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Pakistan’s growing engagement with Africa: Proxy for China?

Islamabad has recently announced the ‘Engage Africa’ Initiative through which Pakistan aims to deepen, revive and reinforce its relations with African countries.

Pakistan, with its new initiative, wants to build upon existing relations with African partners and open avenues of mutually beneficial collaborations.

The Pak-Africa Trade Development Conference 2020, in this regard, was held in Nairobi and in 2021 African Envoys meeting was arranged with Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi in Islamabad.

The Pak FM is regularly visiting Africa in an effort to boost economic cooperation, trade ties and to reaffirm diplomatic ties with Africa. Pakistan has also set up a Pak-Africa Special Engagement Fund with a corpus of Pakistan Rupee 100 million and is also looking at strengthening linkages with African Union and other economic communities, ET has learnt from Pakistan watchers.

Ironically, Pakistan is trying to reinvigorate its relations with Africa while its own economy stands at the brink of collapse and it has little to offer to Africa. According to ‘World Economies’, a website which records economic data of the countries, the GDP data quality rating in context of Pakistan is unreliable and the debt levels of the country have reached alarmingly high levels with the debt to GDP ratio as high as 87 per cent.

In the year 2017 it was estimated that Pakistan’s debt liabilities totalled about $ 89 billion, of which $ 19 billion are to China. The GDP numbers are shrinking even more due to the pandemic with a possibility to fall into a major recession.

As Pakistan inches forward to engage with Africa, neither of them is likely to gain but it will only end up benefitting China the most. Over the years, Islamabad has aligned its position with Beijing on critical and sensitive issues primarily due to heavy indebtedness to China and its complete dependence on the Chinese-funded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pakistan’s ‘Engage Africa’ Initiative is, thus, likely to work closely with China to secure its regional interests in Africa. This alliance will also help China to counter alliances such as the Quad and India-Japan Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) Initiative with Pakistan pushing as a ‘militarily auxiliary’ of China in the Africa through ‘Horn of Africa’ piggybacking China which has a naval base in Djibouti, according to a Pakistan watcher.

Apart from geostrategic concerns, China will also benefit economically from this initiative as it is the Chinese products that will gain easier access to African market through the CPEC. According to reports, China is also installing fibre optic and power cables, called the Pakistan East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) cable in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean which will build a safe and quick route for internet traffic to Europe through a cable managed and supervised exclusively by China.

In a bid to dominate the world through global communications, digital technology and transfer, the digital projects under China’s BRI are gaining more prominence and Africa has an important role to play in this gamut of relations. Pakistan’s new expanding role in Africa, therefore, will be well- aligned with the strategic aims and Beijing’s intent in Africa and the wider world.

Currently, Pakistan’s engagement in Africa is likely to enhance the export of drugs and Islamic fundamentalism to Africa warned an informed source from Africa. This holds more currency with the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan since the development would bolster the synergy between the syndicates of drug producers in Pakistan and opium growers in Afghanistan to boost the supply lines significantly. Similarly, the so-called victory of the Taliban is likely encourage Islamic fundamentalism in sensitive regions of Southern Tanzania and Northern Mozambique.

Many Pakistani nationals have been found with drugs in Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa in the last few years. In fact the three countries have become a focal point of the route, called the ‘Southern route of Pakistani Drug Trade’, the above mentioned source informed.

Reports have pointed out that the heroin processed mostly in Pak laboratories from opium cultivated in Afghanistan goes from Makran coast of Pakistan by dhows to Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa, which is then moved further to places in African markets and Europe by traffickers.
A large number of Pakistani nationals who are involved in drug trade have settled in Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania and they in tandem with the drug dealers in Pakistan. South African authorities confiscated a huge consignment of over 340 kilograms of heroin on September 9, 2020 suspected to have originated from Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Tanzania, over a dozen of Pakistani nationals were arrested in 2017 with a large consignment of heroin and amphetamine.

Exchange programmes with Pakistan may also be a mere rhetoric. The radicalization of youth is extremely widespread in the country and terrorism has also increased at alarming levels. With social tensions already existing in certain parts of Africa, the situation could be well exploited by Pak fundamentalists and their proliferation in Africa can prove to be detrimental to the stability and peace of African society, an expert pointed out.

It was also reported that the rebels in Mozambique were ideologically motivated by the Islamic fundamentalists from the neighboring countries including Tanzania.

An active engagement with Pakistan, which is acting as a lynchpin of China, will only further China’s interests in the region at the cost of Africa’s real development, besides exposing the continent to drugs and Islamic fundamentalism.