistan’s intelligentsia as well as polity who believe that the country needs to have an independent foreign policy.

Finally, while no one has really sought to look at CPEC as a facilitator of regional connectivity in South Asia. A number of analysts and commentators have spoken on more than one occasion about the need for getting South Asian neighbors on board. The Imran Khan government too has been seeking to bring neighbors, including Iran on board the CPEC project (it has dubbed the arrangement as CPEC+1), but there has been no real discussion with regard to India being part of the project (oblique references have been made to India joining the project, though New Delhi has flatly refused such proposals). Interestingly, even on the Indian side, it has been argued that Indian participation in CPEC, which could give a boost to trilateral cooperation. This has been dismissed, and may seem unlikely in the short run given the tensions between both countries (While New Delhi officially has on more than one occasion, put forth its objections to CPEC, and unequivocally stated, that it will not join the project, there are those who believe that over a longer term this may be possible)

Conclusion

While Alice Wells views with regard to Pakistan-China economic ties or the CPEC project maybe one sided, her skepticism with regard to the long term implications of the project have once again generated an interesting debate, not just with regard to the project itself, but Pakistan’s foreign policy, as well as the strategic and economic dimensions of CPEC in the context of South Asia. It remains to be seen, whether Pakistani policy makers understand the need for greater transparency with regard to the project and to address misgivings of domestic stakeholders. It is also important for strategic commentators and economists, not just in Pakistan, but all those interested in South Asia, to examine the possibility of CPEC as a tool for economic cooperation and connectivity, and not as a source of conflict. This may seem impossible in the nearer term, but with the changing geo-political and economic dynamics in the region, it can not be ruled out over the long term.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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South Asia

The sizzling “Political Matrix”; What will happen now?

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Politics in Pakistan is unfortunately leaving scars that will fade away not that easily. Islamabad today is wrapped in thick political clouds since past few weeks. These last few weeks have altered all assumptions and calculations in the national political matrix.  While the political landscape today is sizzling with intensity, aggression and strain the economy is shattering every day.  Who is to blame for? What will happen now? And will sanity prevail?

The entire edifice of the “conspiracy mantra” which even made PTI commit violation of the constitution stands demolished today. It was one of the worst advices Imran khan could ever get from his party among the list of many others. Sadly he made his entire politics captive to this conspiracy myth.  But today no one questions them on the impact it had on our foreign policy. US today feels betrayed, Saudis not ready to give aid, Chinese worried about their stakes and it continues.  So diplomatically this conspiracy mantra has damaged Pakistan like anything.

Imran Khan’s followers see nothing wrong in what he says and what he does. They absolutely reject all the facts, all the logics and embrace the rhetoric which is fuelling more today with a greater intensity. Imran khan is leading this campaign more aggressively. Khan very well knows that bringing large crowds to Islamabad will have an impact only if there is some kind of aggression.  The leaders on different occasions already hinted towards an aggressive March. He very well realizes that the figure of 2.5 Million is unrealistic but keeping in view the size of Islamabad, 0.1 Million crowd will even be perceived as a bigger crowd. So can he force the early elections at this stage? How will the government react to it? For instance let’s accept this narrative that the pressure of crowd aids PTI in getting an early election call and PTI wins it. So now what next? How will you deal with the mighty US? The economy is already sinking. You need aid to feed it but no one is providing you that. Then how will you stop dollar from going above 200? How will you provide relief from the soaring fuel prices when you won’t have money for a subsidy even? Forget about one lakh jobs and 50 lakh houses.

From the past few weeks we haven’t heard any PTI leader telling any economic plan or any diplomatic plan to revive relations. How will you deal with the IFI’s, World Bank & IMF when they’re all US controlled and as per your narrative you won’t accept “Amreeka ki Ghulami” or USA’s dictatorship.

So now what options the present regime has? The government would of course like to stop this building dangerous momentum of “Azadi March”. They would not like any big clash in Islamabad which results in bigger mess and chaos. The PDM government also has a much bigger fish to deal with, the same sinking economy. They came into power with this narrative to fix economy as former Premiere was unable to do it.  The key cabinet members made more than two different official visits.  The instructions are coming from London today as a decisive power so who will run the government? Who will run the system? Will the IMF aid? What will be the upcoming budget about? This upcoming budget is a bigger risk for this government along with an already announced to Long march call. Khan has already played a dangerous narrative especially with the blame of another conspiracy being made about his Life.   

The stakes, the narrative and the politics of every party is at risk today.  But above that, Pakistan is at risk. The dread is in the air. The end of May will be heated ferociously in Islamabad, whether politically or meteorologically.

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South Asia

Sri Lankan economic crisis and the China factor

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After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 seems to be a Herculean task (Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated, that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel and petrol to the people).

 The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities have brought ordinary people on the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives (the Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice first last month and then earlier this month). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation by President Gottabaya Rajapaksa but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe)

During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-west and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).

It would be pertinent to point out, that the PM had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.

While it is true, that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the Island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Another South Asian nation — Pakistan which witnessed a change last month where Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan, also faces daunting economic challenges.  Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $ 10 billion on May 6, 2022 and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Shehbaz Sharif ever since taking over as PM has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China and the Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart alluded to the same, with Pakistan’s Foreign office in a statement released after the conversation between Bhutto and Wang Yi said:

 “underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation”.

 Yet, China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of 1.59 billion USD) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives, this is the second such attack after 2021. China in recent years had also indicated to Pakistan, that it was not happy with the progress of the China Pakistan Economic (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.

One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka as well as the challenges which Pakistan is facing is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. US, Japan and western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.

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South Asia

Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and Taliban’s obsession with women’s rights

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A mother and her child in the Haji camp for internally displaced people in Kandahar, Afghanistan. © UNICEF Afghanistan

The Taliban’s latest move to restrict the rights of women points to an obsession with women’s rights. This is in stark contrast to the neglect the regime is showing in addressing an ever worsening economic and humanitarian crisis. With Afghan’s facing poverty and starvation, the Taliban needs to focus on rebuilding the country, and this can only be achieved by respecting the rights of women.

This comes after the Taliban ordered all women to cover their faces in public, making it the latest restriction on the rights of women by the oppressive regime. The Taliban has previously forbidden women from travelling long distances unsupervised or working outside of the healthcare sector. The Taliban also faced international outcry earlier this year when they backflipped on a decision to allow women and girls to attend secondary school and university, making it impossible for women to receive an education.

The Taliban’s treatment of women is not a new development. During the regimes previous reign, between 1996 and 2001, it was described as the least feminist movement in the world. The Taliban forbade education, employment and access to healthcare delivered by men, while also making the veil mandatory and forbidding women to leave the home unless accompanied by a male family member. This was seen as the strictest interpretation of Sharia Law.

Contrary to claims made by the Taliban, the latest iteration of the movement is now attempting to do the same by systematically removing women from public life.

The difference this time is that, since the US withdrawal, the country has experienced an economic and humanitarian crisis. This is largely due to poor governance, the freezing of central bank assets by the US and the withdrawal of foreign aid in response to the Taliban takeover.

The situation is dire. Half the population, approximately 20 million people, are facing acute food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger. Healthcare is notoriously difficult to access, and poverty is widespread, with women, persecuted minority groups and former government employees refused work and unable to provide for their families. The crisis is so critical that families are resorting to selling their children to delay starvation.

This raises the question of why the Taliban is so obsessed with restricting the rights of women when Afghanistan is falling apart around them. Strict adherence to Sharia Law aside, this attack of women’s rights is clearly to the Taliban’s detriment and the detriment of the people of Afghanistan. This position must change for the country to rebuild.

First and foremost, the actions of the Taliban and the humanitarian crisis is making the situation of women much worse, as women are one of Afghanistan’s the most vulnerable groups. The restriction of their rights has resulted in a lack of income and education, making women reliant on their families for food, water and sanitation products. This is meant that women are not only facing poverty and starvation, but they are also increasingly at risk of exploitation by family members and their communities.

Second, the removal of women from the workplace also affects Afghanistan as a whole. While the Taliban has allowed women to work in the health sector, many have not returned to work, dramatically reducing the number of doctors and nurses able to treat other women, particularly in rural areas. On top of this, women that have returned have not been paid, and are reliant on aid agencies to feed their families.

Outside of healthcare, women have been completely removed from the workplace, including in government, the judicial system, charities and aid agencies. Under the Karzai and Ghani governments the wages of women played an important role in providing for families through their increased workplace representation. With their right to employment suddenly removed, this has played a fundamental role in the causing poverty levels to rise throughout the country.

Third, the Taliban is desperate for international recognition, and that recognition and the aid that comes with it is tied to respecting human rights. The Taliban’s abhorrent treatment of women means that the frozen assets held by the US, and aid from the international community, will continue to be out of arms reach. This will leave the country short of much needed funds to avert the current crisis, leaving those most vulnerable, particularly women, at risk of starvation.

While the international community shares some blame for the humanitarian crisis by withholding assets and restricting the flow of aid, it is also the Taliban’s responsibility, under international law, to treat its citizens as per their human rights.

For this reason, if the Taliban is interested in allowing Afghanistan to rebuild, then it must realise that economic relief is directly tied to the human rights of women.

Allowing women to participate in society, through attending school and participating in the workforce, will have a net benefit for Afghan society by increasing education levels, workforce participation and, in the short term, reduce poverty levels.

Respecting the rights of women will also allow aid to flow into the country, helping alleviate the worst effects of the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the country and will allow aid agencies to monitor human rights throughout Afghanistan.

This creates an opportunity for the international community to pressure the regime into respecting the rights of women. This will help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and will go a long way to improving the lives of women and girls by giving them an opportunity to get an education, enter the workforce and participate in society.

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