Full disclosure is needed

Published: May 19, 2017
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To most of the world, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor may seem the frontispiece of the grandiose One Belt, One Road initiative but to Pakistan it is more than just a massive, game-changing subset of infrastructure projects. It is a ticket, if you will, to a giant leap forward that will help Pakistan make the seamless transition from an emerging economy to a virtually mature one — at least that is the expectation of all Pakistanis. While there is little doubt that Pakistan stands to make huge gains from CPEC, one of six economic corridors that together will criss-cross the OBOR initiative, it is useful to understand China’s strategic goals that are embedded into the grand plan. Along with the strategic encirclement of India, CPEC offers Beijing a key route to the oil in the Middle East and quicker access to trade with Africa. More importantly, there is a need to examine a little more closely the long-term plan of the project.

Oddly enough, when the first genuine attempt was made by a section of the media to highlight and disseminate China’s own vision of the project, as documented by its National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the China Development Bank, the planning ministry dismissed the initiative as unwholesome and a rehash of old documents. Ahsan Iqbal, the minister of planning, disputed its contents and likened it to a second part of Dawn Leaks. The reaction, as a whole, was inappropriate and left a bad taste. The truth, it seems, is being sacrificed for reasons best known to the government. The documents cited in the report as the long-term plan of CPEC were in fact twice finalised: once by the China Development Bank in December 2015 and then by both sides at the Sixth Joint Cooperation Committee meeting held in December 2016. Three major points emerge from those documents: Beijing is not as interested in the Gwadar port as we would like to believe; its interest lies more perhaps in investing in Pakistan’s agriculture sector and developing products for export markets; another identifiable interest is developing the local textile industry for the purpose of feeding China’s own textile industry with adequate raw material. For its part, the Pakistani side has listed up to seven different areas of cooperation including roads and fibre optic, energy, industry, modern agriculture demonstration zones, tourism, livelihoods and finance.

It would be interesting to know exactly how many “significant changes”, as claimed by the minister, have been made to the original LTP document that has appeared in the press. We do hope the minister fulfills his promise to reveal the same within the course of a month. This is hardly the time to be reticent about CPEC or any other project related to the economic corridor. The government should aspire for maximum transparency in the interest of all Pakistanis. For starters, it should present for scrutiny the revised long-term plan in parliament. Yes, it is true that numerous briefings have been held in the bicameral legislature. For the sake of full disclosure, however, all documents about CPEC must be made available to federal and provincial lawmakers, business forum leaders, economists, development activists, media persons and all other representatives of the civil society.

It is good that Pakistan and China have announced the creation of a transparency commission to check against corruption in the construction of the projects but it would surely have been better if Islamabad had formed a local transparency body to allay the fears and doubts of naysayers before that. Even at this stage it wouldn’t be out of place to determine the financial cost of the project to the country, as well as scrutinise the long-term socio-economic and strategic implications. It would also be worthwhile to re-examine the utility of each project woven into the scheme. Given the magnitude of the project, it is only fair to extract more benefits and not undersell ourselves.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2017.

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