The route row: Pak-China Economic Corridor

Whether there is a route change or not, the government is yet to come clean on the controversies around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

The route row: Pak-China Economic Corridor

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), around which 51 agreements dealing mainly with transport infrastructure, energy, Gwadar Port and industrial zones were signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad in April 2015, is mired in political and technical controversies over its proposed route. The $46 billion project is dubbed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a "game changer".

The planned investment is equivalent to roughly 20 per cent of Pakistan’s annual GDP and is more than double the total foreign direct investment (FDI) the country has received since 2008. But, Pakistan is known to maintain a record of mega-development projects that often fall to political controversies. The corridor which would connect Gwadar Port with Chinese city Kashgar is in the news lately over the issue of its proposed changes in route.

This issue of the CPEC has been taken up by all political parties, but at the core of this resistance is a group of Pashtun nationalists who believe the new proposed route (eastern) will benefit only Punjab and Sindh provinces bypassing a major portion of Pashtun areas of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) which are covered in the original western route.

The federal government has, however, denied changes in the original design, saying that work on three routes -- western, central and eastern -- has started simultaneously. The criticism intensified to an extent that on May 12 Nawaz Sharif convened a meeting of the leaders of all political parties to address their concerns and set up a special parliamentary committee for regular oversight of the CPEC.

Planning and Development Minister Ahsan Iqbal says that the leadership of the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding on CPEC on July 5, 2013 and constituted a joint working group to make decisions on connectivity of routes from Gwadar to Kashgar. He tells TNS that work on three routes has already started. "The corridor will be completed by 2016 and will mainly benefit Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa," he says.

"The leadership of Pakistan should sit together and decide which route suits Pakistan best. This impression that the route is being changed on China’s demand is not going to serve us at all."

The CPEC, according to officials of the Planning Commission, includes small, mid and long term projects. They say that Pakistan, with active consultation of Chinese authorities, has prepared a plan to construct three corridors and the eastern has been picked as priority. They say that the western route from Khunjerab to Gwadar via Mianwali, DI Khan, DG Khan, Khuzdar and Turbat is a long term project. "In the short term, the eastern route from Khunjerab to Gwadar is being undertaken so as to utilise the existing communication network," an official says.

Shahbaz Rana, a senior journalist based in Islamabad who has been covering developments around CPEC since 2013, says it was China’s demand for security and early completion of the route that led to the finalisation of the eastern corridor. "The western route, where the Pakhtun and Baloch belts lie, cannot be developed at a faster pace and is riskier in terms of security," he says, adding that trade routes are not made on the basis of ethnicity but on the basis of convenience and requirement.

"Timely execution of all these projects is very important as China has other options as well if Pakistan fails to deliver," he says. "The argument that some parts of the country are being deprived of the route benefit may be true in the short term, but in long term all these cities will be connected to the corridor."

Economic expert Dr Kaisar Bengali says that Pakistan does not have the option to lose this opportunity. "Pakistan’s move to fight out militants in tribal areas and other parts of the country has created an air of expectancy. The arrival of such a huge Chinese investment at this time when Pakistan is largely shunned by the global investment community means that we can make an economic turnaround," he says, adding that we need to overcome all problems to grab this opportunity.

"This is Pakistan’s first opportunity since the 1960 Indus Water Treaty to change its economic geography." Dr Bengali was in China last week on the invitation of a think tank. "This is true that they have changed the route. I do not think Chinese have pressed Pakistan to change the route. Now the federal government has been attempting to hide information which is creating confusion and controversies," he says, adding that only the federal and Punjab governments were involved in the negotiations of CPEC with China. "The chief ministers of Balochistan, Sindh and KP were not even invited as guests during the Chinese president’s visit to Islamabad in April."

Bengali says the Chinese are here for business. "Why would they build three routes? And we do not have money to build these routes."

Experts on Pak-China relations say that the government of Pakistan should come clear on the controversy of CPEC route. "The leadership of Pakistan should sit together and decide which route suits Pakistan best. This impression that the route is being changed on China’s demand is not going to serve us at all," says Hamayoun Khan, director of Islamabad-based independent body Pakistan Council on China. Khan says the route should be seen as a binding tie instead of giving an impression that one province might gain at the expense of others. "This corridor is not just a road. It is much more than that. It would create a lot of economic activity. Energy is a major portion of the project," he says, adding that the project is small for China, but for Pakistan it is indeed a "game changer".

"It is true that the project will benefit the Chinese a lot but China sees Pakistan as a strategic ally. Through this project, China wants us to become less dependent on the West. But, we will have to execute these projects well in time," Khan says. "If smaller provinces see the eastern route as a loss to their economies, the bigger provinces can try to address their concerns by giving them more share in National Finance Commission (NFC). The government should set up a body to address the misunderstandings about the CPEC."

Amir Rana, director of Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) who regularly communicates with Chinese think tanks, says that Chinese are extremely enthusiastic about the CPEC project and see it as a flagship project of China’s vision of "Belt and Road" -- a brief version of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. "They anticipate that a successful implementation of the corridor project will encourage other regional countries, including Central Asian states, to engage in similar projects with China," he says.

"The lack of political consensus and insecurity can be two major challenges in the implementation of the CPEC project. Failure to address these irritants will continue to affect Pakistan’s trade and economic engagement with countries in the region," says Rana. "The need to address these challenges has never been as important as now, when Pakistan is set to join the race for economic development and regional connectivity."

Rana sees the parliamentary oversight committee as a positive move. "If the committee becomes an active forum, it will certainly help address the concerns of all the provinces and political parties. The corridor will take at least two decades to be completed and during this time several governments will change in Pakistan. It needs a strong political endorsement," he thinks. "The provinces should focus on special economic zones instead of focusing on route. There are 16 proposed economic zones in the CPEC."

The route row: Pak-China Economic Corridor