Nawaz Sharif in China: Under siege at home, Pakistan PM's image abroad receives boost

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may be facing investigations at home, but his image abroad appears to have improved ever since China placed Pakistan at the heart of its One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative.

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

What's more, he will be the first South Asian leader to meet with US President Donald Trump. Sharif flew to Beijing on Friday to attend China’s mega Silk Road summit, where leaders of 22 countries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin will also be present.

India had been invited but has decided to boycott the event (though no official announcement has been made so far) being held in Beijing on Sunday and Monday to promote President Xi Jinping’s pet project.

New Delhi has raised the red flag on Obor because China is building infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which India claims as its own. This is the ostensible reason for India to stay away.

But India, like several Western countries, including the United States saw Obor as China’s attempts to expand links between Asia-Africa and Europe, and Beijing using it to expand its sphere of influence across the three continents.

But after the mercurial US President Donald Trump met with his Chinese counterpart last month, the rhetoric changed. Trump has been all praise for the Chinese leader and is now sending a delegation to attend the summit.

All of India’s neighbours, with the exception of Bhutan, including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal will be in attendance. China was keen to have India on board.

Even the normally high decibel, state-controlled Global Times had this to say in a recent piece: "If New Delhi has concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a flagship project in Obor, India's joining the initiative could cement its economic ties with China and possibly shift the initiative's centre of gravity."

With India out of action, Pakistan is hogging much of the limelight.

Sharif flew to Beijing on Friday at the head of an enormous delegation, including key cabinet ministers and Sartaj Aziz, the PM’s adviser for foreign affairs. Sharif has already held bilateral talks with President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang ahead of the summit. A number of memorandum of understanding (MoU) were also signed on Saturday.

According to reports in the Pakistan press, a number of MoUs related to the China-Pakistan Economc Corridor will also be signed. These include construction of the Gwadar airport, an expressway and upgrading of rail tracks. Even as the MoUs were being signed, news of eight labourers being shot dead by unknown gunmen as they were building a road near Gwadar came in. Though the men were not directly involved in the Cpec project, they were working on the link roads.

Sharif is being accompanied by chief ministers of four provinces — Shahbaz Sharif from Punjab, Pervaiz Khattak from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Nawab Sanaullah Zehri from Balochistan and Murad Ali Shah from Sindh—the chief minsters were present during Sharifs meeting with the top Chinese leaders.

The PM said that their presence underlined the support that the provinces had for Cpec. The Pakistan prime minister will be in China for nearly a week before flying to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with US President Donald Trump. He has been invited by Saudi king Salman bin Abdul Aziz to the US-Arab Summit to be hosted in Riyadh when Trump makes his first foreign visit since taking office.

Trump leaves Washington on 19 May. After Saudi Arabia, he will go to Israel and The Vatican.

Unlike Barack Obama, the new US leader has already made it clear that he would back Saudi Arabia and the Sunni powers against Shia-dominated  Iran. Like many in the US, Trump is suspicious of Iran and has already indicated that he does not support the nuclear agreement fleshed out by Iran, US, China, Russia, France, UK and Germany.

Apart from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman and other Sunni majority countries, Israel is also a bitter critic of the Iran nuclear deal, signed when Barack Obama was in power.

Benjamin Netanyahu is a friend of Trump’s  son-in-law Jared Kushner and gets along famously with Donald Trump. Netanyahu’s personal equation with Obama was cold and Trump’s victory
has once again restored the warmth in US-Israel ties. Having alienated the Muslim world with his travel ban soon after taking office, Trump’s summit with Sunni leaders will be an exercise in bridge building.

Saudi Arabia and its allies will be delighted to get US backing. There will also be a push for regime change in Syria, at the summit, something which the cerebral Obama, having seen what happened in Iraq was reluctant to push.

According to the Pakistani press, Nawaz Sharif will invite the US president to his country. In the past, there was a strong China-Pakistan-US axis. It was, after all, Pakistan that facilitated Nixon’s visit to China.

But chances of that happening are dim. America has had a bitter experience with the Pakistan Army in Afghanistan. Two days ago, Washington blamed Pakistan for the deteriorating ties with India. Soon after becoming president, when Trump spoke to different world leaders, his call to Sharif was particularly warm. So much so that Sharif’s office made it public.

Pakistan’s stock in the Arab world has gone up dramatically in the last few months, with its former army chief Raheel Sharif now commanding the Islamic Military Alliance, a virtually Sunni army with men drawn from 41 countries. Pakistan, which at one time had refused to join the Saudi alliance fighting in Yemen, has now gone back to the Sunni camp headed by Saudi Arabia.

It will be interesting to get a read-out of the Trump-Sharif meeting.


Published Date: May 13, 2017 07:24 pm | Updated Date: May 13, 2017 07:22 pm


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