A potential reason behind such a route change could be the Sharifs’ desire to bring maximum benefits to Punjab, their prime electoral constituency
Among myriad challenges that Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif’s government faces, the controversy between the government and the opposition (mostly from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan) over the change in the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the latest. The issue may not look serious in nature but it can potentially affect Pakistan’s relations with China if not addressed properly. This article is an attempt to explain the spectrum of economic relations between Pakistan and China in the context of the contemporary domestic politics of the former.
Pakistan and China have long planned to expand two-way connectivity through a range of mega projects. Early last decade, they expanded the Karakorum Highway and built Gwadar port as part of this plan. The current Chinese government under President Xi Jinping gave new impetus especially to the CPEC by putting emphasis upon its early completion. Beijing has reportedly allocated billions of dollars for this purpose. The CPEC is not merely a road but a vast means of connectivity through road, rail, pipeline and fiber optics while industrial and free economic zones will be built along with them. Given this unprecedented opportunity, almost all political forces in Pakistan are admirers of the CPEC except a section of Baloch nationalists. The controversy runs around the direction of the route. Not to mention, there is no challenge on the Chinese side. The CPEC starts from Kashgar, enters Pakistan via the Khunjerab Pass and ends at Havelian, Abbottabad.
There is no denying the fact that the route on the Pakistani side of the CPEC has been changed. The original plan, conceived during General Musharraf’s period, passed through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan by linking Abbottabad, Mianwali, Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Zhob, Khuzdar, Turbat and Gwadar on its way. This route was 300 kilometres shorter than the new one. However, a large part of this route, roads and other basic infrastructure, was underdeveloped. Furthermore, the low intensity insurgency, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkwa and Balochistan, deterred developmental work in these areas. Even if work were started today, it would take at least four years and an estimated $ 11 billion to build the required infrastructure. These factors might have pushed the government to detour the route.
Under the new plan, the corridor route from Pakistan’s side takes turns from Havelian towards the east and enters the Islamabad-Lahore motorway. If one looks at a map, this turn is quite sharp, apparently taken to include Lahore, the stronghold of the ruling Sharif family. From here, the corridor is linked to the Lahore-Karachi motorway and then to Gwadar. This altered route passes through cities in Punjab and Sindh. Officials at the Planning Commission of Pakistan, a monitoring body for the project, argued that the completion of infrastructure in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan would take four years. The government thus decided to utilise the existing infrastructure on an interim basis to get the work started. The Pakistani side argued that the Chinese side had also insisted upon this option to prevent further delay.
Another potential reason behind such a route change could be the Sharifs’ desire to bring maximum benefits to Punjab, their prime electoral constituency. An impression already exists that under the Sharif government most deals with China went to Punjab while members of his family and core associates accompany during China visits. Such a precedent will harm federal and developmental concerns in Pakistan in the long run. Moreover, the Pakistan government argues that parallel work will start to complete the infrastructure on the original route. Once that route is completed, it will be used for future purposes. However, a majority of the opposition parties, including some sections of the provincial chapters of the PML-N, are not ready to borrow this sort of argument. The opposition has not concealed any ambiguity regarding its reservations. For instance, the ANP convened an All Party Conference (APC), which was attended by other opposition parties too. The APC welcomed the CPEC, terming it a beneficial project for the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, but resolved that no change in the route from Kashgar to Gwadar or desire to establish multiple routes would be accepted.
The concern was clear in the joint declaration that read, “We want to make it abundantly clear that we are not against multiple routes but it cannot be done at the cost of the original route that is not only short and economical but also passes through the most backward areas of the country.” However, the declaration adds, “If the federal government goes back on its word about the original route of the proposed economic corridor, it will create a lot of deprivation and alienation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.” Similarly, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KPCCI) also raised similar apprehensions in a separate conference.
What can be deduced from the foregoing is that the concerns of FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are justifiable. A detour in the route will deprive them of this opportunity, further adding to their sense of neglect. This tendency could be harmful for the federation in the long run. On the other hand, given the track record of politicians’ promises, there is no guarantee that construction work on the original route will start simultaneously, required funds will be provided and, once that route is ready, projects will be shifted there. There are insurmountable pitfalls in this plan.
Sadly, the confrontational nature and unstable political environment of Pakistan have already cost the CPEC and, for that matter, Sino-Pakistan relations. Beijing has completed ambitious transnational connectivity projects with countries all around its periphery. Among them, the CPEC lags far behind in terms of implementation. Last August, Pakistan missed the opportunity to host Chinese President Xi Jinping. Remember, he is the second most powerful leader, after Obama, in the world. It was out of courtesy of the ‘special’ nature of our two-way relations that Beijing agreed to a new itinerary for March 2015.
In view of the above, it is the Pakistani government’s duty to develop consensus on the corridor route by addressing the concerns of the affected areas. If achieved successfully, it will ease the future visits of Chinese leaders, speed up the CPEC project, strengthen China-Pakistan relations and, above all, bring economic development to the country. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif needs to act above party politics in the larger interests of the country. Will he be able to demonstrate statesmanship or not? Only time will tell.