The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is an inescapable part of the conversation, whenever officials, private businessmen or intelligentsia from both countries meet — regardless where.
In Islamabad, the talk around CPEC is loaded with promises of a “game-changing initiative”. Here, ambiguities still surround many issues such as the preference for the western route. Projects such as the Orange Line or coal-based power plants continue to draw flak and controversy. Controversy, confusion, convolution of facts and connivance of the mighty ones to reap the maximum dividends (to the exclusion of merits and transparency) probably is one way of describing how the Sharif government is going about the CPEC.
In Beijing, or elsewhere in China, guarded optimism and veiled or even direct questions accompany this conversation which, in fact, is rooted in a very clear strategy flowing from President Xi Jinping’s vision of One Belt One Road (OBOR); this initiative exemplifies China’s effort to produce new opportunities for itself as well as for others because no country can develop in isolation. Neither can you be well if your neighbour is poor, so they believe. Also, an inclusive development strategy is seen as the engine of the Chinese economy which is being run by local/regional governments.
In contrast, the manner with which the ruling party in Islamabad and Lahore embraced the CPEC, entailed the impression that they aimed to create a haven of peace and prosperity i.e., Punjab (by advancing the longer eastern route). This clearly ignored the regions that are key to the shortest Kashgar-Gawadar route i.e., Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This deliberate deviation also reflected the rulers’ selfishness and apathy towards areas that have, in the recent years, been battered by conflict and insecurity.
In Beijing, the entire state machinery representing all regions hunkered down to work out the best strategies for implementing the CPEC as the first of the three components of the OBOR initiative once President Xi spoke his mind. In Islamabad, it seems, the few chosen ones, went into a huddle to ponder as how best to suite the initiative to their needs and those of Punjab.
In Beijing, officials as well as intelligentsia treated the decisions of May 2015 All Parties Conference on CPEC — chaired by the prime minister — as biblical and thus took it as the final word. But little did they realise that those calling the shots in Islamabad were less motivated by commitment, and selfless inclusive decision-making.
In Pakistan, the army responded to the CPEC with the creation of an over-10,000 strong special services’ division for the safety of the Chinese associated with CPEC infrastructure projects. But those in Beijing wonder whether the civilian government has any role in these special security arrangements. Where does the police figure and does the army alone possesses the wherewithal to provide security to thousands of Chinese personnel. What about security and intelligence coordination mechanisms between the civilian and army institutions and who will be in-charge?
Fundamental questions remain unanswered while the governments in Islamabad and Lahore cry hoarse about the potential dividends likely to accrue from CPEC.
Officials and academia in China are also intrigued as to whether the Pakistani government is at all serious about mainstreaming Balochistan and Fata. When will the leadership opt for an inclusive, equitable dialogue with the unhappy people in these regions? Has the government allocated enough funds for the public schools to disincentivise private madrassa education?
Are Pakistanis taking a whole-of-government approach to coordinate counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation strategies? Actions under the National Action Plan and Zarb-e-Azb operation are impressive, but where is the long-term strategy to replace hard power with the soft power of the state? Who is leading that effort? These are a few probing questions that resonated at a China-Pakistan security dialogue, hosted by the Chinese Association for Friendship. In view of the aforementioned questions, the participants agreed that improved communication strategies and transparency were central to successful, friction-free implementation of the CPEC. Led by former police chief, Federal Tax Ombudsman Dr Shoaib Suddle, the Pakistani delegation did attempt to respond to some of the Chinese queries. They were told that successful execution of projects could, indeed, turn into an excellent example of development and cooperation. Yet, some among the hosts also knew that the real onus for taking the right and timely decisions rests with those in Islamabad. If they don’t, say in the next three years, Pakistan would have squandered a golden opportunity.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2016.
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