No talk about China-Pakistan relations nowadays is complete without mentioning the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Such has been CPEC’s impact despite being in its initial stage that it has reinforced in economic terms the traditionally close political and security relationship between China and Pakistan. The bonding has become stronger even though China has moved on, befriended many more countries and expanded its influence across continents. However, like first love its relations with neighbouring Pakistan are special and, therefore, durable.
In Pakistan, CPEC is commonly referred to as a ‘game-changer’ even though some critics aren’t convinced. For China, CPEC is the flagship project of its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Beijing wants it to proceed seamlessly in Pakistan so that other projects and countries gain confidence about BRI’s benefits and sustainability.
Both China and Pakistan are increasingly talking about efforts by certain powers to sabotage CPEC and BRI, which is the signature foreign policy project of President Xi Jinping, who is the most powerful Chinese leader after the late Deng Xiaoping. The leaders of the two countries are also reiterating that such efforts won’t be allowed to succeed.
When Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited China recently, CPEC was mentioned time and again because its security in the face of multiple challenges has to be guaranteed by the security forces. He also had a meeting with President Xi Jinping, who said those opposing BRI and CPEC would never succeed as this is an initiative for peace and development not only for China and Pakistan but also the region and beyond. The Chinese President, who famously called Pakistan an ‘iron brother’ of China, remarked that Pakistan is a time-trusted friend and a strategic partner.
Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor, in a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York on September 26, also expressed the determination to foil plots to disrupt Beijing’s relations with Islamabad and create doubts about Chinese projects, such as CPEC in Pakistan. He said they would continue to make all out efforts to promote CPEC, expand trade and reduce poverty to benefit the people of Pakistan. Wang Yi had earlier declared during his visit to Pakistan that this was a wrong impression that CPEC projects were compounding Pakistan’s debt burden.
Led by the US and backed by India, a concerted campaign seems to be underway to term BRI a geostrategic concept aimed at advancing China’s influence in the world. China’s motives are being questioned and its investment in the BRI projects is mentioned as a way to bring developing countries in a debt-trap. The example of Sri Lanka is given as evidence how this small country ended up in big debt to China. The case of certain African countries is highlighted as critics claim they were reeling under Chinese debt. Malaysia’s example is given as a country that under President Mahathir Mohammad decided to cancel some China-sponsored projects as these were of benefit to Chinese companies rather than the Malaysian people.
The CPEC in Pakistan came under Western scrutiny after the July 25 general election when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won and took power and Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to pursue accountability and review some of the major projects undertaken by the previous PML-N government. An interview by Abdul Razzak Dawood, adviser to the prime minister on commerce, generated controversy and provided ammunition to those critical of China and BRI. Though he said he was quoted out of context regarding his statement expressing apprehension about the CPEC projects, the fact remains that some Pakistanis are worried about Pakistan’s ability to repay China’s loans and the advantage enjoyed by certain Chinese companies given contracts for big projects.
However, the PTI-led coalition government has since then been working overtime to clarify that Pakistan attached top priority to CPEC and was committed to its successful completion. It has been arguing that the new government desired to include projects that created jobs, benefited the people and triggered socio-economic development. China has said Pakistan’s position was justified and adjustments could be made to benefit the ordinary people and help them out of poverty.
As many as 22 projects were included in CPEC worth $57 billion, mostly in energy sector and infrastructure. A report said 13 projects have been completed while work on the remaining 13 was in progress. It was also claimed that the projects weren’t behind schedule.
Both China and Pakistan have been arguing that CPEC is for the region and not limited to their two countries. They have been inviting other countries to join CPEC, though none has formally joined it yet. The latest to be invited to join CPEC is Saudi Arabia, but it remains to be seen if Islamabad’s invitation to Riyadh would materialise. Earlier, Russia was invited as well, but media reports that Moscow had agreed to join CPEC weren’t confirmed by the Russian government. There has also been friendly talk of Iran and Pakistan cooperating by dispelling the impression that the Iranian seaport of Chabahar being developed by India was in some sort of competition with Gwadar. However, there is no real evidence yet that Iran and Pakistan would be able to cooperate rather than compete, more so in the wake of re-imposition of sanctions against Tehran by the US after President Donald Trump’s move to scrap the nuclear deal.
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The most promising aspect of CPEC as a regional connectivity project would be if it is extended to Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries were to join it. China has been pushing Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve their disputes and improve their relations and as a reward is willing to invest more in the region, particularly in Afghanistan once peace returns and also linking the two countries further through rail and road projects. If this happens, CPEC would be a real game-changer for the region.