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CPEC claims and doubts

Updated March 02, 2017

On Tuesday, Islamabad heard a series of perspectives on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that could be viewed as a case study on the gap between the claims and apprehensions about the project.

At the Council of Ministers’ meeting before the formal opening of the 13th summit of the Economic Cooperation Organisation, foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz claimed that CPEC could “galvanise trade opportunities with the ECO region” by acting as a catalyst to boost intra-region trade through greater connectivity. He claimed that CPEC could help the entire ECO region emerge as a “formidable economic bloc” in the world as greater connectivity promoted greater trade and investment flows amongst its member countries.

This is how the tale of CPEC has grown with the telling. What was originally presented as a ‘game changer’ for Pakistan is now being touted as a ‘game changer’ for a region consisting of 10 countries.

Read: CPEC cost build-up

In the official version, it appears there is no limit to how much change and benefit CPEC promises, while the costs and pitfalls in such a large undertaking are dismissed as the musings of sceptics and pessimists.

But on the same day, across town in Islamabad, two other discussions were under way on the promise and perils of CPEC that had decidedly less ambitious undertones.

In the Senate, during a hearing of the Planning and Development Committee, the chairman voiced apprehension that CPEC may or may not bring the promised benefits, saying “China is our brother, but business is business”.

Amongst the many things his committee was told, by staff from the Planning Commission that is tasked with overseeing the details of all CPEC projects, was that only Chinese investors would be allowed to invest in the proposed special economic zones being created under the corridor umbrella. No assurances could be given that Pakistani labour would be recruited to work in the Chinese projects, or that the country would see a revenue windfall.

At another event, organised by a think tank, a Chinese speaker highlighted the “enormous challenges” both China and Pakistan should expect to face, while adding that China would “never like it [CPEC] to fail”. Another speaker underlined the disproportionately expensive financing conditions that come with CPEC projects, adding that these are higher than the conditions at which China has lent to other countries such as Myanmar.

This is where our CPEC conversation stands today. The official claims are almost always met with deep apprehensions about the costs of CPEC financing as well as purported benefits for Pakistan’s economy.

Thus far, official quarters have not been able to put these apprehensions to rest. The government has surmounted much of the route-related controversy that erupted in the early days of the CPEC initiative, but these concerns regarding financial costs and economic benefits continue to bedevil the project.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2017