At no point in time should we forget that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is an essential part of President Xi’s ambitious Road and Belt Initiative.
This initiative seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road which served as the main artery for trade by connecting China to South Asia, Central Asia, Eurasia and Europe. Therefore, we cannot celebrate CPEC if it does not contribute to connecting the aforementioned regions. Nor would the anticipated benefits be gained without it leading to regional connectivity.
Pakistan is situated strategically as far as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is concerned, because it is through Pakistan that China seeks to connect with Afghanistan and farther afar. Therefore, for this project to succeed, it is important that peace and stability is established in the so-called Af-Pak region. And when we speak of this region, we should be mindful of the significance of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata for it is this area of Pakistan that is the gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata regions of Pakistan are the pivot of any interaction between South and Central Asia.
The mention of the Af-Pak region brings to mind several actors, including the US, Russia, India, and Iran. For peace to prevail in the region and for CPEC-OBOR to succeed, these actors would have to be on the same page. But has a dialogue been initiated between these countries? We know of the quadrilateral talks involving Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US. The process has not been successful so far in bringing peace in Afghanistan due to the sometimes conflicting interests of the participating countries and due to inflexibility of the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
One good thing to have happened recently on this front was a trilateral meeting in Beijing involving the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. This process must continue as it carries the potential of bringing significant improvement in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan as Beijing has cordial relations with both; and normalisation of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan is key to CPEC’s success.
Another important regional element with the potential of impacting CPEC is Afghanistan’s relations with India, and their respective relations with Pakistan. Afghan government officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, have repeatedly stated that they will not provide Pakistan access to Central Asia unless Islamabad allows free flow of trade between Afghanistan and India through its territory. Therefore, relations between India and Pakistan have a direct bearing on connectivity projects.
South and Central Asia are complicated regions as far as their foreign relations are concerned. Bilateral relations are often characterised by mutual suspicions and economic competition. Therefore, for regional integration to materialise, a lot of work would have to be done to create an environment of trust and to create economic compatibilities. For integration and connectivity in the region, relations between Pakistan and India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran and Pakistan, and Afghanistan and Iran have to improve. This is going to be an uphill task, but not an unprecedented one. In international relations, enemies of yesteryears can be friends of today.
To conclude, CPEC can work as a double-edged sword for it has the potential to either integrate or divide the region. It is up to the statesmen of the region to decide that they want it to be a source of integration rather than division. It is a great opportunity for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata to fulfil their dream of economic and social development through different CPEC projects. However, this is conditional upon Afghanistan-Pakistan’s relations improving, because the security situation in former is not likely to get better if relations between the two countries remain rough. And without an improved security situation, robust economic activity is not possible. The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation is one example that shows us that with political disputes simmering, the South Asian region has failed to integrate.
OBOR is basically an admission of the fact that China, South Asia and Central Asia are one organic economic unit. Without activating this economic unit, the process of individual economic development for these regions will be very slow and difficult. Therefore, the sooner these regional countries find solutions to their political problems, the better it would be for economic development
The writer is a research officer at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad.