US on CPEC
HIGH-level engagements between the US and Pakistan on Tuesday resulted in some interesting outcomes. Meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan in Davos, President Donald Trump, who called Mr Khan his “friend”, said that Pakistan and the US had never been as close as they were now.
But though this camaraderie is welcome, speaking in Islamabad, Alice Wells, the State Department’s senior official looking after the South Asia file, delivered yet another critique of CPEC. Ms Wells made some very serious allegations, claiming that firms blacklisted by the World Bank had got CPEC contracts, adding that Pakistan was walking into a debt trap laid by China.
She also urged the government to be more “transparent” about the flagship scheme, described as a game changer by the state.
On Wednesday, the Chinese embassy in Pakistan released a rejoinder to the American official’s criticism. While observing that Beijing would be “more than glad” to see the deepening of Pakistan-US ties, it dismissed the American criticism as “negative propaganda”. It also pointedly asked what Washington had done for Pakistan.
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Some background is necessary here. During the Trump administration, ties between China and the US have been especially frosty, and Ms Wells’s critique of CPEC must be seen in this geopolitical perspective.
However, while good advice from our foreign friends is always welcome, they should avoid giving Pakistan lectures on how to conduct its foreign policy. True, there are some concerns regarding CPEC, and this paper has always called for all projects under the scheme to be made more transparent, and to benefit Pakistan in the long run. But for the Americans to wholly dismiss this giant collaborative effort between Pakistan and China is unacceptable.
Also, the relationship between Islamabad and Beijing is decades old and has a strategic dimension, and Pakistan can ill afford to ditch an ally simply to please another foreign friend. This country values its relationship with the US, but as the Chinese have rightly pointed out, what has Washington done of recent to help uplift Pakistan economically, and stand by it in international forums?
Concerning Mr Trump’s comments, while the US president is prone to making hyperbolic statements, his newfound fondness for Pakistan should be appreciated. As for ties between the states being at an all-time high, this claim is debatable.
After all, the US and Pakistan were quite close when it came to dislodging the Soviets from Afghanistan under Gen Zia’s watch — though history will judge whether that endeavour was the wisest move to make for this country. Moreover, in the aftermath of 9/11, Gen Musharraf was walking in lockstep with Washington in the ‘war on terror’.
If Mr Trump really wants to take the bilateral relationship to new heights, then let the US offer this country trade, investment and assistance. Moreover, if Washington values Pakistan’s friendship, let it publicly back this country’s stance on India-held Kashmir, FATF and other critical matters.
AS the new ECP appointments show, where there is a will there is a way. There was much scepticism on the question of the politicians’ ability to pass this test. But it seems that politics has won, and that consensus has prevailed despite many tense moments along the way. We need more such reminders to instil confidence in the people regarding the success of our as yet fledgling democratic system. The agreement reached by the 12-member bipartisan parliamentary panel over the names of the chief election commissioner and two ECP members from Sindh and Balochistan underscores the potential of our parliamentarians to tackle the most contentious of issues. It proves that when faced with political or legal challenges, they can, indeed, put aside their differences to find a solution. The cooperation between the treasury and opposition benches on amendments to the Army Act is yet another example — though admittedly a controversial one. Indeed, the appointment of the ECP members and chief election commissioner can be seen as a quid pro quo between the two sides. But that is what politics is all about.
With parliament having done its job, the burden of making the ECP an effective and independent entity lies on the new election commission chief. The mistrust between the opposition and government regarding each other’s nominations was a key reason for the year-long squabbling and frequent deadlocks in negotiations over the ECP appointments. With the previous chief retiring last month, the ECP was rendered non-functional. The new head, retired bureaucrat Sikandar Sultan Raja, has his work cut out for him. The first task before him is the finalisation of the electoral rolls and making arrangements for the earliest possible holding of smooth, long-overdue local government polls in Punjab and KP. Secondly, he needs to speed up the hearings on the foreign funding cases against the parties for an early settlement of the issue. At the same time, Mr Raja should firm up effective proposals for parliament to further strengthen the powers of the ECP in order to rebuild the public’s confidence in it. The local government elections will demonstrate the impartiality of the ECP under him and define the rest of his tenure as the head of the commission. The task he is facing is enormous. But he can draw strength from the confidence the parliamentarians have reposed in him on behalf of the people who want democracy to flourish in this country.
Film release blocked
IN his life, Saadat Hasan Manto continually faced charges of obscenity for his short stories. This led him to declare: “If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.” Decades later, the ‘dressmakers’ continue to find new reasons to cloak uncomfortable truths. Filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat experienced the spectacle first-hand, with the commotion created around the release of his film Zindagi Tamasha. Despite being cleared by various censor boards that are known for being ‘strict’, the growing pressure from religious hardliners — based on assumptions they formed while watching a two-minute-long trailer — led to an unspecified delay in its release date. Members of the TLP called for protest rallies against the film, leading to the governments of Sindh and Punjab blocking its release. Meanwhile, Mr Khoosat felt compelled to clarify that he was a “believer” like the protesters after he began receiving “dozens of threatening phone calls and [messages]”. Now, the special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting has informed us that the Central Board of Film Censors has approached the Council of Islamic Ideology for its opinion. While this has resulted in the TLP calling off its protest for the time being, it sets the wrong precedent. Should the council be expected to judge the artistic merit of films in the future?
Far too often, the state cedes to the demands of undemocratic mobs. A refusal to look at reality with all its nuances or have honest conversations about sensitive issues has resulted in a distinctive hypocrisy that permeates Pakistani society. Art has the power to plant the seeds of doubt and challenge long-held prejudices, by creating empathy with those we deem to be very different from ourselves. It is tragic that this threatens some so deeply.