Deciphering The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): Aladdin’s Lamp – OpEd


President Xi Jinping put forward his dream project the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for international cooperation in 2013. Since then, a total of 172 countries and international organizations have signed over 200 cooperation agreements with China and that cumulative trade between China and its BRI partners has exceeded $9.2 trillion.The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also the part of this BRI their flagship program. CPEC is a $62 billion package of projects ranging from transportation, energy, port construction, industrial cooperation, and even social sector development.  It has been estimated that besides creating two million new employment opportunities, Pakistan would benefit with at least two percent increase in its GDP per annum, and develop a wider regional connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

Even in Pakistan China’s all-weather ally, just 32 of the total 122 projects announced under the BRI have been completed so far.China has been forced to cut back on new loans and investments under the BRI due to the country’s shrinking economy.Besides,the BRI projects are embroiled in corruption, lack of financial transparency, unfair loan conditions, fears of debt-traps, negative social and environmental impacts and  China’s security concerns.

The Special Economic Zones (SEZs) under CPEC; Initially, there were about 29 SEZs out of which only nine were prioritised as a first step, but those nine also have not  taken off. 

Pakistan believed that  CPEC will be their “Alladin’s Lamp and the Genie will full fill all their wishes.” CPEC was to be believed to be a ‘Game Changer’ for Pakistan.Be it the US orChina every one wants their pound or chunk of flesh. Initially valued at $47 billion, the value of CPEC projects was worth $62 billion as of 2021. Since 2018 onwards, however, it was not been smooth sailing under the PTI Imran Khan government  the work on the corridor seemed to have slowed down.

The government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has vowed that it will take CPEC forward with a new vigour. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has also reaffirmed Pakistan’s resolve to further strengthen its strategic ties with China, including through the implementation of CPEC when he met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. 

Deciphering  CPEC  North- South

BRI passes through Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in PoK integral part of India which is located strategically. It borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and China.. Its strategic, economic and commercial significance has increased in light of the CPEC agreement, under which Beijing is investing large sums to develop the area as part of its BRI. GB has large mineral deposits.Mining is dominated by  China. Chinese companies and labour are everywhere in GB. Chinese have created  ‘No-Go’ areas to prevent locals from accessing these areas. 

CPEC connects Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Province with Gwadar Port in Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. More than 400 kilometres of the CPEC NH35 route passes throughGB. The KKH almost 900 km also runs through GB.  A long term project under CPEC involves construction of the 682km long Khunjerab Railway line between of Havelian and Khunjerab Pass, with extension to China’s Lanxin Railway (Southern Xinjiang)  in Kashgar, Xinjiang. This railway will roughly parallel to KKH, and is expected to be completed by 2030.

Two Special Economic Zones (SEZ) are also planned .Similarly a fibre optical cable project covers an area of 820 km and will provide the  infrastructure for 3G/4G services between the Khunjerab Pass on the China-Pakistan border and the city of Rawalpindi. It has been constructed as part of the CPEC at an estimated cost of $44 million.Plans are underway to construct several hydropower projects in GB.

The GB region is losing its ethnic identity with planned demographic invasion and settling of population from Sindh and Punjab.  

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries will connect China mainland to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and on to Europe. China with the help of Pakistan has made concerted efforts to establish the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship amid deteriorating regional security post the US withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. Interestingly with shifting geopolitical competitions China is the new player in Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is not surprising that Central Asia will have one of the main routes connecting China and Europe under the BRI. Pakistan’s CPEC and the BRI has provided the springboard to the Chinese dragon to leap frog over continents.

Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run ‘Gwadar Port’ for the next four decades as it is under huge Chinese debt.China’s debt-trap diplomacy has not spared Pakistan, which ranks as its sole strategic ally.  China will take away 91 percent of the port’s revenues. It also plans to build near the port a Djibouti-style outpost for its navy.People of Baluchistan including women have been protesting against the sell out to China.The Chinese confidence in Pakistan’s security system’s ability to protect its citizens and projects is seriously shaken after the Karachi University attack.Three Chinese teachers were killed when an explosion triggered by a burqa-clad suicide bomber from the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) ripped through a van of the Confucius Institute at the prestigious University of Karachi on April 26.

Forced by the Chinese solely to protect their workers working on CPEC projects dedicated Frontier Corps force has been earmarked throughout the country post  36 Chinese nationals died in a terrorist attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in 2021.The Chief of Army Staff reiterates that this security will ensure a secure environment for the completion of the CPEC projects.Pakistani military’s penetration into politics, society and economy is well established over the decades and CPEC projects have provided yet another opportunity for the military to further expand its influence in the decision-making process of the country. The process has been facilitated by Beijing’s security concerns. Under pressure from China, Pakistan Army has taken institutional control over CPEC which is seen as a lifeline saviour for the dwindling economy of Pakistan and is the cornerstone of China Xi’s flagship BRI. 

Economically Pakistan is in a greater mess than ever before. Foreign direct investment (FDI), which is key to economic growth and development, is touching the lowest level one can imagine. The ever-increasing gap in exports and imports is another ill to be taken care of, as is the current account deficit. Security issues are popping up day by day. But the most crucial question is: how to tackle these economic issues? “Pak-China friendship is higher than Himalayas, deeper than ocean, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel.” Wonder why this Pak-China friendship is not coming to their rescue. 

China’s BRI has left a large number of poor income countries burdened with heavy ‘hidden debts’ totaling $385 billion, according to new findings of a report published by ‘AidData’, based in Virginia. American statesman John Adams, who served as president from 1797 to 1801; “There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country: One is by the sword; the other is by debt.”

According to this ‘AidData’ report, China has used debt rather than aid to establish a dominant position in the international finance market.  BRI is part of a grand strategy to build alliances, project influence, and reshape the international balance of power in Beijing’s favour in all spheres.Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, along with more than 6,000 hectares of land transfer to Beijing on a 99-year lease is the most glaring example of this policy.42 countries are believed to be now having debts due to China exceeding 10 percent of GDP.

CPEC  may fail under its own weight, due to local resistance in GB , Balochistan and Imran Khan’s Jihad against Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s  government and the  current economic situation. Pakistan is going the Sri Lanka way like it got sold out through the Hambantota port to China. Pakistan’s CPEC and Gwadar Port will lead them the same garden path.Only wish it does not happen.

Patial RC

Patial RC is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army and possesses unique experience of serving in active CI Ops across the country and in Sri Lanka. Patial RC is a regular writer on military and travel matters in military professional journals. The veteran is a keen mountaineer and a trekker.

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