The cult of CPEC is getting very stifling. Never before has something that is supposed to be nothing more than an economic agreement become quite so sacred. The acronym is spoken of by politicians in hushed tones and hyperbole. Whenever there is a militant attack, it is immediately said that it is the work of our enemies who want to do nothing more than to undermine CPEC. It is almost as if the lives lost are a distant second to CPEC.
There was an attack explicitly linked to CPEC last week, when Baloch separatists killed 10 Sindhi labourers in Gwadar. In accepting responsibility, the Baloch Liberation Army denounced CPEC as yet another attempt to control Baloch resources without benefiting its people. One does not – and should not – have to support the BLA and its violent separatism to understand why the Baloch people may not be quite as enamoured of CPEC as the political class seems to be. The BLA is a militant group and its tactic of targeting those it sees as ‘settlers’, no matter how long they have lived in the province, is inexcusable. It has killed teachers, labourers and doctors who are from Punjab and Sindh. None of this is acceptable.
But one can understand the frustration of the Baloch people. Many of the promises made to them by the government have been broken. CPEC was originally presented as a way to develop Balochistan and other deprived parts of the country. Almost immediately, it became less of a domestic development programme and more the centrepiece of our foreign policy. The route of CPEC was changed because Balochistan lacked the infrastructure to host many of the proposed projects. Punjab ended up being the main beneficiary. On foreign trips to arrange aid and other business opportunities for the country, such as the recent One Belt, One Road summit in Beijing, the only provincial leader included is the chief minister of Punjab.
Gwadar, in particular, shows how little CPEC has changed for the Baloch. During the Musharraf era, contracts were given out to foreign companies and countries to develop the port. The Baloch people were told this would change their fortunes but no specific promises were made. The same has happened again, but instead of limited-term contracts being given to foreigners, we have handed the entire port to China. If the Baloch are sceptical they will see any benefit from this, who can blame them?
The rest of the country should be worried too. Details about CPEC, which have been closely guarded by the government and doled out in bits and pieces, were recently made public in a news report and there are some very worrying aspects to the entire deal. China will apparently be responsible for installing security systems in major cities around the country. In one way, this is just a continuation of the security measures we have already taken. Lahore has the largest CCTV system in the world, with nearly $150 million spent to install 15,000 cameras and 15,000 kilometres of optic fibre around the city.
The cost this represents to our liberty is one we have accepted must be paid as the price of tackling the militant threat. But handing over the responsibility for installing similar surveillance systems in other cities to China brings an additional threat. We have never had to concern ourselves with the nature of the Chinese government before because it has had little bearing on our relations with the country, but we should keep in mind that China has less commitment to online freedom than most countries and giving it control of our optic fibre network is dangerous given the Chinese government’s propensity for hacking. Thanks to document leaks, we already know that the US broke into cellular networks in Pakistan to monitor cell phone traffic; it is possible the Chinese will do the same to the internet.
There are other troubling aspects to CPEC too, which show that the agreements go beyond economics and will lead to the type of control over Pakistan that the US exerted through its aid post 9/11 and even before that. The Punjab chief minister recently gave a speech where he contrasted China with other countries that keep asking us to ‘do more’ – an obvious reference to the US. But the reason China doesn’t need to demand more of us that we are already agreeing to everything it is saying. The long-term plan calls for Chinese nationals to be allowed visa-free travel to Pakistan without a reciprocal facility being granted to Pakistani citizens.
Shahbaz Sharif also said that China doesn’t seek any price for its aid, which is again misleading at best. The contracts for CPEC projects were given to the Chinese without any bidding. The capital expenditures required for these projects were made mainly through loans by China. None of this need necessarily be sinister. We have some idea of how much we have taken out in loans and when the bills will be due. On balance, the deal is a still a good one for Pakistan. But to claim that all this development is being done without China extracting benefit for itself is simply untrue.
Pakistan has little option but to submit to Chinese domination. Our relations with our other neighbours are all but non-existent. Any hope for better ties with India in the future is distant. Afghanistan has historic and current issues with Pakistan which are not going to be solved anytime soon. Iran is understandably wary of our alliance with Saudi Arabia. By the process of elimination, China is all we have. We should be clear why we ended up allied to China. It was not because of any ideological kinship; one could hardly expect an Islamic republic that was also a US client state at the time to naturally be close to a Communist state. China allied with Pakistan because it was fighting a war with India at the time. The relationship has been sustained because China sees India as a regional rival. CPEC is part of a plan to not just make China the dominant power in the region but in the world.
The OBOR summit in Beijing showed that CPEC is just one part of a larger Chinese gambit to become the next superpower. It encompasses most of Asia and stretches all the way to Russia. Building new trade routes is the first step towards projecting global power. In this way it is no different to imperialistic projects of the past.
Once again, if we have decided that the benefits outweigh the costs both economically and politically then there is nothing wrong with us being a part of the project. Still, we should not romanticise CPEC or place it on a pedestal. Militant attacks should be seen as the threat they are to the country without having to drag CPEC into it. Pakistan is in a position where it cannot help but be dominated by larger countries but we shouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic about it.
The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.