President Zardari’s China diplomacy and the Pakistani media

Talking to the Chinese newspaper Guangming Daily, President Asif Ali Zardari has detailed the results of his frequent working visits to China, saying he had identified more than 50 new initiatives and signed three dozen MoUs during one year of his out-of-protocol tours of China. He spoke of Chinese advances in the field of agriculture, signalling his intent of expanding cooperation in that field.

Mr Zardari’s diplomacy is careful while being focused on Pakistan’s self-interest. He mentions the founder of the PPP, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as the architect of Pakistan’s China policy; but the difference this time is that there is no Cold War polarity to contend with. His diplomacy with the United States and the United Kingdom is equally focused on the national interest.

Unfortunately, however, few in Pakistan are concerned with the dynamic behind President Zardari’s intensification of contacts with China. Such is the strength of the destabilising factors in Pakistan that his visits to China are either ignored or described as the pursuit of a dubious “personal” programme. In the past, visits to China by Pakistani leaders were hardly ever criticised. But now even that restraint is gone.

Apart from the problem of terrorism that destabilises Pakistan by undermining public trust in the state, there are two very strong additional factors of instability. The first is the lingering political vendetta that characterised the politics of the 1990s and isolated Pakistan internationally. The second is the trend of using this politics for media trials. The more the charges brought against the government are disproved, the more frequent and intense they become.

The media seduces the inward-looking politician into agitation with its slanted coverage and personal attacks by TV hosts. Every time the politician realises the folly of walking behind the hosts blindly, he beats a retreat from his hostile position, but this is only temporary. Anger rather than opinion is freely expressed on TV, persuading the viewing public to adopt a similar attitude towards the government.

Prior “free market” problems of a faltering economy are blamed on the government without suggesting a way out, apart from bringing back the statism that had failed to resolve Pakistan’s poverty dilemma. Somehow President Zardari is constantly referred to. His visits abroad are resented as if his presence in Pakistan was more important than that of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. But at the same time he is also criticised for usurping the prime ministerial role!

The uproar about corruption is another such case. It may turn out to be justified but at some point, proof of the allegations levelled against the PPP government and indirectly against President Zardari must also be presented. An orchestrated campaign about the Rental Power Producers (RPPs) was mounted against the water and power minister, accusing him of kickbacks, even mentioning the house he had bought abroad. But when the showdown actually took place on a TV channel, the vilification campaign failed to convince.

The state is being taxed with acting in unfamiliar ways. It is first accused of allowing the Americans of planting their mercenary non-state actors in Islamabad in order to target and destroy Pakistan’s nuclear programme; then it is asked to take action against the United States to prove that Pakistan is sovereign. Similarly, the government is rebuked for not getting the states in the Friends of Democratic Pakistan to cough up the promised funds when the fact is that the money in question was targeted but not actually pledged.

There was a time when the critic never tired of the “perfidy” of America in walking away from Pakistan when most needed. This was made the ground for delinking Pakistan’s interests from the US, without however defining an alternative strategy that would offset the political and economic losses thus entailed. Today, as the US admits that it was wrong in abandoning Pakistan in the past and wishes to beef up its presence, the critic insists that America’s exit from Afghanistan and leaving Pakistan alone would be the right scenario.

President Zardari is pilloried if he makes a friendly overture to India; a similar overture made by Mr Nawaz Sharif is either ignored or actually praised. Retired generals and retired bureaucrats whose “stand-still” strategy with India in the past has brought Pakistan to its present crisis point, have crept out of their retirement to express their shock at how President Zardari is harming Pakistan through his diplomacy with China, the United States and the European Union.

Pakistan needs a lot of placatory diplomacy, not hostile “action”, given its past failed strategies. President Zardari is on the right path in his efforts to woo the international community, especially China and the US. Certainly, that is how the world looks at him. (Daily Times)