Map of the China-Pakistan CPEC roadway network. Credit: Government of Pakistan, Wikipedia Commons.
Ever since the inception of the idea of CPEC, it has been embroiled in controversies with regards to its viability, alleged provincial preferences, never-ending debate about cost and benefit and above all for the lack of transparency.
Intentionally or unintentionally, the ruling party in the Government has resorted to the policy of secrecy about the CPEC project despite it being the most sought after not just by the policy makers of the two countries involved, but by the common public and the regional stakeholders alike.
While CPEC does bring a wave of hope for the downtrodden province and parts of Pakistan by promising economic relief and addressing the energy crisis through energy projects, time and again there have been growing concerns and fears of all types associated with this multi billion developmental project.
Only recently there has been a renewed hue and cry about China getting 91 percent of the revenues from the Gwadar port as part of CPEC for the next 40 years leaving only 9 percent for Pakistan. There have been debates, concerns and endless analytical discussion in print and electronic media questioning the very purpose of the CPEC project when this is all that Pakistan is eventually going to end up with. This situation does raise question in one’s mind as to why the Government is bent upon staying ambiguous even at the cost of inviting negative propaganda by ill wishers.
To find an answer to this particular question, one has to look at the situation from a few slightly different perspectives. First and foremost there is no doubt that ideally any democratic government should be accountable to the people; otherwise it inevitably leads to the pattern of distrust between the two.
But at the same time every government has some limitations which in fact are intentionally being observed in order to keep the negative elements at bay. For instance the states are particularly discreet about their respective capabilities as it varies from government to government.
Such a disposition allows the states to work on their policies, projects, plans and interests with some level of freedom by keeping the enemies guessing. This kind of approach is especially adopted because every state enjoys different position of power in the global context.
Maximilian C. Forte, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal believes that it is usually the weaker states that forego openness because the “so-called weaker states of the ‘periphery,’ formerly colonized nations, especially those which are the targets of covert war, economic destabilization, and political inference both by more powerful states and by multilateral financial institutions, have historically been the ones with the most to lose from ‘openness’ (whether voluntary, or as in most cases, coerced)”. Hence from this explanation it becomes quite satisfactorily clear that sometimes it is in the best interest of the government to stay discreet in an effort to ultimately safeguard their national security.
One can infer that this could very well be the reason in case of CPEC as well. Pakistan once was a British colony; it continues to be the target of proxy wars, the economic disturbances and political instability is caused not just by the incompetence of the concerned authorities but also because of the effective exploitation of the situation by the adversaries. Hence the government being secretive is justified to some extent especially when it the secrecy is being observed to gain some power or control. This control may not necessarily be aimed at controlling others but essentially to have an authority over carrying out one’s own actions with full autonomy.
However one cannot ignore the fact that secrecy does create an issue of legitimacy about governments’ policies. Trust building is a two way process. If the government is not transparent in its working, it will lead to distrusting citizens. From that perspective, the governments should never hide anything from its people.
The same has also been highlighted by Adil Najam, Professor of International Relations at Boston University, who believes that “Keeping some secrets may indeed be inevitable. But let them be so few, so infrequent, so vital, and so unusual that triggering secrecy requires not a public list or standard procedures, but deliberation, and maybe even introspection, at the highest levels. When in doubt, governments should err on the side of openness”.
By allowing the distrust to flourish, the citizens feed on their own doubts and end up spewing conspiracies against their own governments. Unfortunately this case also applies to Pakistan.
This further leads to yet another question as to “who” should be “told” and “know” “how much”. In today’s age and time, this is slightly tricky to answer since most of the information is accessible with just a click of a button owing to the advancement in technology. However the credibility factor of course cannot be ruled out in that case.
Nevertheless public demand for information cannot be out rightly rejected or ignored. It is for the same purpose that the official pages and websites have been generated to provide information about the CPEC. Relevant Chinese and Pakistani officials have been promptly addressing public queries on those sites. As was also in the case of recent information where China is set to get 91 percent revenues generated from Gwadar port.
Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping Mir Hasil Bizenjo shared this news after senators expressed concern over the secrecy surrounding the CPEC long-term agreement plan, with many observing that the agreement tilted heavily in China’s favour. Some further explanation was instantly provided by the Gwadar Port Authority which clarifies that the Gwadar port agreement is the same that was signed with Singapore Port Authority 10 years ago in 2007. It was signed with former port operating company, namely, Port of Singapore Authority International (PSAI). The port and its Free Zone could not be developed by PSAI as per the Agreement on Built-Operater-Transfer (BOT) basis till 2013. The present Port Operator, namely, China Oversees Ports Holding (COPHC) took over the operations of the Port after commercial negotiation with the concerned authorities in 2013 without any single amendment in the agreement.
Therefore the terms and conditions were defined long before the CPEC existed. Under the agreement the port operator has to construct new port terminals with equipment, machinery, marine vessels, and allied facilities on a vast area of the port. Furthermore, the company is developing Gwadar Free Zone at an area of about 2,300 acres of land.
The entire project is to be completed on BOT basis with company funding. The company will be spending around US$ 5 billions during the Concession period up to 2048. After completion of the Concession period the entire fixed asset constructed and developed will be transferred to GPA with billions of dollars businesses operating in Gwadar Port and Gwadar Free Zone. During the Concession period GPA is getting 9% of the gross revenue from port and marine service businesses and 15% of the Free Zone businesses.
This detailed and timely sharing of information sufficiently put several doubts to rest. It is commendable that Gwadar Port Authority immediately responded to the concerns and has managed to cultivate confidence and better understanding of various modalities of the project.
Hence it is important to note that Governments do need confidentiality to function, yet need to develop procedures for responding effectively to shifting demands of openness and secrecy. Developments in this direction benefit citizens, businesses, governance, and foreign policy.
*The author, Sadia Kazmi is a Senior Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. She is pursuing a PhD in the Department of Strategic Studies at the National Defence University, Islamabad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org