The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive $46 billion bilateral developmental project between Pakistan and China, is supposed to be a “game changer” in the geopolitics of South Asia. This economic corridor aims to connect Kashgar in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang with Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan through a vast and complex network of roads measuring 3,000 km as well as other infrastructure projects. On paper the CPEC, intended to be completed by 2030, is a win-win for both countries. China will save millions of dollars every year by shortening its route for energy imports from the Middle East by about 12,000 km and also gets greater access to the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Pakistan expects infrastructural enhancement and the reduction, or even elimination, of its severe energy crisis by getting in return an estimated $34 billion for various hydro, solar, thermal, and wind-driven power plants.
The keenness of Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to be a part of CPEC in the future has added to the mystique of the already highly hyped economic corridor. Astonishingly, the least-publicized aspect of the agreement is a deal for eight submarines to be supplied by China to Pakistan, which considerably elevates Pakistan’s naval military strength.
Chinese interests in Pakistan are not only economically driven. A fully operational Gwadar port not only provides China with lucrative commercial benefits but also huge strategic and geopolitical advantages. Although at present Gwadar is being developed for commercial purposes only, there are huge chances for it to develop into a well-equipped military naval base in the future, which would provide China an enormous strategic advantage in the region. As Pakistan is currently suffering from the worst kind of extremism, terrorism, and rampant corruption, it not only intends to benefit economically from the project but also improve its world image under the patronage of China.
However, Pakistan must balance the expected benefits of CPEC with the potential negative outcomes.
Economic and Infrastructural Enhancement
CPEC offers Pakistan an excellent opportunity to upgrade the basic infrastructure of all provinces as the corridor essentially passes through the whole of Pakistan. New roads, highways, railways, airports, and seaports are to be built and developed according to the blueprint of this ambitious project. Provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, which lag far behind Punjab in terms of development, are expected to get an infrastructural boost. In addition, a fully functional corridor promises huge employment opportunities to all sections of society. Proposed Chinese investments are supposed to increase Pakistan’s $274 billion GDP by over 15 percent.
Overcoming the Energy Crisis
Pakistan’s stagnant economy has been a direct corollary of the endemic energy crisis. The country badly fails to meet its energy demands and this long unsolved problem shaves about 2 percent off GDP. Keeping this in view, CPEC will see different power projects totaling 10,500 MW completed on a fast-track basis through 2018. The energy aspect has been termed the biggest breakthrough of the project. In one plan of particular note, 10 projects of 6,600 MW are to be developed in the Thar desert, which has the potential to transform this highly remote area into Pakistan’s energy capital.
Freedom From Over-reliance on the United States
Pakistan’s over-reliance on the United States for strategic and financial purpose has not served the country well. Despite being a close ally, Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has hardly been what can be termed as “cordial.” The general public in Pakistan feels betrayed by the chameleon attitude Washington has shown toward them. The views are shared among political circles too. CPEC provides Pakistan an opportunity to work closely with seemingly a more reliable friend, China, independent of Western influence.
However, despite the fact that CPEC provides Pakistan a huge economic opening, there are apprehensions regarding the efficiency and economic feasibility of the project. Moreover Pakistan faces various internal and external political challenges which may hamper the progress of CPEC.
Threat to Sovereignty?
Strangely, the most ignored aspect of the CPEC is the presence of thousands of Chinese security personnel in Pakistan, which have been deployed to provide security to Chinese workers, officials, and engineers (in addition to the security provided by Pakistan). The presence of foreign soldiers in such huge numbers should be a cause of concern for the Pakistani establishment, keeping in mind the alleged neo-imperialistic endeavors of China, especially in Afghanistan. Furthermore many in Pakistan worry about the project being used by China to exploit Pakistan’s vast natural resources, especially in Balochistan, in the guise of developmental assistance.
Balochistan Insurgency and Internal Conflicts.
Gwadar port in Balochistan holds the key to the success of the corridor and Pakistan’s ambition of becoming an economic stalwart in the region. However, increasing calls in Balochistan for a separate state and the ensuing armed conflict pose an enormous challenge to the corridor. Baloch nationalists oppose CPEC, as it could potentially turn the demographic balance of the region against them. Many people from other provinces of Pakistan could move to Balochistan and settle there, if the corridor does become a success. Various Baloch rebel groups have already attacked Chinese engineers and officials working on different CPEC projects.
Many banned terrorist organizations also pose a threat to the project as they seek ways to settle scores with the Pakistani state. Plus, numerous political organizations from provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh have voiced concerns over changing the original plan of the corridor, which allegedly diverts the economic benefits to Punjab province only. To add to the woes, Pakistan’s strong military establishment also feels that it has a little say in the project.
Ceaseless bad blood between India and Pakistan has led to the ever-present sense of precariousness and instability in the entire region. As the corridor passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan, which India claims to be its own integral and indispensable territory, illegally held by Pakistan, New Delhi has openly opposed CPEC. Pakistan has continuously accused India of conspiring to disrupt the project by fueling the Baloch insurgency, a claim vehemently contested by Indian state. Unhealthy Indo-Pak relations cast shadows over the prospects of a peaceful and stable South Asia.
A prosperous South Asia is possible only if both these militarily powerful countries shun their ugly, stagnant political positions and work closely with each other. CPEC being transformed into ICPEC by connecting it with Indian Punjab may be the first step in this direction. However, this seems a mere fantasy in the present context.
Hanan Zaffar is assistant editor with weekly Heaven Times and a citizen journalist with Daily Uqaab. Currently pursuing B.tech from National Institute of Technology Srinagar, he has written extensively on the Kashmir conflict, social issues, and sports.