The friendship between Pakistan and China is the story of two countries with contrasting approaches to life. The former is socio-politically fractious and suffers from religio-political violence. It ruled by a self-serving ruling elite with huge issues of integrity and little empathy towards people at large. The elite substitute fundamental principles of the rule of law with brazen political expedience and abuse of political power that they draw from poor voters.
The Chinese leadership, in contrast, does not directly represent the people i.e., it does not gain power through elections. However, all across China we see a singular focus on the citizens’ welfare and internal stability — objectives achieved through long-term policies that are enforced and protected. This is what sustains China and has placed it on top of the world map: relentless pursuit of objectives with commitment and clarity.
The same applies to the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (PCEC) that Beijing wants to pursue despite all topographical odds and political roadblocks such as turmoil in Balochistan and the crisis of insecurity in other parts of the country. The logic is simple: the proposed route, conceived over a decade ago, will serve both western China and help Pakistan too. The expansion of the Karakoram Highway and the involvement in the construction of Gwadar were also part of this economic vision, which have got a new push under President Xi Jinping.
Beijing’s focus and commitment to the PCEC is also manifest in the recent visit to Islamabad of a high profile Chinese expert group on long-term planning of the PCEC. Led by Hu Dongsheng, deputy director general of the China Development Bank, the 19-member group held extensive discussions on the project. Both sides emphasised the need to speed up the process of drafting the PCEC long-term plan, which includes not only roads but a lot of social infrastructure in Balochistan and other areas aligned with the corridor. If realised, the PCEC will not only benefit Pakistan in terms of improvement of its economy and security condition, but also contribute to regional peace, stability and prosperity.
The Gwadar-Kashghar route was originally planned to run through Bisima, Khuzdar, Kalat and Quetta onto Zhob, D I Khan, Hassan Abdal and onwards to Kashghar but it has been changed to Bisima, Ratodero and towards Punjab, which means bypassing the Baloch and Pakhtun areas. That is why there were recent protests in the Senate by members from Khyber- Pashtunkhwa (K-P), Fata and Balochistan. According to the new plan, the corridor route turns from Havelian towards the east and links up with the Islamabad-Lahore Motorway, to include Punjab. From here, the corridor is linked to the Lahore-Karachi Motorway and then to Gwadar. Officials at the Planning Commission argue that the completion of infrastructure in K-P and Balochistan will take a few years and thus it was imperative to utilise the existing infrastructure. This was done, insist officials, to accommodate Chinese concerns rooted in the security condition in K-P and Balochistan.
Apparently, the federal government altered the PCEC route and made it longer by 300 kilometres, without taking the Pakhtun and Baloch stakeholders into confidence. This is yet another example of the surreptitious and the high-handed approach towards the smaller provinces. The reaction from within the two provinces was natural and requires attention by the federal government.
As this bickering simmers in Pakistan, the Chinese leadership is worrying about future developments. President Xi is expected to visit Islamabad soon and will hopefully provide a fresh impetus to the PCEC-related projects, which Beijing firmly remains committed to. Chinese officials say the corridor project is not just meant for one region, but for the economic development of the whole of Pakistan. Chinese diplomats in Islamabad are both enthusiastic as well as concerned about the controversy surrounding the corridor. There will be quite a spectacle if protestors from Balochistan and K-P greeted President Xi, said an official. Why can’t Pakistani leaders sit together and flesh out the issues in an amicable and transparent way, wondered another visitor from Beijing. While there may have been complex internal security challenges as well as Chinese concerns that might have prompted changes in the corridor route but why was this done in such a controversial manner? Pakistan needs unity, transparent political conduct and a people-focused commitment like never before.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2015.