WHEN one talks of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, images of highways, bridges, railway lines, seaports and airports — with a massive movement of goods and passengers connected to such a network — come to mind. There is a different version of CPEC too, one in which, in addition to a transportation network, there are energy projects and the development of economic zones along this corridor. Despite a major portion of the investment being devoted to energy, the success of the entire project rests on an efficient and viable transportation system to facilitate the export of China’s manufactured goods as well as the import of raw materials and gas/oil for the large manufacturing units coming up in western China. The corridor will cut down costs and save shipping costs that are incurred by using an expensive and long-existing option. Thus, enormous savings are projected for China, in addition to being an economic boom for Pakistan, and resulting in accelerated prosperity for Pakistanis.
A glance at Pakistan’s map starting from Gwadar to Khunjerab Pass, the entry point into China, shows a massive network of roads that connect to the motorways and highways and finally converge on a single highway that leads to Khunjerab in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). If one looks at the route starting from the north, one can note a single highway traversing through a difficult terrain, then branching off in all directions within Pakistan and towards the highways that lead to the ports of Gwadar and Karachi. With this map before us, it appears that the entire heavy transportation of goods from the now massively developed industrial area of western China will be confined to a single highway, with almost 800 kilometres winding through one of the world’s most difficult mountainous terrains, through this most economical and short route to the seaports. Similarly, heavy transportation convoys will also converge on the same highway to the north to enter China.
With a record investment of over $50 billion by China, this transportation corridor is key to the success of its One Belt, One Road vision. It has unmatched opportunities for Pakistan as well as for China, and the road network will be the primary mode of transportation for the entire project. Surprisingly, the design appears to be based on unsound assumptions, as a single-approach highway entering China cannot sustain smooth flow of the projected heavy traffic that will likely continue to increase. In particular, the portion of road from Khunjerab to Gilgit is so unstable that to keep it open, five tunnels have been constructed to avoid frequent landslides at some unsteady points.
Multiple land connections are key to CPEC’s success.
It is incredible that this massive project has been based on a single road situated for much of its length through a very uneven terrain that is prone to landslides. Another incident such as the one that formed Attabad Lake could result in transportation between the two countries being suspended for months, with resulting losses in the shape of time and failure to meet the deadline for delivery of goods. It is time to look at other options of alternate routes and include them for development as part of our CPEC plan. There is an alternate direct route from China through Mustagh Pass that was open till 1905. This was a regular route for the movement of the small-trade caravans, but was closed due to the growth of the glaciers. With modern construction technology, it is now possible to build the road even through the glaciers, with the route passing through Shigar Valley and connecting to Islamabad through Neelum Valley and joining the vast highway and motorway networks towards the seaports. A third route could be built through the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan to Chitral, and from there it could join the road network in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
It must be remembered that CPEC is not merely a trade route or an economic development project. It also has tremendous strategic importance that — in addition to furnishing extraordinary opportunities of commercial advantage to challenge the international economic giants — also extends the outreach of the emerging superpower of China to warm waters. This has naturally attracted attention from countries hostile to Pakistan and apprehensive of Chinese interest in Pakistan. Similarly, facilitating the Chinese is also viewed with fear by the economies competing internationally.
With this kind of adverse environment, it is most important that all possible risks are assessed to keep the wheels of commerce moving through this corridor by providing viable alternatives. Depending on a single entry through a difficult terrain with security threats on some of the disturbed portions of the corridor may not be very prudent. A crowded highway with slow-moving heavy transportation without an alternative route is a natural target for antagonistic elements, whether foreign or local. Any disruption of this frail link of a single road will compromise the viability of the entire project, with devastating repercussions for Pakistan and serious economic consequences for China.
No physical barrier should obstruct an economic corridor that will be a game-changer for billions of people. China has the technology, the resources and the desire to make CPEC a success. This must be put to maximum use to make viable proposed alternate routes so that the success of this project results in cutting costs and saves Chinese cargo ships from passing through crowded sea lanes, mostly through unfriendly stretches of water. For Pakistan, the success of CPEC is essential to its dream of economic development and for China it is a vital link in its OBOR vision. Indubitably, any setback to CPEC will also imperil the success of this vision. Hence, addressing this key issue will guarantee the success of this major undertaking by China.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2017