Planning minister Mr Ahsan Iqbal has finally confirmed that the CPEC Long Term Plan (LTP) is about to be finalised on Nov 21 at the seventh Joint Cooperation Committee to be held in Islamabad. Some might recall that details from the LTP in question were published by Dawn in a long detailed report in May, and the same minister had reacted sharply at the time, saying that the details are “factually incorrect” and the real plan will be made public once it has been finalised.
It looks like that moment is at last arriving, if the minister lives up to his promise of releasing the full document. If they do what they did earlier in the year, and produce a shortened, sanitised and general summary of the main LTP, and release that claiming that it is the original document, we will know that an effort is being made to conceal the real details of CPEC from the public.
To recap the conversations that took place around the time when the Dawn story revealed the details of the plan, there were four main areas of focus identified by the Chinese side and a few from the Pakistanis. The Chinese appeared primarily interested in agriculture, industrial zones and tourism, along with a digital strategy to expand fibre optic connectivity and build a submarine cable landing station in Gwadar to carry some of their digital traffic from the western provinces out via Pakistan rather than routing it through servers in Europe.
CPEC is about preparing the country to receive massive amounts of Chinese investments, personnel and culture.
In addition, there was a detailed financial strategy, which called upon the government of Pakistan to expand the role of the yuan in its economy, turn more to raising debt from the markets in Hong Kong, and dedicate increasing resources from its own budget, as well as provincial and local bodies’ budgets, towards CPEC-related priorities.
Since then, we have seen something odd happening. Many of the priorities identified in the LTP have indeed been pursued since, but without any of the fanfare associated with the inauguration of roads and power plants. For example, the national food security policy announced in July contained an entire section dedicated to the creation of CPEC-related agriculture development zones as one solution to the country’s future food security issues. Many of the details in that policy document sound almost identical to the priorities highlighted by the Chinese in their LTP document, produced by the China Development Bank under the auspices of the National Development Reform Commission.
In other examples, a recent news item highlighted the fact that a Chinese company has entered into an MoU with the city of Karachi to build an elevated road, almost four kilometres long, from Clifton Beach to Hawkesbay. A closer read of the actual MoU shows that the road is in fact being built to carry traffic to a Chinese resort to be built in Hawkesbay beach, possibly one of the first of the many tourist resorts to be built along the coastal strip from Badin to Gwadar identified in the Dawn report.
There are innumerable examples now. Land acquisition is under way in various areas around KP to build housing for Chinese personnel who will reside in the province in the years when CPEC-related investment begins pouring into the country.
The basic point here is simple: we have all been led to believe that CPEC is about connectivity, roads and power plants. In reality, it is about much more than that. It is about preparing the country to receive massive amounts of Chinese investments, personnel and culture. None of this implies that CPEC is a bad thing, as some people are ready to conclude without reflection. It is only to imply that the real details of what is being negotiated under the CPEC umbrella need to be publicly known, and efforts to hide these details from the public in a democratic country like Pakistan, where transparency and debate around issues of national importance are the norm, are bound to fuel adverse commentary and conspiracy theorising.
When the minister issued his sharp response to the Dawn story about the LTP, he was given a clear stage upon which to air his grievances with the story. When has asked for more time to be allowed to make the details of the LTP, he was given the time he said he required. But now that he has confirmed that the LTP is about to be finalised, it must be insisted that the time to deliver on his commitment has also arrived.
It is worth bearing in mind a couple of tricks that the government could resort to in order to try and wiggle out of this commitment without appearing to do so. Early in the year, when it needed provincial government assent for the plan, it generated a shorter, edited draft of the original LTP and circulated that to the provincial governments. Later, the government tried to argue that the edited version is the real one, and the longer, detailed draft was only a “working document”. A few people fell for this gimmick, thinking that somehow there are multiple drafts of the plan in play. In reality there was only one, and the shorter one was only a summary meant for public consumption with all vital details removed. Such gimmickry must not be resorted to this time.
The LTP is one of the most important documents in the arena these days, far more than the LNG contract that members of the opposition parties are clamouring for access to. It is bewildering to see the same members of the opposition parties holding their silence regarding the disclosure of the LTP. How has the silence of the opposition parties been obtained? Have they seen the LTP to be satisfied that no further discussion is required? The demands for CPEC transparency are more consequential for Pakistan’s long-term prospects, especially for its economy, and silence does not serve that interest well.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2017