Needless flak

May 26, 2017


DETAILS that have emerged about CPEC in a recent story in this paper may have come as a stunning revelation to many, but for those who are familiar with China’s One Belt One Road initiative there is little that was not known. Meanwhile, the public reaction from some segments has been paranoiac while the government’s has been indignant. Both are unnecessary.

Here is an excerpt from my column ‘A Chinese template’ in this paper two years ago: “[OBOR] seeks to expand the Chinese economy by first creating mega project construction opportunities for Chinese firms and then by spreading out markets for its manufactured goods. … Long term ‘it aims for financial integration with the 65 Belt and Road countries’, … [for] removal of ‘investment and trade barriers [and] for the creation of a sound business environment in the region.’ … ‘China will work with countries along the Belt and Road to steadily advance demonstration projects’.”

That Pakistan’s main commodities originate in the agriculture (including livestock) sector, the Chinese interest here is not surprising. We have purposely been touting these at investor road shows in world capitals with PowerPoint slides showing how Pakistan ranks amongst the top 10 producers in the world for at least 25 agricultural commodities. Now this is where I’m hearing the most alarm bells ring.

The Chinese have figured that Pakistan’s agriculture is characterised by low productivity. They have little to gain from buying out our landholdings for tillage. However, yields can be enhanced substantially and harvest losses minimised by application of modern methods which include demonstration farms, extension techniques, logistic infrastructure and quality inputs. If some of the incremental produce is exported to China or elsewhere then that may not be such a bad thing.

Fears about China’s projects are unnecessary.

While there is nothing negative in the Dawn story, which in fact was a factual interpretation of the documents, let me take this opportunity to address some of the other specific fears among segments of the public that in fact predate the story.

After agriculture, the second concern is about jobs and Chinese workers. It should be noted that these are only specialist project workers and most would leave after the work on the power plants, rail and port infrastructure is complete. For Chinese ‘going concerns’ one only has to look at Chinese mobile operator Zong to see how many Chinese employees it hires.

The third is about visa-free travel. Even if this were to materialise, under our present visa policy, nationals of several countries can obtain visa on arrival in Pakistan. How many do we see lining up to avail this facility?

The fourth concern is around surveillance equipment to build safe city projects and it should be understood that to be meaningful, this would need to be coupled with rapid response by our police forces. Monitoring it from Beijing would serve nobody’s purpose.

The fifth is about “transmission of Chinese culture” through the DTMB infrastructure that is planned to be deployed. PTCL Smart TV already has 100-plus channels. If a couple more are added containing Chinese content then I would be interested to see what effect that may have on current viewer habits or on the ratings of popular channels.

Finally a word about whether this is our plan or China’s plan for us:

Shortly after the PML-N government came to power in 2013, I got co-opted on the task force as a private sector member for preparing Pakistan Vision 2025 and the 11th Five Year Plan. By the summer of 2014, Vision 2025 had been given final shape and was widely disseminated to stakeholders and the media. At the third Joint Coordination Com­mittee meeting of CPEC in August of that year, the planning minister had shared it with the Chinese members. At the same meeting the LTP outline was discussed which included CPEC’s spatial structure and functional zones, construction of an integrated transport system, IT connectivity, energy cooperation, industries and parks, agriculture development and poverty alleviation, people-to-people communications as well as financial cooperation.

Additionally, the outline contained chapters on financing mechanisms and institutional support measures and implementation framework for the long-term plan. That was in August 2014. How substantively the Pakistani side was able to influence the draft, I cannot say, but I do know this: had this little detail been shared with the public at the time, that we had reached a bilateral understanding with the Chinese on a range of matters, that a long-term plan was now being prepared as a follow up to Vision 2025 and the plan outline had been posted on the Planning Commission’s website, the controversies around CPEC could have been avoided.

The writer is author of the book Putting Pakistan Right: Standpoints on the War on Terror, Energy, Transit Corridors &Economic Development.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2017