A Tug of War? – East Meets West in Pakistan

Partners in Practice

Beijing has committed itself to an increasingly outward looking policy platform that emphasizes infrastructure improvements and a more visible global security presence and peacekeeping program.

In doing so, China has joined more traditional sponsors of aid and development assistance, most notably the US and EU. At the same time, new political discourses in Western democracies, fueled by the rise of populism is changing the way these states engage with the world, upsetting the balance of foreign development assistance.

Although it is difficult to generalize about Beijing’s policies in different regions, China’s developing relationship with Pakistan illustrates some of the ways things are changing.

Corridor of Crisis

When it comes to development, Pakistan faces significant issues. The UNHCR deemed that there were 1.7 million persons of concern in the country and a 2016 report on multidimensional poverty finding some 39% of households afflicted by poverty.

Pakistan suffers from a sense of geo-strategic isolation. Relations with India and Afghanistan are strained and political violence, in many cases with alleged foreign support, cause the country no end of problems.

These complex challenges mean that Pakistan’s leadership is eager for diplomatic and economic support from abroad. Initiatives like Beijing’s China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), appeal to Islamabad as it seeks to eliminate instability through promoting economic connectivity.

Brussels and Beijing – Divergent Donors

Chinese aid policy aspires towards non-interventionism, first enshrined in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. For Pakistan, this principle positions aid from Beijing’s as an attractive alternative to Western aid since it prioritizes economic growth while leaving political structures intact. However, critics have warned that Chinese policy favors an extractive approach resembling a kind of neo-imperialism that forces emerging states to become dependent on China.

By contrast, the European Union’s development policy focuses on one central aspect: poverty reduction. While there are certainly other dimensions to Brussels’ focus such as promoting European foreign, trade and security policy, combating poverty remains the cornerstone. Since 2009, the European Commission has supplied Pakistan with 548 million Euros in Humanitarian aid.

Germany and the UK, two of the major forces of European foreign aid and major trading partners of Pakistan, have pledged significant amounts of aid to help build the country’s markets. Many of the migrants who swelled the ranks of the arrivals on Greek beaches following 2015 were Afghan living a marginal existences in Pakistani refugee camps and sought either to escape dire economic conditions or repatriation to Afghanistan.

These sums, however, are dwarfed in comparison to the massive funds flowing from China and the USA. The USA is the largest single donor nation to Pakistan and between 2002 and 2016 spent over 18 billion USD on Security and Economy related aid programs, and a further 14.5 billion USD on Coalition Support Funds.

Washington’s interest in Pakistan has primarily centered on the policies of the War on Terror. Islamabad has often been viewed by the US as a partner or an impediment in this, which has caused some friction between the Cold War allies. At the same time, warmer relations between the US and Pakistan’s mortal enemy India have further alienated Islamabad from Washington.

China’s interests, meanwhile, are shaped by the more immediate proximity with Pakistan. Islamabad and Beijing often characterize one another as “All-Weather Friends,” and have shared geo-strategic and political interests for decades.

Beijing is Islamabad’s largest single export market, and in 2015 about half of the goods sold to China was cotton yarn, an important commodity in Pakistan’s domestic politics. China meanwhile relies on Pakistan as a partner in implementing the CPEC, which if successful could serve as a roadmap for China’s ambitions in the wider Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as a counterweight to India and an access point to the Indian Ocean.

A staggering 55 billion USD in Chinese money will be invested into Pakistan over the next 5 years, much of which is slated for improving Pakistan’s energy and transportation infrastructure.

Problems of Perception

Development assistance to Pakistan in particular has a disproportionate impact on the domestic politics of donor states. The Trump government has tried to drastically reduce foreign aid spending and referring to Pakistan as a haven for “agents of chaos” in connection with America’s Afghanistan policy.

In Britain, a country with close historical and social ties to Pakistan, the populist press has had occasion to deride London’s sending aid to a country with “its own space program.” On the European mainland, the rise of outspokenly Islamophobic right-wing populists is sure to color the EU’s foreign policy for years to come.

Despite domestic political pressure and contradictory policies, engagement with Pakistan will per force continue. Although their interests and priorities differ for various reasons, the US, EU and PRC all have convergent stakes.

These countries share an interest in a stable and peaceful Pakistan, although there is disagreement on how best to achieve this between donor countries – either through promoting transparent politics, facilitating economic development or strengthening state security apparatus.

Ideological divides between donor countries notwithstanding, the fate of Pakistan ultimately lies in the hands of Pakistan’s citizens. Islamabad’s many partners can work to complement one another and Pakistani society in their approaches to helping the country develop.

It is likely that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will serve as a testing ground for multi-lateral efforts to overcome deeply entrenched problems. Coordinated policies efforts by European partners and China have the potential to facilitate this process and shape mutual perceptions, help build international trust and counteract narratives of competition between states.