By Daniel Hyatt
Imran Khan is now Pakistan’s most powerful man. Poised to become prime minister of the South Asian nation within a couple of days, he has left little to speculate in unveiling a relationship road map with China.
A day after the electoral process was completed, resulting in Khan’s party emerging as the single largest, Khan appeared on television screens across the nation to speak for the first time.
The first foreign country he mentioned in his address wasn’t predicted by many. China, the largest foreign direct investor, running the Belt and Road flagship project and the most dependable ally of Pakistan, was also the only country the new leader talked of taking lessons from.
Elections this year in Pakistan were held under the shadow of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s conviction. Sitting behind bars, he is serving a 10-year sentence, pending appeal, for corruption.
In the opposition before this election, Khan was a strong critic of Sharif and his handling of Chinese investments. He accused Sharif of using Chinese projects to expand his family business – a charge seen by many as his opposition to investments from Pakistan’s closest neighbor.
In 2014 when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was gaining ground in Pakistan, Imran Khan and his followers were engaged in a 4-month-long sit-in in the capital Islamabad. The protest kept countless stakeholders of the mega project on edge.
The cricketer-turned-politician subsequently had to explain on various occasions, even during meetings with Chinese diplomats, that he was neither against Chinese projects nor the CPEC.
He stated, instead, that he was pressing for transparency in investments which the Nawaz government was allegedly trying hard to avoid.
Much later when the protests were called off and preparations for elections started, Imran Khan announced his own plan to pull Pakistan out of its woes. For reviving the economy, he proposed the Chinese model. He wanted to make use of Chinese conventions in pulling millions of Pakistanis out of poverty.
Released two weeks before the recent polls, his party’s General Election Manifesto was the first documented road map that revealed what Khan exactly had for the Belt and Road initiative.
The document regarded the CPEC as a game changer which held great potential for Pakistan to benefit from. It planned utilization of the trade infrastructure established by the CPEC and the Belt and Road initiative to promote an “indigenous resource-focused growth strategy.”
The manifesto also suggested the employment of expertise from China in supplementing domestic manufacturing and enhancing agricultural produce.
Despite a barrage of criticism he threw at Sharif’s handling of Chinese investments, Khan is not a skeptic of the projects themselves. The manifesto highlights that the CPEC will be completed with more focus on partnerships and joint ventures rather than Pakistan’s high dependence on import of goods and services.
His party has vowed to ensure participation of Pakistani businessmen in culminating CPEC projects.
In Pakistan’s electoral system, political parties take lesser risks as they near the polls. But Imran Khan minced no words when his exclusive interview was published in Guangming Daily two days before the elections.
Khan asserted that the CPEC will receive wide support from all sectors of Pakistani society. He expected a firm guarantee of medium- to long-term implementation of the corridor and talked about an “irreplaceable role” of the CPEC in generating employment. He acknowledged China as the largest investor in Pakistan and CPEC as a platform which will attract more foreign investment. He also laid stress on cooperation with China in clean energy, green agriculture and industry. He believed that the historical friendship between Pakistan and China was the basis of future cooperation.
Imran Khan’s politico-economic views do not seem to be influenced by his Western education. He questions the practicality of capitalist economic policies. He is also a strong critic of US President Donald Trump, the US and US-led wars. In his latest address, he vowed to establish a balanced relationship with the US as against the current one being dominated by the US.
Imran Khan’s plan is a clear pivot by Pakistan, away from the US orbit and further into the Chinese bloc.
His willingness to ensure the completion of the Belt and Road flagship project, his determination to cooperate with China, and his pledge to revise lopsided relations with the US at least clarify one thing from the haze of Pakistani elections – that China has a friend in Imran Khan.
Originally Published in Global Times