Shehbaz Sharif expressed his aim to revitalise the estimated $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor minutes after becoming Pakistan’s new prime minister on Monday (CPEC).
A Chinese embassy group was among the first callers on Sharif when he started work on Tuesday, which was no coincidence.
When President Xi Jinping visited Islamabad in April 2015, he personally introduced Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure scheme.
Zhao Lijian, who is now known as the Chinese foreign ministry’s hawkish spokesman, was the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad at the time.
Zhao also knew Sharif, who was extensively involved in negotiating which infrastructure projects would be built in Punjab province during the 15-year CPEC scheme’s “early harvest” period as the province’s chief minister.
In the three years leading up to 2018, Zhao and Sharif attended dozens of CPEC meetings.
So it was no surprise when Zhao, in his current capacity as a foreign ministry spokesman, was asked for China’s reaction to Sharif’s encouraging statements about the CPEC by a reporter from Pakistan’s official Associated Press news agency.
Zhao said, “We noted Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s words on the CPEC and greatly commend them.”
Why is the CPEC so crucial to Shehbaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan?
By the time Shehbaz Sharif’s term as Punjab chief minister ended in 2018, the CPEC had allowed his brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to fulfil his promise to eliminate Pakistan’s acute electricity shortages.
In just three years, CPEC projects had added a total of 10,400 megawatts of power, with more on the way.
Islamabad, the Sharifs’ home city of Lahore, and Multan, Pakistan’s heartland metropolis, all received the country’s first public transit systems.
Mustafa Hyder Sayed, executive director of the Pakistan-China Centre, an Islamabad-based research tank, claimed Shehbaz “played a vital role in propelling the CPEC forward.”
“His work ethic and ability to complete projects ahead of schedule became so well-known that the Chinese leadership referred to it as ‘Punjab speed,'” Sayed explained.
However, in July 2017, Pakistan’s Supreme Court removed Nawaz as Prime Minister, and in July 2018, an accountability court sentenced him to ten years in prison for corruption.
Imran Khan was sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan in August 2018, after his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won a general election rigged by the military-led establishment.
Soon after, Shehbaz was accused of receiving payments from Chinese state-owned firms working on CPEC projects in Punjab province by Khan’s cabinet colleagues.