Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif has been to China before, and has not just visited Saudi Arabia, but spent his exile there, but never before have his visits meant meeting such powerful people. For once, both were multilateral visits. In China, he was attending the One Belt One Road Summit, in Saudi Arabia the ‘Islamic NATO’. Hardly had he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing that he shared the room with US President Donald Trump in Riyadh. True, he could not meet President Putin alone, or President Trump even in company.

Thus, neither exercise proved much of a triumph. President Trump did not grant him a meeting on the sidelines of the summit, while the sideline meeting with President Putin was not one-on-one. The absence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi from both summits prevented a sideline meeting, and though he was not invited to the summit in Saudi Arabia, he had been to the one in Beijing, and had snubbed it by not attending.

That summit was the one at which Mian Nawaz had said that geopolitics should come after economics. However, the Indian absence showed that it still placed geopolitics ahead, while the second summit was about geopolitics. One target for India had been the name of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Matters had gone to the extent that if China had changed the name, India might well have attended the Summit. India has a problem with the CPEC passing through disputed territory, as its Chinese end is in the Federally Administered Northern Areas, now Gilgit-Baltistan. Because India still desires to cling to Held Kashmir, It is willing to forgo the benefits that would accrue to it from being part of the One Belt One Road system.

China has an interest in developing the neighbourhood, and for the first time in a long time, has the money to do it. That might help explain why it wants, among other things, corporate farming rights in Pakistan. China may have tamed its population growth with a draconian one-child policy, but it has not cured it. It is searching for ways to feed that population, including getting hold of land outside China. Though any land it might obtain in Pakistan would be a new departure for this country, China has already acquired land abroad, mostly in Africa.

China would like its oldest ally in the region to do that. However, Pakistan has its own view of the relationship, and would like its position as a very old ally to mean exemption. Another dimension is that Pakistan itself has a burgeoning population, which it will be hard-pressed to feed, and faces a water shortage which is expected to grow as global warming occurs. While China needs food from wherever it can get it, it might not make sense for Pakistan to export food in the usual way, let alone give China land to grow food for itself.

Perhaps one of the sweeteners being offered for this is the $50 billion to be invested in the Indus Cascade, expected to develop 40,000 MW of hydroelectricity along the Indus, and in addition to the $46 billion also to be invested for the CPEC. China is able to throw around this sort of money mainly because it has it, as a result of the huge surpluses it has run up in trade with the USA. The Indus Cascade investment is going to substitute for (and expand on) the oil- and coal-based projects for the CPEC that have been cancelled for not being sufficiently feasible. The whole One Belt One Road scheme is meant to showcase China’s arrival on the world stage.

The opportunity to meet President Trump has been passed over, allegedly because the summit itself was too crowded. There seems to have been less enthusiasm on the US side for the meeting than the Russian side in Beijing. Even in Beijing, it is significant that President Putin did not meet Mian Nawaz one-on-one, but only in the presence of the host President Xi Jinping. It seems almost as if Putin wanted to offend India as little as possible, and may not have met him, had it not been for the flare-up along the LoC, combined with the Jhadav crisis, that threatened the peace.

That pattern of not offending India continued in Riyadh, when Mian Nawaz was not called on to address the Summit, but had to hear President Trump tell it that India was a victim of terrorism, while omitting any mention of Pakistan. That was shorthand for India’s claim that the font of terrorism in the region was Pakistan, and that the liberation struggle in Kashmir was actually the result of Pakistani incitement and was a form of terrorism. Mian Nawaz not being allowed to speak prevented him from agitating the Kashmir issue, and raising the issue of state terrorism, and the ongoing agitation in Kashmir, which is something India would like a lid kept on. And there was no meeting with Trump.

Even though Mian Nawaz was away, only flying in for a weekend and a meeting of the National Economic Council between summits, the relationship with India remained at the fore. There was the International Court of Justice ruling staying the execution of convicted spy Kulbhushan Jhadav, as well as the detention and beating up of two Pakistani Kabul embassy staffers by Afghan intelligence.

The experiences should have brought home to Mian Nawaz the difficulty of relying on either China or the USA. The USA, especially after the civilian nuclear accord with India, has eagerly courted India as its policeman in the region. Though the Pakistani establishment is relying on the relationship with China, should not be surprised if the price becomes the sort of subjection to China that India seeks. While India is definitely fazed by the Chinese crossing of the Indus for the first time, and in such a big way, is the Pakistani establishment willing to pay the price of making friends with India whenever it obeys the economic imperatives that the One Belt One Road represents.

It cannot turn to the Islamic world, at least not as it stands at present. Not when the Islamic Summit also has the US President attending. It should be clear that if the USA promotes an Islamic NATO, Indian interests will be protected. Pakistan may well be a member, it may even have a retired general its commander, but if the body is directed against Iran, then that will be a problem. A situation has arisen that Pakistan finds that whichever way it turns, it finds an Indian hand in the way. It has found that both the world’s superpowers, Russia and the USA, prefer India at its cost. It has also found that in its drive to contain Iran, even Saudi Arabia is willing to let India push its agenda at the cost of Pakistan. The Summits might prove blessings in disguise if the right lessons are drawn. However, it is not at all likely that they will be, leaving Pakistan to keep on paying for the shortcomings of its establishment.

 

n             The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.