Widespread protests, spearheaded by the radical Sunni-Barelvi party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), broke out following the Supreme Court decision on October 31 to acquit Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, of the charge of blasphemy and overturn the death sentence awarded to her by the lower courts. She had been incarcerated since 2009 on the blasphemy charge. TLP called for mutiny against the army leadership and assassination of the judges. PM Imran Khan issued a stern warning to the protestors in an address to the nation. He said that Pakistan was founded in the name of Islam and the verdict given by the Supreme Court was in accordance with the Constitution and the teachings of the holy Quran and Sunnah. He regretted the language used by the protesting radical groups against the judges and their call for rebellion in the armed forces. He called upon the people not to be provoked by the agitators and warned that if the protests continued, the state would fulfil its duty to protect the people and their property. The Prime Minister came in for praise from liberal commentators for the tough stand taken by him against the religious extremists. However, within two days, the government seemed to capitulate in the face of the continuing protests and reached a deal with TLP to make them call off their agitation. It agreed to initiate the legal process to place Asia Bibi’s name on the exit control list to prevent her from leaving the country, not to oppose a review petition filed in the Supreme Court against its decision and release all those arrested in the course of the protests. Uncertainty continued to surround Asia Bibi’s whereabouts, with some media reports, denied by the government, indicating that she had been quietly sent out of Pakistan. Later in the month, the government arrested several TLP activists, including its head, Khadim Hussain Rizvi and charged them with treason and terrorism. It would be recalled that Tehreek-e-Labbaik had shot to fame in October 2017 when it organized protests spanning three weeks against an amendment to the election law. It participated in the July 2018 election, garnering a noticeable number of votes. Subsequently, it was the lead player in forcing PM Imran Khan to drop the Princeton economist Atif Mian from his Economic Advisory Council on account of his belonging to the Ahmediyya sect. Therefore, government’s handling of this influential radical party will be worth watching.
Balance of Payments crisis
Since the advent of the Imran Khan government, there had been reports of Pakistan seeking a bailout, its thirteenth, from the IMF to tide over its serious balance of payments crisis (its foreign exchange reserves fell to a five year low of a little over 8 billion dollars at the end of September, representing import bill of less than two months). In August, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a reference to the mounting Chinese debt to Pakistan as a result of the CPEC, had said that Pakistan would not be allowed to use the IMF cash to pay its Chinese debts. Even as Pakistan pursued the IMF track, it also took steps to secure assistance from friendly countries. During Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia in end October, the Saudis reportedly agreed to provide $3 billion in foreign currency support for a year and a one year deferred payment facility up to $3 billion for import of oil. Later in November, Imran paid his second visit to the UAE (the first was in September), Pakistan’s major oil supplier, and was reported to have asked for financial assistance and deferred payment facility for oil supplies. In the run up to the Prime Minister’s visit to China in the beginning of November, there were expectations of financial assistance from China too. Following Imran’s meeting with the Chinese Premier, Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said that while there was agreement in principle on China providing necessary support and assistance to Pakistan in tiding over its current difficulties, the specifics would be discussed in detail by the competent authorities of the two countries. Subsequently, the Chinese Consul General in Lahore said in a TV interview that instead of hard cash, China was planning to provide assistance in the form of investment in fresh projects. Simultaneously, Pakistan also started discussions with an IMF team in Islamabad for a bailout package, reportedly in the range of $6 to 8 billion. However, media reports indicated persisting differences between the two sides on the tough conditionalities demanded by the IMF, notably concerning increase in energy prices, enhanced taxes and complete disclosure of impact of the Chinese assistance. At the end of November, Finance Minister Asad Umar said that tough Pakistan wanted to obtain a bailout package from the IMF to ease and open up other funding avenues, it was not in a hurry to do so.
Imran Khan’s visit to China
Imran Khan paid a visit to China, his first as Prime Minister, from November 2 to 5 and met President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang among others. The visit came in the backdrop of reports concerning the desire of the PTI government to review the CPEC projects and Pakistan’s search for financial assistance from friendly countries to tide over its balance of payments crisis. In September, Prime Minister’s Advisor on Commerce, Textile, Industry and Production, Abdul Razak Dawood had been quoted as saying that the previous government had done a bad job in negotiating the CPEC projects and hinting at a review (he later said that he had been quoted out of context). In a lengthy joint statement, the two sides agreed that BRI represents a win-win model of international cooperation and “the fast development of CPEC has played a significant role in the Belt and Road cooperation.” They reviewed the “early harvest phase” of CPEC and expressed satisfaction that rapid progress had been made in all areas especially the energy sector. They reaffirmed their complete consensus on the future trajectory of the CPEC, timely completion of its ongoing projects and joint efforts for realization of its full potential “with focus on socio-economic development, job creation and livelihoods and accelerating cooperation in industrial development, industrial parks and agriculture.” Recognizing the significance of Gwadar as an important node in cross-regional connectivity and “the central pillar of CPEC”, they agreed to speed up progress on it and its auxiliary projects. They dismissed the growing negative propaganda against CPEC and expressed their determination to safeguard it from all threats. In a separate statement, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Kong Xuanyou, said that there was no plan to scale back the CPEC, though it would be altered somewhat to “tilt in favour of areas relating to people’s lives.” While agreeing to take concrete measures to address trade imbalance (against Pakistan), the two sides decided to conclude the second phase of their Free Trade Agreement as early as possible. (The second phase of the Free Trade Agreement was due to begin in January 2014, but has been hanging fire on account of persisting differences between the two sides). The Chinese side conveyed its support to “Pakistan’s commitment and efforts to counter terrorism” and “assured Pakistan of its support in implementing its counter-terrorism strategy.” It also recognized Pakistan’s efforts in actively strengthening financial regulations to combat terrorism financing “and called on all relevant parties to view Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts in an objective and fair manner.” Both sides expressed their belief that “ a peaceful, stable, cooperative and prosperous South Asia is in the common interest of all parties” and emphasized “the importance of pursuit of dialogue and resolution of all outstanding disputes to promote regional cooperation and advance the goals of lasting peace, stability and shared prosperity.” China expressed its support to “Pakistan’s efforts for improvement of Pakistan-India relations and for settlement of outstanding disputes between the two countries.” Pakistan supported active participation of China in SAARC. On Afghanistan, they supported ‘Afghan-owned and Afghan-led’ peace and reconciliation process, emphasized trilateral China-Afghanistan-Pakistan consultations at the Foreign Ministers level to deepen trilateral cooperation and decided to hold the second tripartite foreign ministers talks within this year.
On November 23, the Chinese Consulate in Karachi came under a terror attack resulting in the killing of two policemen, two civilians, besides the three terrorists. There was no casualty amongst the Chinese personnel. Baluchistan Liberation Army claimed the responsibility for the attack. China asked Pakistan to beef up security of the Consulate. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said that China would not waver in its commitment to the CPEC project and expressed confidence that Pakistan could ensure the security of the Chinese citizens. India condemned the attack saying that there can be no justification for any act of terrorism. Another terror attack the same day killed over 30 persons and injured around 50 in the Orakzai district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
War of words between President Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan
In a sign of continued discord between the two countries, a war of words broke out between President Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Responding to the query of a Fox News anchor on November 18 whether it would have been nice if the US had got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than it did, President Trump said that he was living right next to the military academy (Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul) and “everyone in Pakistan knew he was there.” He added that Pakistan was being given $1.3 billion a year, which he had stopped “because they don’t do anything for us, they don’t do a damn thing for us.” In a subsequent tweet, he reiterated that Pakistan was being paid billions of dollars, but “they never told us he (Osama) was living there” and the payment had been stopped because Pakistan did nothing in return. Besides the Osama case, Trump cited Afghanistan as another example of Pakistan doing nothing for the US. Shortly thereafter, PM Imran Khan tweeted that Trump’s “false assertions” added insult to injury because Pakistan had suffered in the US War on Terror in terms of loss of life, destabilization and economic costs. He added that Pakistan’s losses were far greater than the US assistance and it would now do what was best for its people and interests. He pointed out that Pakistan continued to provide free lines of ground and air communications to Afghanistan for the US forces and called upon the US to do a serious assessment of why in spite of thousands of NATO and Afghan troops and $1 trillion reportedly spent on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban were stronger than before. COAS, Qamar Javed Bajwa also asserted a day later that Pakistan had done much more for peace in Afghanistan than any other country. The Foreign Office summoned the US Charge d’affaires to lodge a protest against Trump’s remarks and claimed that Pakistan’s intelligence had provided the ‘initial evidence’ that led to the tracing of Osama bin Laden. It would be recalled that in an opinion piece published on May 2, 2011 in the Washington Post, the then President Zardari had also claimed that a decade of cooperation between the US and Pakistan had resulted in Osama’s elimination and Pakistan’s early assistance in identifying an Al-Qaeda courier had led the Americans to Osama.
Earlier in the month, taking note of the ordinance banning JuD and Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation having lapsed, the US had called upon Pakistan to urgently enact legislation to formally proscribe the above organizations.
India and Pakistan decided to open a corridor for travel by Indian pilgrims to Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib, the final resting place of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, located in Pakistan barely three kilometres from the border in Punjab. It was an old Indian proposal that had not been agreed to earlier by Pakistan. Following adoption of a resolution by the Indian Cabinet on November 22 to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, India urged the Pakistan government to build a corridor with suitable facilities in their territory to facilitate visit of pilgrims from India to Kartarpur Sahib throughout the year. Government of India also decided to build the corridor to the border in the Indian territory. Pakistan reacted positively to the proposal the same day. The Vice President of India laid the foundation of the corridor on the Indian side on November 26. PM Imran Khan did the same on the Pakistani side on November 28 in the presence of General Bajwa. The External Affairs Minister of India, who was invited for the ceremony by her Pakistani counterpart, regretted the invitation citing prior commitments. However, India was represented by Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Minister of State Hardeep Singh Puri. Speaking on the occasion, Imran Khan said that Pakistan wished to move forward and build a civilized relationship with India, but had just one problem- Kashmir, which could be resolved with determination. On November 24, recalling the fall of Berlin Wall, Prime Minister Modi had said that Kartarpur corridor might become a reason to bring people together. However, the hope of the corridor serving as a step to a bigger breakthrough was short lived. On November 28, External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj said that the Kartarpur corridor and dialogue between India and Pakistan were different things. Unless and until Pakistan stopped terrorism activities against India, there would be no dialogue and India would not participate in the SAARC summit in Pakistan.
December 20, 2018