What is the significance of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan, his first abroad this year? The answer reflects the many dimensions of a relationship which has remained rock firm in the face of changing and sometimes difficult global and regional currents. Though not well known, in his youth, the President was Staff Officer to General Geng Biao the second Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan in the formative phase of this already close bilateral relationship, who went on to become Vice Premier, and then Defence Minister. From the General’s fond reminiscences sprang the President’s earliest favourable memories of Pakistan that resonated when in his address he told the Pakistani Parliament that he felt he was visiting his own brother’s home. That is relevant as with each new generation of leaders maintaining ties at the level of China’s post independence period, becomes important.

The visit planned earlier was delayed due to Pakistan’s own compulsions. China, keen to reschedule, maintained the visit to Pakistan though planned subsequent visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt were postponed. The political relationship is already at a strategic level. During the visit it was significantly upgraded to an All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership. Defence and defence technology cooperation, already significant for safeguarding Pakistan’s national security in a difficult neighbourhood, will be enhanced. A partnership not directed against anyone, but contributing to the maintenance of peace, stability and security in the region in which, as in the area beyond in disturbed flux from Yemen, across the Middle east to North Africa, others are balancing and rebalancing on and offshore.

The core objective of this visit is to lift the economic aspect of the bilateral relationship to the same level as the political and strategic components. How is that to be done? First of all a common overarching vision of a community of shared destiny. Secondly, within that framework making Pakistan’s port of Gwadar the southern anchor of the One Road-One –Belt Eurasian connectivity for both the road and maritime silk routes. Thirdly developing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from Gwadar to Kashgar to open up the hinterlands of both countries to connectivity and trade internally, with other regional countries, and across the seas; cutting down distances, time duration, and costs of alternative routes.

Fourthly, massive investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure, which has been unable to keep pace, by prioritizing: energy generation in hydro, coal, solar, wind , and IAEA safeguarded civil nuclear power; transportation including improving highways linking the border of both countries and further inland, also the feasibility of upgrading the main North-South railway line; and industry as well as Pakistan’s economic zones.

Having negotiated Pakistan’s 2004 agreement with China against extremism, terrorism, and separatism, as I expected cooperation in combatting terrorism will continue as a significant part of joint actions; with China recognizing Pakistan’s role combatting ETIM. More Chinese will be working in Pakistan as economic projects get underway. Pakistan will increase measures for their security and a special force is being raised for this purpose.

The pivotal aspect of the visit is not just the substantial $46 billion quantum of Chinese projects that should flow into Pakistan during the early harvest and beyond. Rather, it is how effectively Pakistan can implement these projects and utilize new investment windows such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank of which it is a founder member and the Silk Road Fund. Joint cooperative mechanisms for the CPEC and other cooperation are in place. However, given Pakistan’s generally indifferent record, the key Ministries must be severely tasked and overseen to pursue projects and programmes to reach successful conclusion. With the whole world competing for Chinese investment, there is no room for backsliding.

President Xi Jinping’s visit is a huge opportunity for Pakistan to lift the public spirit and a message to its political class to close ranks for the urgent imperative of national development. Focusing and following through will provide: a firmer foundation for Pakistan’s stability and security; a yet stronger bilateral relationship to withstand present and future regional and international challenges; opportunities provided by connectivity for trade and energy access; and people to people contacts to imprint the younger generation on whom the future of the relationship depends.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat.

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