Published June 2, 2024
Illustration by Radia Durrani
Illustration by Radia Durrani

Pakistan and China formally established their diplomatic relations on May 21, 1951. For almost half a century, their primary focus remained mostly on strategic cooperation, evolving into ‘higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the oceans’ friendship, but devoid of significant economic partnerships. Even in 1999, the bilateral trade volume accounted for just 0.27 percent of China’s total trade.

The shift from the strategic friendship to economic partnership came during the early years of the present century, when both the countries developed an interest in the development of Gwadar as a deep-seaport and connecting it with China through land routes.

This strategic-cum-economic initiative was designated as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and brought under the umbrella of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Under the CPEC, China invested billions of dollars in Pakistan in various sectors, from energy generation to construction of roads, highways and rail networks. This heavy investment in Pakistan on the part of China invoked Chinese scholars and academics’ interest in Pakistan, resulting in a huge surge of research literature on various aspects related to Pakistan.

A lot has been said and written in Pakistan about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and its transformative potential. But how do Chinese academics and scholars see it and the challenges they see in its implementation?

However, as most of the research literature was in Mandarin, and confined to China’s exclusive academic networks, only a limited number of people could access it.

Recently, some of the important articles written about CPEC by Chinese scholars were translated into English. The present article is based on these translated articles. A disclaimer is also in order here, that the views quoted or referred to in this article do not necessarily represent the entire Chinese academic and research community.

Pakistan’s Expectations

One of the Chinese scholars’ major concerns has been Pakistan’s exaggerated and unrealistic expectations of CPEC, which they fear would be harmful for Pakistan and China relations in the long run.

Professor Xuemei Qian of China’s prestigious Peking University highlighted the vast difference in understanding about CPEC among Pakistani and Chinese people, stating, “Pakistani people… believe it [CPEC] is their hope to change their lives”, while for China, it is “just a project of the BRI.”

Qian writes that many Pakistanis regard CPEC a “game-changer” and even a “fate-changer”, expecting that, when completed, CPEC would bring fundamental changes to their lives. “However, whether CPEC can really change Pakistan, or to what extent can it change, is a question that can only be answered when it is completed,” she states. At the moment she said she was more concerned “whether CPEC can be implemented successfully.”

Qian also disputes the oft-quoted financial size of CPEC, amounting to $46 billion, stating that the figure was self-projected, and based on rough estimates of individual CPEC projects, calculated privately by some individuals.

She is of the view that this unauthentic figure was “translated by Pakistani media as well as the politicians” into the financial size of the project under their own motives, without any input or commitment on the part of the Chinese government.

“The developers from Punjab and Sindh, who had made a fortune from trading land in Balochistan, did not build schools and other social infrastructures as they had agreed,” writes Professor Ruoshui Jiao of Lanzhou University. “The government [too] did not fulfil its promise to promote the economic and social development of Balochistan, and the rural areas of Balochistan were getting even poorer.”

Qian feels that the negative fallout of believing in this erroneous figure has already unleashed struggles among various social and political forces in Pakistan, so as to grab the maximum share of benefits. This, the scholar believes, has resulted in “actions and competitions for interests, spreading among political parties and provinces, private and public sectors, government and the military forces.”

She also states that, while people in Pakistan are highly enthusiastic about the CPEC, the people in China “tend to be more concerned about the hardships and risks CPEC might encounter and bring about.”

Similar optimistic views about CPEC in Pakistan were highlighted in their joint paper by Professor Yao Huang of USA’s Duke University and Dr Yan He of China’s Tsinghua University. They wrote that being “one of the slowest developing South Asian countries, Pakistan considers CPEC as a lifeline to stimulate its economy and promote its infrastructure.” In their view “the government, military and research institutes in Pakistan have placed high expectations on China’s enormous investments [under CPEC].”

Aside from this optimism, the feelings of pessimism about CPEC prevailing in a segment of Pakistani society were highlighted by Dongkun Li of China’s Southwest Jiaotong University. The scholar stated that certain people in Pakistan “tend to believe that CPEC might leave Pakistan heavily indebted, domestic enterprises might be hit hard, and even the political intentions of Pakistan might be controlled by China.”

Li fears that these “gaps in understanding of CPEC by Pakistani society are likely to evolve into more anti-China movements in the future. And this is also the major challenge that Chinese FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] in Pakistan might encounter in the future.”

Obstacles to Chinese Investment

One of the primary concerns of many Chinese scholars have been the risks and threats to China’s FDI.

“Pakistan’s political risks are very high, only slightly better than Somalia and Syria,” commented Li. “Pakistan is significantly below the world average level in aspects of corruption control, government effectiveness, political stability and control over violence and terrorism, laws and regulations and rule of law, etc,” Li continues while advising Chinese stakeholders to exercise prudence while making FDI in Pakistan.

Among the top-most deterrents for Chinese FDI in Pakistan is religious extremism and sectarianism. “Different religious sects not only have different doctrines, laws, ceremonies and cultures, but also political demands and material rights. Therefore, religious fights in Pakistan are considerably fierce… increasing the threat to Chinese FDI in Pakistan,” Li writes. “Featured by its suddenness, uncertainty and mass destruction, terrorism… has become the major institutional risk for Chinese investors to decide whether to invest in Pakistan or not,” Li observed.

Some scholars have associated the degree of terrorism with poverty and lack of socio-economic development in that region. “The poorer the provinces remain, the more likely their inhabitants will be attracted and involved in radicalism,” wrote Huang and He.

“A large number of militants are from the lowest socio-economic segments of society, and most of the terrorist activities have been implemented by young males in the country… Having no opportunities in poverty, young people are likely to be attracted by madrassas associated with armed militant organisations which offer food, shelter, and a sense of group identity,” the scholars observed.

Militancy in Balochistan

Chinese scholars have extensively addressed the issue relating to militancy in Balochistan, citing it as the gravest threat for CPEC.

“Local separatists have taken various actions to fight for their independence, posing a major threat to CPEC,” wrote Dr Yuhang Xie of Southwest Jiaotong University. “In order to achieve their independent political goals, they [have] used bomb blasts and launched armed attacks on various energy infrastructures and non-Baloch people in Balochistan, which [has] made the local security situation very critical,” she continued.

Some Chinese scholars have pointed out that lack of stakes and benefits for local Baloch population in the development projects was an important factor contributing towards unrest in Balochistan.

“The developers from Punjab and Sindh, who had made a fortune from trading land in Balochistan, did not build schools and other social infrastructures as they had agreed,” wrote Professor Ruoshui Jiao of Lanzhou University. “The government [too] did not fulfil its promise to promote the economic and social development of Balochistan, and the rural areas of Balochistan were getting even poorer,” he continued.

Jiao was of the view that the Baloch “are dissatisfied with the excessive power of the central government and believe that the rights and interests of the province are not respected and protected, feeling strongly [they are] being deprived.” He gave the example of Gwadar port, where he said the “technical jobs were occupied mostly by the Punjabi people or other ethnic groups, and hardly by the [Baloch] people.”

Some scholars have underscored the link between the tribal or feudal sardari system and the turmoil in Balochistan. “The biggest risk for CPEC comes from the province of Balochistan, where the sardari system and tribal structure has been preserved till today… It is now the most serious political issue in Pakistan and the most prominent challenge for CPEC,” wrote Jiao.

Highlighting the essence of this tribal system, Xie wrote: “Under the sardari system and tribal structure, tribal members are loyal to tribal leaders and lack a sense of belonging towards Pakistan. This makes the ordinary Baloch people susceptible to incitement by the sardars to defy the federal government.”

But instead of blaming the Baloch and their sardars, Xie holds the federal government responsible for it.

“The federal government is, in fact, largely responsible for the powerful grip the sardari system continues to have on the region,” she states. “By neglecting its [Balochistan’s] socio-economic development for too long, the federal government has contributed to the widespread poverty and the low levels of political literacy and educational attainment in the province, which [is responsible] for the population’s susceptibility to incitement,” she observed.

Pakistan’s Political Dynamics

Chinese scholars have also studied Pakistan’s political and fiscal systems to determine their impact on CPEC. One aspect highlighted by many of them is Pakistan’s lopsided federal structure.

“Since Pakistan adopts federalism, there is a serious imbalance existing in the functioning of Parliament, because economic development and population distribution differ greatly among all the provinces… Dominance of only one province [Punjab] and one ethnic group [Punjabis] have escalated the political conflicts among all provinces and ethnic groups,” wrote Li.

Some scholars have attributed the selection of the eastern route for CPEC — passing through already relatively developed areas of Punjab and Sindh — over the western route, passing through poor and socio-economically backward provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, to the Punjab’s dominant political role in Pakistan.

The reason officially cited for preference of eastern route over the western one was the better security situation in Punjab and Sindh compared with the western route provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. However, Huang & He found it “untenable to view eastern provinces as safe havens, because CPEC’s facilities and employees can hardly be exempted from threats of attacks regardless of their locations.”

Jiao claimed that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government had (allegedly) “intended to make Punjab province the privileged and biggest beneficiary of CPEC, which was firmly opposed by Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

Some scholars also have focussed on the poor performance of provincial governments in the social and economic development of their people, despite obtaining huge additional finances under the 7th National Finance Commission (NFC) Award.

“With a larger share of revenues… [the provinces] also obtained greater social sector responsibilities [under] the 18th Amendment… However, the outcomes did not measure up to people’s expectations. Key social indicators, like the net primary school enrolment rate, infant mortality, and coverage of tap drinking water showed a degenerating trend instead,” wrote Huang and He.

Jiao has also discussed in detail the dynastic character of Pakistan’s political parties and its implications for CPEC. He has indicated that, while in the past there were just few families sitting at the top of their respective parties, the dynastic trend in politics has presently reached even the local or district level.

“At the local level, it is embodied by several big families occupying and consolidating their spheres of influence, who have formed their own vote warehouses and continue to strengthen the influence of dynastic politics through benefit transmission and vote control,” he opined. Because of the dynastic character, “ordinary people are hardly participating in democratic politics,” Jiao stated.

Jiao argues that, in such a dynasty-based political system, the interests of respective families take preference over everything else. “Even the national interests have never been the priority of Pakistan’s [dynastic] politics, let alone the interests of CPEC for China and Pakistan.”

To sum up, let me state that this is just a tip of the proverbial iceberg. Chinese scholars have written much more than that. A sort of consensus among them, in the words of Huang and He, is that “CPEC seems more challenging and high-risk than other corridors.”

I may add here that the only silver lining in the dark clouds for CPEC in the coming years is in China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region.

The writer is a Sindh-based development communication professional and a former university vice-chancellor. He can be reached at

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 2nd, 2024



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