The China-Pakistan one-belt one-corridor project is by far the most ambitious mega project that Pakistan has undertaken in its 68 years of existence with its closest strategic and economic partner China. It has been described as a game changer and transformational with huge political and economic expectations linked to it. How far are these realistic and how much is just hype? Is Pakistan as serious as China in executing the project? Despite the broad consensus that exists among all provinces and political parties about the usefulness of the economic corridor, are they coordinating and cooperating with the federal government in its planning and execution? Is the focus of the prime minister and his cabinet still intact or has Nawaz Sharif’s health and the Panama leaks scandal been distractive?
Indeed, it would be a great misfortune if the Pakistani leadership fails to maximise the benefits from this project. From the concept stage to the development of the plan to its execution and then subsequent upkeep and maintenance, Pakistan’s engineers, technicians, workers, contractors, project managers can upgrade their technological and managerial capabilities by closely associating with the Chinese. We expect the government considers it a great opportunity for learning and acquiring skills and has a monitoring system of ensuring its compliance, otherwise it will be relegated to the status of a turnkey project.
The military has been keen to play a much bigger role in the decision-making and implementation of the CPEC projects, but the government seems possessive and not willing to cede this responsibility. Despite the government’s reluctance, the military’s role has become unavoidable especially in the construction of roads and infrastructural projects in remote areas. Army engineers have built a road over 800km long in Balochistan. The Chinese, too, would prefer greater involvement of the military for expeditious completion of projects. Clearly, the CPEC’s success would depend largely on high quality management and greater transparency and accountability that General Raheel Sharif, too, has been emphasising.
The military has undertaken the critical role of providing security to Chinese personnel for which a security division of 15,000 personnel has been raised under the command of a major general. In addition, the safety of the infrastructure, especially the railways, gas and oil pipelines and fibre networks have to be secured and for this levies and paramilitary forces are likely to be deployed. The government is fully aware of the potential for subversive activities by countries that are hostile to the project and which feel that it will alter the regional strategic balance in favour of China and Pakistan. The Kulbhushan Yadav episode is illustrative of such designs. As the people of all the provinces and especially those in remote parts of Balochistan and Sindh start owning the project, the security aspect would become less challenging.
Currently, the Chinese are engaged in broadening the existing Karakoram Highway (KKH), from the existing 10m width to 30m. This will facilitate the flow of heavy traffic throughout the year, which is expected to increase on the completion of the CPEC. It will also contribute towards enhancing China’s trade and economic activity with Central and West Asia. From the Pakistani perspective, the Gwadar port will be a great asset for Balochistan as it will facilitate and expedite its development. For China, it will be the shortest route to Malacca, the Straits of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean.
Pakistan’s primary focus at present is to develop strong links with China and using these for improving the socioeconomic conditions of the broad underprivileged classes. But opportunities exist also to develop additional links to neighbouring countries. In the past, Iran had offered Pakistan land access to Central Asia and Russia, and in return expected Pakistan to provide access to China through KKH. With India developing Iran’s Chabahar port and connecting it with a road network to Afghanistan, this opens up opportunities for countries of the region to complement rather than confront one another. The Chinese are not very comfortable in giving the project an exaggerated geopolitical perspective and would rather highlight the economic and commercial benefits of it. This is a prudent approach and Pakistan, too, should lay greater emphasis on the socioeconomic aspect and opening up of Balochistan and interior Sindh, the most underdeveloped parts of the country. Being a national project that involves practically the whole of Pakistan, it should aim at improving the lot of the common person. Similarly, the Chinese government expects the project would contribute towards the sustained development of China.
The involvement of the private sector in the programme by both countries would be highly beneficial. This will give a sense of participation and help in the dissemination of technologies and managerial skills on a broader scale. As the programme proceeds, efforts should be made to extend cooperation in other sections of the Chinese and Pakistani societies. According to government sources, during the last two years there has been sufficient progress in development of infrastructure and energy projects and this is likely to pick up further momentum. This should attract investment from China and international investors. For Pakistani businessmen directly or in partnership with Chinese or foreign partners, this presents a unique opportunity to invest in the country.
As the CPEC proceeds, it should improve connectivity and growth that could promote good governance provided Pakistan undertakes institutional reforms and its political leadership wakes up from its slumber. Unfortunately, the outlook for this is bleak. In the absence of the prime minister, the state has been drifting and now the looming threat of a dharna will be a huge distraction for a beleaguered government. Even if it is able to sail through the crisis, it will hurt the programme. The Chinese leadership must be watching with dismay the lopsided priorities that our political parties and national leaders pursue.
For Pakistan, the CPEC provides a great opportunity to strengthen its economy, raise its strategic profile, and build capacity to work closely with a rising world power. We need to grasp this moment with all dedication and sincerity.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2016.