By Arab News
By Nadeem M. Qureshi*
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) mega project has been widely welcomed in Pakistan as a game changer. The core of the project is a 2,500-km road and rail link, which will connect the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea to the Chinese city of Kashgar in Central Asia. The Chinese government, the principal sponsor, says it will invest $46 billion on the project.
The money will be spent not just on the road and rail link but also on a host of other infrastructure projects. These include an expansion of Gwadar port and a new international airport in the city. Also included are several power projects based on coal and renewable energy that will add about 10.4GW to Pakistan’s power grid. Oil and gas pipelines are in the offing as well.
There can be no dispute that the CPEC is a game changer. Pakistan’s faltering economy will get a huge boost. China will get access to a warm water port. Shipping time and cost for exports from Western China will be reduced. Oil and gas will be offloaded at Gwadar and piped along the corridor to China.
The announcement of the project shone a bright light in the gloom that surrounds the Pakistani economy. Elation is the order of the day. There is broad consensus that CPEC is an unqualified “good.” But could it be that, dazzled by the light, we have neglected to conduct a rigorous analysis of this mega project and what it means to Pakistan?
In a deal like this emotions have to be set aside. There is no doubt that China has been a strong and constant supporter of Pakistan throughout our history. But it should also be clear that when it makes investment decisions such as the proposed $46 billion CPEC it makes them in the cold light of its self interest — as one would expect from any responsible nation. And as a responsible nation, conscious of its sovereignty and self-respect, Pakistan should also apply the same standard to its assessment of the project.
Clearly the advantages of the CPEC are many, significant, and undeniable. But are there any aspects that may be detrimental to our interests in the long term? The first issue that comes to mind is sovereignty.
By leasing out vast tracts of land in the city of Gwadar and all along the route of the corridor, we in fact transfer sovereignty of some of our territory to a foreign power. And this is no ordinary foreign power. China is an emerging superpower with global ambitions. Have we built into the deal the necessary safeguards that will allow us to retain control of our territory if circumstances change?
It is proposed that most of the construction work will be done by thousands of Chinese workers. Does this make sense for Pakistan given widespread and painful unemployment? Would it not be in our interest to have Pakistanis do the work? Should contracts not include provisions for contractors to train and employ Pakistani workers and engineers?
As a global manufacturing powerhouse China plans to bring all or most of the equipment it needs for projects from its own suppliers. But would not our interest be better served if we insisted on having equipment made in Pakistan? Part of the proposed investment should be diverted to setting up factories inside Pakistan to supply the diverse range of equipment and machinery to the various CPEC projects.
Have we asked the right questions in regard to the financing? Forty-six billion dollars is a lot of money. Is it a grant or gift to Pakistan? Is it a loan? If the latter, what is the payback period and the applicable rate? What happens if there is a default? Have the tariff rates payable to Pakistan for use of port facilities, road and rail links, and oil and gas pipelines been established and agreed?
These and a whole range of other issues must be addressed when so much is at stake. But it seems that the euphoria of attracting this mega project has perhaps distracted us from the imperative of due diligence and the rigorous risk-based cost benefit analysis that this entails.
Let there be no doubt: The CPEC is wonderful news for Pakistan. But we must move forward with our eyes wide open. And with a full understanding of not only the rewards that the project holds for Pakistan, but also the possible pitfalls that may lie in wait for us.
* The writer is Chairman of Mustaqbil Pakistan.