Before discussing the ‘gift theory’ and determining how an assessment of CPEC can be grounded in this theoretical discourse, it is important to mention that many Pakistanis consider the game-changing project to be a gift from China for Pakistan, its long-standing strategic friend.
For example, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif revealed at a parliamentary meeting that China’s President Xi Jinping had told him that CPEC was a token from China to Pakistan. Similarly, Shahbaz Sharif and other leaders of the PML-N have often stated that CPEC is China’s gift for the people of Pakistan, which would help bring prosperity in the country.
The question that now arises is: what is the significance of these gifts in the context of the diplomatic relationship between countries and what are the obligations of nations who receive them? In his work, titled ‘The Gift: Forms and Functions of exchange in archaic societies’, Marcel Mauss argues that gifts are never free of any obligations. Instead, there are numerous instances where gifts lead to a reciprocal exchange.
His seminal question in this regard is: “what power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” The author explains that the process of giving creates a social bond, which imposes an obligation on the recipient to reciprocate. He further elaborates that if the recipient of gifts either doesn’t reciprocate or is unable to respond as expected, it could result in the loss of honour and prestige.
A number of studies have examined the concept of foreign aid from the perspective of the gift theory. A salient feature of the concept of international aid within the framework of the gift theory is “the fact that it involves real goods and services that fulfil real needs and desires, or precisely what donors have that recipients want”. As a result, it implies that the process of giving aid or concessional loans results in a form of a gift debt that aid recipients require in order to address key challenges, and repay donors in one form or another.
Regardless of whether it is a gift exchange or aid relationship between aid providers and recipients, the overall act of giving and receiving leads to a mutual interdependence between both partners. There are numerous instances of how foreign aid has been employed by developed countries to build alliances with developing countries and accomplish their multifaceted foreign policy goals. This means there is no such thing as a free gift as the policy and practice of using foreign aid to achieve political, security, geo-strategic and commercial interests still continues.
In the context of viewing CPEC as a gift to Pakistan, there is no doubt about its significant socio-economic prospects, provided various externalities are effectively addressed – including social and environmental cost as well as the implicit attempts made by national, regional and international actors to partially or fully thwart its implementation. The question is: how can Pakistan return the favour to China and how is it a win-win situation for both countries? If the gift theory is applied to this scenario, there are no gifts that are free of any reciprocation or liability that Pakistan must fulfil.
So far, most writings on CPEC have primarily focused on the potential of the corridor to facilitate China to get access to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. For China, there are two main drivers behind the Belt and Road Initiative and CPEC. The first is to effectively utilise Pakistan’s privileged geographical position to further its geo-economic and strategic objectives and minimise its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ in case of any blockades by hostile forces. The second relates to China’s domestic imperatives and concerns.
Although the former has been widely discussed, the latter has drawn limited attention. The reality is that the primary motivations behind the Belt and Road Initiative are “economic and commercial drivers, creating new markets for Chinese companies or addressing challenges facing the Chinese economy such as industrial overcapacity”. Alongside developing mainland provinces and cities as the main drivers behind the initiative, it is argued that “a set of domestic economic concerns, including slower growth, continued production overcapacity, consumption trailing investment and an increasingly saturated construction market” are of equal significance to implement Xi Jinping’s grand vision.
The development of various mainland regions and cities across China has been a key factor. To this end, it is argued that “China now advances the globally ambitious [Belt and Road Initiative] from and through its [‘Open Up the West’] initiative…which aims at catalysing catch-up development of inland and borderland regions across the country”.
For example, in the case of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the concept of bringing economic development to this region received the attention of policymakers as early as the 1980s. It was envisioned to develop “Xinjiang eastwards to integrate it more closely into the national economy, and westwards towards Central Asia, following the reopening of border trade between Xinjiang and central Asia in 1983”. This was one of the central elements of regional development since the 2000s.
In the 12th five-year plan introduced by the central government, which set out major development goals for the period between 2011 and 2015, Xinjiang was envisaged as an essential hub to ‘open to the West’. In the same context, the main policy document on the ‘Vision and Actions’ of the Belt and Road Initiative asserts to utilise Xinjiang’s geographic position as a gateway to “deepen communication and cooperation with Central, South and West Asian countries, [we must] make it a key transportation, trade, logistics, culture, science and education centre, and a core area in the overall BRI”. Although conspicuously missing in official documents, China’s security concerns – particularly vis-a-vis Xinjiang and the associated issue of Uighur terrorism – also run alongside the development agenda.
For long, China has linked the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur separatist movement, to Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban as well as to other extremist affiliates such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Members of these organisations have used Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan from time to time.
It was recently reported that Pakistan’s military authorities carried out secret raids to find ETIM militants in the border region of Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. The crackdown was initiated soon after the authorities in Beijing alerted Pakistani counterparts about the gravity of threats to workers engaged with Chinese projects in Pakistan.
Hence, there are various domestic dynamics at play to make Xinjiang a successful node in the Belt and Road Initiative. It is often argued that the “initiative should be viewed as an extension, consolidation and political elevation of pre-existing policy ideas and practice at the sub-national level in China”. In addition to the external or international aspects, the Belt and Road Initiative and CPEC have vital domestic drivers that are often found missing in the overall discourse on the subject.
So, this is where Pakistan is expected to reciprocate Chinese largesse. As Andrew Small has aptly stated: “Pakistan is a central part of China’s transition from a regional power to a global one”.
As it capitalises on our geographical location to advance its geostrategic and geo-economic ambitions, China also expects us to reciprocate by ensuring domestic harmony and not letting inimical forces disrupt CPEC. If Pakistan fails to maintain the stability required for the implementation of numerous CPEC-related projects, it would be tantamount to not reciprocating China’s ‘gift’ and losing its ‘prestige and honour’.
If China has come up with a huge investment plan under CPEC, there is an obligation on Pakistan to respond in a manner through which it can practically demonstrate its ability to reciprocate the ‘gift’. While our leadership has argued that CPEC is a gift from China, little has been specified on how Pakistan is required to reciprocate and what the short- and long-term social, environmental, financial and geo-strategic implications of this are.
The writer is a postdoctoralresearch fellow at the German Development Institute at Bonn, Germany.