The lack of political consensus and insecurity would be two major challenges towards the implementation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. Failure to address these irritants will continue to affect Pakistan’s trade and economic engagement with countries in the region, thus negatively impacting national development.
The need to address these challenges has never been so important as now, when Pakistan is set to join the race for economic development and regional connectivity. Chinese scholars see this emerging regional connectivity as tantamount to reshaping the region’s outlook, with Pakistan holding a central position.
In that regard, a consensus reached among Pakistan’s political leadership to set up a special bicameral parliamentary committee for regular oversight of the CPEC project is a positive move. If the committee becomes an active forum, it will certainly help address the concerns of all the provinces and political parties. As the government has a history of setting up ‘non-delivering’ committees, one can only hope that things will be better this time. A non-functional oversight committee will also be detrimental for policy and the execution sustainability of the CPEC project. The corridor will take at least two decades to be completed and during this time several governments will change in Pakistan.
There is hope that the CPEC will change the regional economic and strategic environment.
This writer’s recent interactions with Chinese scholars and officials suggested the latter are extremely enthusiastic about the CPEC project. They 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. The next target for China would be to pursue India, Bangladesh and Myanmar for the East Asian corridor. According to some estimates, these routes will benefit more than three billion people of the South and Central Asian regions.
During President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Pakistan, nine of the 51 signed projects were linked to Gwadar. The Chinese regard Gwadar as the Tilbury of Pakistan. The port of Tilbury, once a strategically important deep-sea port of England, still carries huge economic and trade significance. The CPEC and Gwadar port will bring the same prosperity for the whole of Pakistan, which will become a conduit to multiple regions.
Gwadar is the tail of the silk belt, which will connect at Kashgar through different communication networks. The security of the whole corridor and Gwadar is a real concern for China. They are less worried about political differences in Pakistan, which they believe will be resolved with the passage of time.
Both Gwadar and Kashgar are facing multiple security challenges. The Chinese expect that the establishment of five economic zones in Kashgar will completely transform the region and minimise the security risks such as the separatist and militant movements of the Uighurs. While they hope for the same about the separatist movements in Balochistan, their focus is on short- and medium-term security measures for the safety of their workforce and threats to the route and other projects in the country.
Though a declining trend in the number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan continued in April 2015 for the fourth month in a row, major actors of violence are still active. During the month, 50 terrorist attacks took place in the country, 10 less than in the previous month which claimed 70 lives and inflicted injuries on another 89 people. Although Balochistan appeared the more volatile region in recent months, the situation has gradually improved there; compared to 37 in February and 24 in March, 14 terrorist attacks took place there in April this year.
The military operations in parts of the tribal areas and surgical operations by paramilitary forces in Balochistan and Karachi have helped curtail certain violent trends. The increase in sectarian and communal attacks also indicates that the operational capacity of certain violent groups has not been reduced. The terrorist infrastructure still exists inside and outside the borders, which will continue to pose a threat.
After work starts on the CPEC, internal security sensitivities will increase where even a single terrorist attack after a lull will increase the level of insecurity and damage the gains on the security front. The bigger challenge for the security establishment will remain the rooting out of the terrorist infrastructure in the country.
As far as the safety of the Chinese workforce is concerned, Pakistan can meet this challenge. The army has already announced the creation of a 10,000-man special force for protecting the development projects to be carried out under the CPEC. According to media reports, the new force, named the Special Security Division, will comprise nine army battalions and six wings of paramilitary forces — the Rangers and the Frontier Corps. A two-star general will head the special force.
There is hope that the CPEC will change the regional economic and strategic environment. Specifically, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan perspective, better understanding on security and geo-economic issues is required for the safety of the corridor, protecting it from local, regional and global non-state and state actors. There are major concerns about the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan, where multiple terrorist groups — including Al Qaeda, the self-styled Islamic State, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Movement of Islamic Uzbekistan and the Turkestan Islamic Party, etc — are concentrated. These groups can pose a direct threat to the CPEC in Pakistan’s northern region.
A better understanding between Islamabad and Kabul is also imperative to achieve border security. At the same time, peace and stability in Afghanistan are also needed if China and Pakistan want to maximise the benefits of the CPEC. Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif and army chief Gen Raheel Sharif visited Kabul just after President Ashraf Ghani returned from India. That indicates that both sides want to keep the trust and optimism intact. The prime minister’s statement denouncing the Afghan Taliban’s spring offensive is a positive gesture. Perhaps this is also a positive sign for the prospects of peace and reconciliation between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2015