It is no secret that the government under Nawaz Sharif has been overtly trying to forge strong socio-economic ties with China. The government has always tilted towards infrastructural development, which has been mainly Punjab centric, and has looked towards its key ally, China, in order to help fund numerous projects.
In lieu of this policy to foster and hone key relations, Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif took a two-day trip to China, from 27th-29th July. During this visit, he signed seventeen memorandums of understand and seven agreements between Pakistan and various Chinese companies in Beijing. These agreements were with relation to projects on water treatment, textiles, energy, establishment of industrial estates, steel, promotion of exhibitions and trade fairs and providing vocational training. Shahbaz Sharif also took the opportunity to emphasize his desire for budding Pakistani entrepreneurs to work together with Chinese firms, in order to strengthen cooperation and increase trade.
Interestingly, Shahbaz Sharif, despite being an elected representative of the province of Punjab, signed a plethora of agreements as if he were the representative of the entire country. This is a manifestation of PMLN’s continued focus towards developing Punjab, at the expense of other provinces. No other elected representative from other provinces in Pakistan was present, which made Shahbaz Sharif not just the representative from Punjab, but Pakistan itself. Conversely, the other 3 provincial Chief Ministers lack such international outreach and unremitting access to federal government’s funds and resources.
Moreover, the younger Sharif’s posturing as the ‘Man of Steel’ has been heeded by the Chinese as well and it seems that the Chinese government acknowledged Shahbaz’s special status, which is why it accorded the Punjab Chief Minister with special protocol. This stupendous welcome has a considerable deal to do with the inexorable support lent to him by the elder Sharif and his federal dispensation. Under normal circumstances, this protocol, whereby one Chinese minister accompanies the official all day, is only given to heads of states. It could be argued that this protocol is a result of the importance that China gives to Pakistan, and a tangible manifestation of how much regard Chinese officials have for our Pakistani representatives. Moreover, almost all of the memorandum of understandings that were signed were focused towards projects that shall be implemented or are currently taking place in Punjab. For instance, Shahbaz Sharif said that he plans on making a recommendation to the federal government of Pakistan to award medals to the head of the best performing Chinese company working in Punjab.
During the visit, the Punjab Industries Minister, Chaudhry Shafiq and Vice Governor of Shandong province Ji Xiang Q, signed a memorandum of understanding to encourage Chinese investment in the energy, dairy and textile sectors in Punjab. This also speaks volumes about the emphasis being placed by PMLN towards developing Punjab, which is where their main vote bank lies.
Shortly after Shahbaz Sharif’s arrival, the Punjab Shandong Business Conference was held on the 27th of July, which was presided over by Shahbaz Sharif and Ji Xiang Q. During the conference, various Chinese investors gave speeches about how Punjab was an attractive province in Pakistan to invest in, and other Chinese investors currently working in Punjab were also encouraged to speak about their experiences.
Clearly, the PMLN government is busy installing sound, Chinese infrastructure and development projects in Punjab in order to satiate their vote bank, in order to ensure their success in the next general elections. Such a tilted policy that places Punjab on a higher socio-economic pedestal than other provinces might prove to be costly in the future. Thus, in order to ensure cordiality and equity, between the federating units of the country, the PML-N led government must alter its priorities and pursue a more holistic and inclusive agenda.