The plan to create the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a major development which has significance, not only for our own country and China, but has broader geostrategic ramifications as well. It is thus important to understand the multiple layers pertaining to the CPEC, including the broader geostrategic context in which this initiative has been conceived, as well as the power dynamics surrounding this ambitious project as they have begun to unfold within Pakistan. The $46 billion investment China intends to commit to Pakistan under the CPEC is impressive. The amount exceeds all foreign direct investment Pakistan has received in the past several years, and is considerably more than all the aid Pakistan has received from the US since 9/11.
The CPEC is a comprehensive infrastructure project, involving the construction of roads, railroads and power plants, over a 15-year period. The project is impelled by Beijing’s desire to expand its trade and transport footprint across Central and South Asia and obtain easier access to Middle Eastern and West African energy supplies via the Gwadar port. Access to the Gwadar port would also enable China to contend with growing US influence in the South China Sea, and bypass the potential threat of a maritime blockade.
Although Gwadar is being constructed as a commercial port at present, in the future it could be possible to develop it into a naval facility leading to maritime competition in the Indian Ocean, an issue that India is not oblivious to.
Moreover, the CPEC also has domestic implications for centre-province relations within Pakistan itself, which is also a matter of particular concern given the legacy of uneven development within the country. The project has begun to stir up controversy, and politicians including the ANP leadership in Khyber-Pakhtunkhw, as well as Baloch nationalists, allege that the project has been altered to benefit Punjab. The federal government is trying to stress that the CPEC aims to create a network of multiple routes and economic corridors which will serve all the four provinces equally.
Pre-existing infrastructure and varying levels of security do imply that progress on the different routes of the project will not be uniform. Our decision-makers thus face the difficult task of ensuring sufficient institutional coordination to meet the stipulated deadlines of the larger project, in addition to contending with political challenges and the prevailing lack of security which could threaten the success of the project. The provincial governments must also rise to the task and ensure they provide land for development projects, and provision of allied facilities, to meet the stipulated project deadlines. Ultimately, the CPEC initiative must ensure that all provincial capitals become major nodes for the economic corridor, or else the provincial tensions within the country will become further exacerbated.
Despite these challenges, the CPEC provides a unique opportunity for Pakistan to boost its strategic and economic position. It would thus be a shame if the CPEC were to become bogged down in political controversies like the Kalabagh Dam. If Pakistan remains unable to complete its part of the CPEC in a timely fashion, the Chinese will still have the option to focus their attentions on other routes, going through the Persian Gulf in Iran, or through Central Asia and Russia, but Pakistan will lose the golden opportunity of becoming a conduit for the growing Chinese influence over the coming decades.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2015.
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