BOTH China and Pakistan consider CPEC a significant milestone — in the emerging politics of the region, it has the potential to change the strategic and geo-economic dynamics across the whole of Eurasia.
Both sides appear enthusiastic about the corridor, but for different reasons. For China, CPEC is a flagship project, an important component of its much larger One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. For Pakistan, it is a strategic and economic game changer in the region.
However, the excitement surrounding this initiative also entails undercurrents of frustration at times. China anticipated a smooth implementation of CPEC-linked projects, but the slow pace and patchy consensus on the project within Pakistan have annoyed Beijing. The Pakistani establishment has attempted to use CPEC and its friendship with China as a strategy for balancing regional power, mainly against India, with less focus on the economic advantages of the initiative.
Despite these mixed feelings both sides can learn a lot, to their mutual benefit. So far, they have avoided taking impulsive steps which could compound frustrations. Pakistan is learning to simultaneously manage and balance internal pressures and compulsions with its foreign policy orientation. China is experiencing a new partnership; different from its African experiences, but very useful for its OBOR engagements in the region.
The Chinese success in Africa — ie how they won and executed mega infrastructure projects in many parts of the continent — is commendable. However, these ample opportunities for Chinese investors were only achieved by China’s unconditional support for those countries’ unsavoury regimes. Critics also point to corruption and kickbacks, which fast-tracked implementation and completion.
Maintaining consensus ensures transparency and socio-political stability.
Pakistan and South Asia are different from the African region. Although corruption is a big issue in the national discourse — and scandals such as the Panama leaks continue to destabilise the government’s credibility — the government cannot use authoritarian powers to suppress the opposition, media, judiciary and, above all, the common citizen’s grievances.
The political government cannot do without consensus among stakeholders, especially on national issues. In some cases, building consensus takes time but, once developed, it ensures transparency and, most importantly, socio-political stability — critical to paving the way for long-term engagements.
The Colombo Port City project is a good example of this: the project had been signed off by the previous government, but due to internal criticism and lack of transparency the new government suspended work on the project. President Maithripala Sirisena’s government has recently given the go-ahead to resume the initiative — after developing consensus and making changes to the terms of the project.
Dictatorial leadership cannot build consensus on critical national issues — such regimes have triggered anti-establishment and anti-Punjab sentiments in its federating units, and have also caused socio-political frustrations which have impacted internal security. Besides the many issues of resource distribution, the Kalabagh dam is a classical example of military rulers failing to evolve consensus despite all their efforts. It suits political governments best to evolve and maintain consensus as they have previously done; the settlement of water resource distribution, national financial awards, and some critical constitutional corrections are a few recent examples.
Even on CPEC, consensus is intact because all political stakeholders are generally in agreement. If some provinces or political parties continue to have reservations, there are forums available where these issues can be discussed.
The smooth implementation of CPEC-linked projects requires that all our constitutional and legal safeguards are functional and free of bureaucratic hurdles. The government has promised incentives, such as a ‘one-window operation’ and coordination networks for foreign investors and stakeholders, to create a better investment climate in the country. To facilitate Chinese investors, the government could introduce a separate mechanism both on the federal and provincial levels. The provinces could accelerate the process of establishing special economic zones, which would also attract investors from other countries.
There is a need to make the Council of Common Interests more effective and functional. At the same time, parliamentary committees on CPEC should be vigilant and enhance their contributions from monitoring to actively giving advice. If needed, a special oversight committee on CPEC can be formed, made up of representatives from political parties, chambers of commerce, technocrats, and experts. Considering that security is a critical issue for the project, representatives of the security establishment can also be included.
Another issue which Chinese experts often highlight is the lack of any scientific approach in Pakistan, with indirect references to the fact that the eastern route — much more feasible from economic, security and strategic perspectives — should be prioritised. According to their rationale, a scientific approach is needed to manage costs and long routes. However, a political government cannot sell this idea as it incurs a political cost. The better approach for the government would be to bear the economic costs and to focus on both routes simultaneously. This is important, both for national unity and political stability.
Many experts rightly evaluate the strategic importance of CPEC — increasing in importance given the fluid geopolitical context of the region. The Gwadar port is important for China and Pakistan in emerging strategic scenarios in the Indian Ocean, and will give them an enormous edge over their competitors. Would it be wise to capitalise on strategic advantages only when it also holds economic opportunities — when neither comes at the other’s cost?
To put it simply, it is not that Pakistan would gain strategic advantages only if it sacrificed its economic interests. China may also not favour the idea of overemphasising the strategic importance of CPEC and Gwadar, but rather use them as important markers on its blueprint for OBOR. China’s strategic and economic positions would not be damaged if Pakistan continued to use its strategic advantages to balance regional politics and manage its relationship with the US.
CPEC is an experiment for both China and Pakistan. From it, China can learn how to execute OBOR in other parts of the region with similar political and social credentials. For Pakistan, it presents a test: to hold its nerves and implement CPEC without any major political and security turbulence.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2016