Top officers of the Pakistan armed forces have been undertaking a flurry of visits to China in connection with the Panamagate issue and its fallout on the Pakistan political system, which China fears could lead to the derailing of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.
Since October 2016, senior Pakistan Army officials have been reassuring the Chinese leadership that the CPEC will take priority over the potential Panama Leaks fallout on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. On its part, China has firmly told Pakistan's top military brass that the Joint Investigation Team ( JIT ) must not be allowed to derail the CPEC under any circumstances.
Between October 30 and November 4, 2016, Pakistan's Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman visited Beijing and met with China's Defence Minister Chang Wanquan, the Chinese Air Force Chief and other political leaders, where he told them pointedly that projects related to the CPEC would go forward in an uninterrupted manner and that there would be no fallout of Panamagate on the political leadership in Pakistan.
Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Beijing between March 15 and 17, 2017 and reassured the Chinese political and military leadership of Pakistan's commitment to secure the USD 57 billion CPEC.
It was categorically conveyed and reiterated to Beijing that ongoing investigations of Panamagate would not in any way have an impact on the CPEC. In his meetings with China's Executive Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Fan Changlong, Chief of Joint Services Department, General Fang Fenghui and Commander of the People's Liberation Army General Li Zhuocheng, topics centered around the CPEC such as security, economy defence cooperation and other issues of mutual interest were discussed. Both sides also agreed to advance the CPEC project notwithstanding Panamagate. China's message was that the Pakistan Army-run JIT needs to ensure that the CPEC remains the nation's top priority and not Panamagate.
Vice Premier Zhang lauded the rapid development of China-Pakistan ties and suggested that Beijing and Islamabad enhance defence and security cooperation and push forward the building of the CPEC in an orderly manner.
Similar initiatives were taken by Pakistan's Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Mohammad Zakaullah during his six day visit to China from May 13 to 18, 2017 and subsequently by the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat between June 14 and 16, 2017.
Human rights activists, however, see the China-Pakistan axis with regard to the CPEC in a different light, claiming that the bilateral bonhomie being bandied about is virtually non-existent, and that China has in fact put huge pressure on the Pakistan military to convince the Joint Investigation Team looking into Panamagate to go easy on the political leadership in Islamabad.
Claudia Heidelberg, a human rights activist from Germany, said, "China is only interested in the smooth running of all CPEC projects. Since the Pakistani Army has taken over the judiciary and the executive, China is now using it to exert pressure on the investigation commission. This contravenes any law-abiding behavior. China is attempting to force the CPEC on Pakistan with all its might. I strongly condemn this."
Yoana Barakova, a research analyst with the Amsterdam-based European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS), said, "China and the Pakistan Army working in tandem to delay the JIT in Pakistan could lead to political chaos in the country, and thereby, disrupt the construction of the CPEC. It is clear that after being dependent on the United States, the Pakistan Army has again found a buyer to sell its sovereignty and conceal its failures."
Barakova further stated, "The fact that both China and the Pakistani Army are trying to ensure that the construction of CPEC does not face any disruption, makes it clear that Chinese strategic interests and the Pakistani Army's military interests are more important than the hard-earned money of Pakistani tax-payers."
"The cover-up of this scam orchestrated by China and the Pakistan military establishment in order to safeguard the construction of the CPEC is no less than a crime to camouflage other crimes," she said.
Referring specifically to the abysmal situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, where quite a few CPEC projects are under construction, Barakova said, "In a country wherein the highest offices of the government are involved in large scale scams, what good can the people of Gilgit Baltistan expect from the construction of the CPEC, which besides being in contravention of international law, exploits the local resources of Gilgit Baltistan and its people."
"The Pakistani state should focus on rooting out corruption and terrorism instead of selling its country and the disputed area of Gilgit Baltistan under the rubric of infrastructural development," she added.
It may be recalled that three days ago, the six-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) that probed the Sharif family's business dealings, submitted its final report to the Supreme Court in which it recommended the filing of a corruption case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his sons Hassan Nawaz and Hussain Nawaz, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, under the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) ordinance 1999.
The Sharif government as described the report as "trash" and said it will challenge the report in the Supreme Court and will "completely expose and unveil its contradictions and falsifications."
If Sharif gets an adverse court decision, he may have to demit office, and this could create political instability in Pakistan, and in turn cast a shadow over the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through disputed territory and creates alternative maritime trade routes for China to gain access to the Middle East and Central Asia
The CPEC is a central part of China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and Beijing hopes to use it to establish the Yuan as an alternate global currency to the Dollar.