Pakistan has been growing ever closer to China as the two countries partner on strategic regional development projects. But with China’s anti-democratic stance influencing Pakistan’s domestic politics, Islamabad must be careful not to alienate its Western allies, Tasmia Tahira argues.

United States President Joe Biden’s virtual summit of democratic countries earlier this month aimed to rally the world’s democracies to combat democratic backsliding and increasing authoritarianism around the world.

Pakistan under Imran Khan’s government, one of the 110 countries invited to the summit, declined the invitation with an oblique diplomatic statement.

Presumably, its close relationship with China is the primary factor for skipping the democratic summit, as the two countries’ growing ties have been a central part of Pakistan’s foreign policy since it became the flagship venue for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It seems Pakistan’s relationship with China is not merely reshaping its foreign policy but forcing a change in its domestic politics as well.

How did Pakistan-China links develop?

The proposal for an economic corridor between China and Pakistan, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), officially launched in 2015.

It is a flagship project under BRI (China’s global infrastructure development project), and is seen as the economic peg in the broader longstanding strategic relationship between Pakistan and China.

CPEC is a constellation of infrastructure projects aiming to build and upgrade roads, highways, rail, and pipeline infrastructure while connecting China with the Chinese-invested Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Many academics are interested in analysing the development projects in the context of CPEC but ignore the influence China is extending on local political institutions and actors.

Pakistan is the fifth most populated country in the world and has the second-largest Muslim population after Indonesia.

It has lived mostly under long military dictatorships since its independence in 1947 but transitioned to democracy for the third time in 2008.

Since then it has had three successful democratic transfers of power through elections, with a robust multiple political party system and vibrant civil society.

However, the military still exercises immense control over politics.

This control has reached the extent that the military determines the scope of jurisdiction of the government and other civilians’ institutions like the Prime Minister’s Office, Parliament, and the judiciary.

Unofficially, the military has demarcated red lines in the foreign and domestic policy areas which no democratic government can cross.

Otherwise, the government would end up in a serious political crisis and might be deposed through a coup. Thus, civil-military relations in Pakistan remain at the centre stage of politics and the democratisation process.

External powers, especially the US, hold a significant role in establishing the level of control the military can exercise in the country’s politics, forcing the military on many occasions to cede political control to democratic institutions.

Now we see China as an emerging global power climbing on the ‘major power’ bandwagon and playing a role in setting new political norms in its neighbouring countries, including Pakistan.

The new political norms are very authoritarian and are aimed to enforce social and political conformity. Anti-democratic activities and authoritarian practices were never as blatant in Pakistan as they are now.

Before CPEC, China’s relations with Pakistan were limited to the security and defence sector and mainly channeled through the Pakistani military.

After the democratic transition in 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) held power from 2008 to 2013 and showed keenness to develop closer economic relations with China.

Under Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz) government which ruled from 2013 to 2018, China and Pakistan set out to build significant relationships beyond defence and the security sector.

Sharif’s government was very ambitious in maintaining civilian control of strategic commercial and development projects, which irked the military.

Since 2018, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), under cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, has been the ruling party.

How does Pakistan’s relationship with China affect its ties to the US?

The military seems as passionate as the civilian government to establish economic ties with China and the materialisation of the CPEC projects, however, it has been roiled by the civilian control of the project.

PTI, which is considered to be closely associated with the military, often criticised the previous government for prioritising the CPEC project, and claimed PML-N politicians were taking personal benefits.

All other political parties in opposition allege the military rigged the 2018 election and made a coup-less coup to carry PTI to power. Since taking office, Imran Khan has publicly criticiserd democracy and Western liberal norms and values.

In his first speech after winning the election, he praised China for its national poverty alleviation strategy and anti-corruption drives.

In practice, his government has undermined democratic institutions, systematically suppressed political dissent and critical voices while outsourcing the governance to the military. The military practically controls the country’s governance, foreign policy, and economy now.

It is evident that the incumbent government is following the political playbook of China.

US strategic disengagement in the region following a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrates a more marginal US interest in Pakistan.

China continues to be the only country with an interest in investing in Pakistan’s infrastructure. US disengagement and a shift to an Indo-Pacific strategy has given a new impetus to authoritarianism in Pakistan.

However, the military and political elite in Pakistan wish to keep a relationship with the US intact while allowing China’s infrastructure investment in Pakistan, as the military has been the primary beneficiary of billions of US dollars of aid weaponry, and training.

The personal future of many officials in Pakistan is tied with the West, especially the US.

It could mend its relationships with US If it continues to value at least American-led democratic norms.

Islamabad cannot save its relationship with the US while crushing freedom of expression, rebuking democratic norms and practising China’s political model.

Tasmia Tahira is a founding member of the national research network Middle East and Islamic Studies (MEISA) hosted by the University of Otago and is a doctoral student at the Centre for Defence and Security...

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