A pilot project will be launched later this year in the southern province of Sindh as Pakistan looks to further strengthen ties with its giant neighbour.
While Islamabad and Washington continue to eye each other warily–and a planned visit by President Barack Obama has been postponed–2011 has already been declared the year of “Pak-China Friendship”.
The country’s cricketing authorities have even considered playing Test matches in China while touring sides avoid Pakistan for fear of terrorist attack.
Now, education authorities in Sindh say they plan to make Mandarin compulsory in schools from Class 6 (10- and 11-year-olds).
“Our trade, educational and other relations are growing with China everyday and now it is necessary for our younger generation to have command over their language,” said Pir Mazhar-ul-Haq¸ senior provincial education minister, as he unveiled the policy.
Learning the language may earn pupils scholarships or trips to China, according to officials
The plan has many critics, however, who say the policy is driven by political considerations. They point out that Pakistan has few Chinese language teachers and an already overstretched education system.
Zubeida Mustafa, columnist and author of Tyranny of Language in Education, accused the Sindh government as moving further into “mass confusion”.
“As is our wont, a handful of unqualified policymakers have taken the hasty decision with no planning having gone into it,” she wrote.
Pakistan is not the only country to take up Mandarin or Cantonese as China’s economic growth transforms world trade.
In July, Swedish officials announced that all primary schools would offer classes in Chinese within 10 years.
But in recent months Pakistan has repeatedly talked up its ties with China–worth $8.7bn in trade each year, a figure expected to almost double in the next three years–as its relationship with the US has soured.
Earlier this year, Pakistan opened a nuclear reactor built with Chinese expertise and the country is now believed to be Islamabad’s biggest supplier of military equipment, including warships and fighter jets.
In May, with his country still reeling from the US’s secret raid to kill Osama bin Laden, Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, thanked China for its uncompromising support.
“We are proud to have China as our best and most trusted friend, and China will always find Pakistan standing beside it at all times,” he said shortly before a visit to Beijing.