Revitalisation of CPEC appear unlikely now

Despite the fact that there was much effusive rhetoric about the PakistanChina friendship at the recent summit, doubts have been raised over CPEC
gaining momentum henceforth. That’s because China does not trust it
completely while considers China as an all weather ally. Pakistan PM Shehbaz
Sharif’s recent visit to China too has failed to reignite the relations. However,
revitalization of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is unlikely to be
on the expected lines.
The terrorist attacks on Chinese nationals in the past few months have
antagonised Chinese leadership which asked Pakistan to provide security to its
citizens. However, the Chinese nationals working on China-Pakistan Economic
Corridor (CPEC) projects are given bulletproof cars for all outdoor travel.
CPEC is a key part of China’s most ambitious project Belt and Road Initiative
(BRI), aimed at renewing the country’s ancient trade routes. For Pakistan, CPEC
is of utmost importance as it has managed to generate enough electric power
to say goodbye to the brutal 16-hour-long daily load-shedding. Thousands of
kilometres of highways were also built, bringing into the mainstream far-flung
parts of the country. But alongside these two priority areas under CPEC,
Pakistan was expected to build nine Special Economic Zones. Unfortunately,
that did not happen. So, the Chinese industries began shifting to countries
where they could establish and operate seamlessly. Pakistan missed the train.
Besides the delay in making SEZs, Covid-19, political and policy instability, and
non-ease of doing business were responsible for CPEC’s slowdown.
Former foreign secretary of Pakistan, Aizaz Ahmed Choudhry raised serious
concern over CPEC’s momentum. According to him, as Dawn reported, the
moot point is whether CPEC can regain the momentum it had generated in the
first few years since its launch in 2015.
“ The visit of our prime minister to China this month has certainly provided a
timely fillip to CPEC’s ongoing projects and potentially new investments. The
joint statement after the visit reaffirmed the “all-weather strategic cooperative
partnership” between the two countries. It was also agreed to “continue the
momentum of CPEC’s high quality development”. It was a clear signal from
both countries’ leadership that the implementation of CPEC projects must be
revitalised. However he stated that there is a degree of curiosity as to why
there was no clear announcement to start any major projects, such as the
proposed multibillion-dollar ML-1 railway line project. The joint statement only
“appreciated” the project and called for its earliest implementation. Likewise,
the leaders agreed to “speed up progress” on Gwadar port and Khunjerab
border port. However, no specific projects were announced. On some level, it
is felt that China might be waiting for clarity regarding the next government in
Pakistan. However, it can be argued that leaders provide only broader
guidance, and work is to be done at the working level. If that is the case, it falls
on the Planning Commission and concerned authorities to pursue a resultsoriented approach lest the political goodwill generated by the “leadership
consensus” dissipates. Another relevant factor is the high concern the Chinese
have about safety and security of all Chinese personnel, projects and
institutions in Pakistan. Unless we adequately address these concerns,
attempts to reinvigorate CPEC could run aground.
It may be mentioned here that Beijing had approved Islamabad’s decision to
scrap the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority in mid-August.
The scrapping of the CPEC authority is a reflection of the resentment and
tough times ahead for the BRI elsewhere in the world. When the BRI was
launched with great fanfare by Chinese President Xi Jinping after he came to
power in 2013, the CPEC was advertised as its flagship project. How come then
it is getting embroiled in polemics? It may be noted here that there has been
vocal opposition to the CPEC-related projects in Balochistan.
CPEC projects are facing tough times. The local population is peeved at the
hyper-marketed Gwadar Port, the lack of economic growth, and the absence of
job opportunities. After the Karachi attack on Chinese nationals in May, China
is increasingly bitter about the multi-pronged attacks on its projects, and
personnel. While Pakistan has deployed more than 15,000 military personnel
in protecting the CPEC projects, China is not confidant about these security
assurances. People of Pakistan are none too happy with CPEC due to the high
cost of loans, and the resultant debt-trap. An Asian Development Bank report
in February recommended immediate structural reforms so as to unleash the
potential of private sector along the CPEC pathway since the CPEC itself was
not a sufficient condition to improve Pakistan’s economy. Some policy changes
on the CPEC, including the authority, were expected with the change of
government in April. Apparently, the CPEC Authority was formed in 2019 to
expedite different projects under the CPEC. Instead, it has been bogged down
in controversies, corruption allegations, and wastage of resources. Ends.