The Chinese government is concerned whether projects related to the CPEC will ever be completed in the wake of a growing security threat to Chinese workers and the international difficulties faced by Pakistan. In order to convert existing challenges into opportunities, the Chinese government has activated its state-run think tanks to understand the undercurrents impeding consensus between the provincial and federal governments in Pakistan.
As part of this campaign, two Pak-China think tank seminars were held, one each in Islamabad and Beijing, in September. Policymakers from both countries deliberated on the opportunities and challenges of the CPEC.
Convinced about the win-win dimension of the CPEC for both countries, the Chinese have become sensitive about any valid or invalid criticism of the CPEC in our smaller provinces. They are reluctant to assume that the criticism in KP and Baltistan aims more at expanding economic benefits for these regions than targeting the CPEC per se. They are taking the political rhetoric and dynamics in the provincial capitals too seriously. Routine bureaucratic delays and inefficiencies are being seen as a calculated move to block the CPEC’s ‘early harvest projects’.
Their other biggest worry is the concern about security cover for Chinese workers. They quote how many Chinese workers have been killed, kidnapped or fired at in Balochistan and Sindh in the last three years. They worry that the security situation is likely to deteriorate further. Three factors in their view are not to be ignored in this context: a) the Afghan Taliban are surging in Afghanistan and, therefore, may feel embolden to carry out violent acts in Pakistan; b) India has been providing funds for destabilising Balochistan and no respite is in the offing; and c) American global agenda to prop up India against Pakistan and China will not falter any soon. The net outcome is likely to exacerbate insecurity, not ruling out barbaric violent incidence.
While both sides recalled their strategic partnership in all sorts of fancy clichés, they also noted that misstating the CPEC as a strategic project risked raising false expectations, especially in Pakistan. Normally China does not publically question official statements of Pakistan. It was a bit distressing when they quizzed the figure of $46 billion investment in the CPEC. According to them, only $13.9 billion have been invested so far in multiple projects. There is no guarantee that the remaining $32 billion will be invested in the CPEC. At best, the oft-quoted figure is an estimate and its spending is subject to foolproof security cover for the Chinese in Pakistan.
Surprisingly, the Chinese side underplayed the importance of the Gwadar Port for China in terms of accessing oil and other commodities. It was vehemently contested by them that the Malacca Strait would never be blocked and in any case, China currently imports only seven percent of its oil from abroad. Other points made by the Chinese policymakers included possible army control of the implementation authority for the CPEC to be set up in Pakistan at their advice and better relations with Afghanistan as a must for link-up with the Central Asian Republics.
It was worrisome to note that the Chinese policymakers did not feel confident about Pakistan’s ability to protect their citizens. On the other hand, the Pakistani side made it clear that the CPEC enjoyed support across all political parties among Pakistanis. Nevertheless, the umbrella project should be seen generating employment and establishing economic zones, not becoming a conduit for trading Chinese goods and commodities only. It was hoped that the Chinese state companies would use the experience learnt by them in Africa and in the Kyrgyz and Kazakhstan republics to recruit Pakistani engineers and technicians in line with their qualifications. Projects should benefit wider sections of population, beyond the political and business elites.
Further, it was pointed out that the strength of bilateral ties comes from mutual strategic interests, tested interdependency in moments of despair, mutual willingness to transform relations to meet new and emerging challenges and unstinting public support in both countries for each other at regional and international levels. For commonality of interests and mutual respect, any change in government or leadership in either of the two countries, or the demise of the cold war era and its associated alliances or subsequent readjustments should not affect their relationship.
I pointed out in Beijing that the CPEC is unlikely to have smooth sailing due to the complexity of securing the Gwadar-Kashgar corridor and the differences among provincial governments on the composition of the package under the CPEC. A number of power projects under the CPEC have already hit snags. Some have been abandoned and some are moving very slow. With Afghanistan turning hostile and Iran cold towards Pakistan, the CPEC may face difficulties.
China will not change its current policy to support the CPEC as a priority pilot project of the ‘One belt, One road’ vision of its president, but the increased cost of security for the corridor is likely to weigh heavily on the Chinese leadership while moving beyond the early harvest projects. Both Pakistan and China should be ready to brace themselves for ‘potential setbacks’ and come up with matching resilience to stay the course.
Some of the points gained from the Beijing Seminar were:
• The unfailing bilateral commitment and determination to the CPEC and the results of the early harvest projects serve as catalysts to remove the political misgivings and bureaucratic inefficiencies confronting the CPEC in KP, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan.
• Pakistan’s security situation is still precarious despite the success of anti-terrorism operations. Foolproof security cannot be ensured due to the continuing Afghan imbroglio and the unending hostile Indian interventionist policy.
• Domestic power politics is not directed against the CPEC. It is all about maximising gains for regions in order to promote the electability factor of the party concerned. No sabotage of the CPEC is on the card in Pakistan.
• Chinese worries about Pakistan’s isolation and its impact on the CPEC are exaggerated. Pakistan cannot be isolated by India beyond a limit. India has overplayed its hostility card and was snubbed by China and Russia at the Brics summit. However, Pakistan may encounter another combined onslaught from India and the US against the CPEC, declaring it a strategic alliance rather than economic with some strategic content in order to isolate Pakistan.
• India is opposed to Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. It will certainly treat the presence of the Chinese navy at Gwadar as an assault on its exclusive right to be the primary force in the Indian Ocean. Pakistan is prepared to deal with this new dimension of China-Pakistan friendship. However, pitted against India, Pakistan will be ignored by the international community.
• China and Pakistan’s friendship has withstood hostility from powerful quarters for the past 65 years. The economic transformation of their relationship will move ahead, albeit not without hurdles. However, perceptions, rhetoric, ground realities and results of early harvest projects (PRGRR) will greatly determine whether the CPEC can further Sino-Pakistan ties.
The writer is a former ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to CRSS, an independent think tank.