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CPEC: The ball is in Pakistan’s court



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China asserts that it is not wavering from its commitment to assist Pakistan in the second, people-centric phase of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Despite being embroiled in multiple problems — the virus epidemic, growth moderation and trade spat with the United States — the Asian dragon is all set to commit $1 billion in the current calendar year to kick-start the next phase of CPEC.

In an exclusive interaction with Dawn, China’s Consul General in Karachi Li Bijian was open and clear about the mutual relationship and its future. He dismissed the perception that China is disillusioned by the Pakistani leadership and has adopted a wait-and-see strategy before committing support for CPEC’s second phase.

“This is a figment of some naïve elements’ imagination. Nothing can be far from the truth. I can confirm that China has helped Pakistan close physical infrastructure gaps in the first phase and wishes to see benefits of this massive investment flowing to Pakistani youth, farmers, labour and disadvantaged segments in the second phase,” he asserted.

He declined to comment on a possible US role in peddling doubts about CPEC and its cost.

‘We can’t order private investment. We know well it will not be persuasion but the profit expectation and risk coverage that will mobilise them,’ CG Li

The second phase of CPEC is focused on public and private collaboration in industrial, agriculture and social sectors (poverty alleviation, training and research to transform industrial/agriculture sectors to improve productivity and competitiveness). The specifics of commitments for the identified projects have yet to be finalised, but about $1bn is expected to land in the country over the next 11 months.

Read: CPEC 2.0: The promise and peril

In the first phase, the thrust was on bridging the physical infrastructure deficit (electricity, logistics and the port). Big-ticket projects close to $21bn in energy, transport infrastructure and Gwadar Port are either complete or about to finish shortly.

Expanding on his argument, the consul general stated: “The relationship between the two countries is not transactional. We are long-term partners who share the common dream for a just and inclusive order that affords decent living standards for all citizens. China chose Pakistan to be the first stop for its One Belt, One Road vision.”

“If there was some confusion in the party that assumed power after the 2018 general elections, it has been cleared. We know the current leadership in Pakistan understands and acknowledges CPEC’s value for the country and its future,” he added, putting to rest the perception of deliberate reluctance on either side.

He also mentioned the revised China-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that has added 301 items to the list of articles enjoying duty-free access to the gigantic Chinese market. “It can translate into $6bn worth of additional export from Pakistan to China if the potential of the facility is properly leveraged,” Mr Li elaborated.

To a question regarding little interest among private Chinese companies in relocating their operations in Pakistan, the consul general was not apologetic. He attributed it to a lack of suitable business environment that had de-motivated even local investors.

“We can’t order private investment. Yes, we are encouraging companies. We know well that it will not be persuasion but the profit expectation and risk coverage that will mobilise them. We are engaging with the relevant quarters in Pakistan to work out an incentives package for Chinese investors in special economic zones (SEZs).”

About $1bn is expected to land in Pakistan over the next 11 months as part of the second phase of CPEC

Elaborating on multiple factors that influence the decision of Chinese companies about the destination of their overseas investment, he mentioned the low quality of workforce in Pakistan. “Finding workers with required skills was identified as a big challenge by prospective Chinese investors. We intend to initiate more skill training programmes for workers in Pakistan to ensure the availability of employable youth for Chinese companies setting up shop here. Currently, we are setting up one such facility at Gwadar.”

Commenting on the current slump in Chinese funding, the consul general mentioned multiple challenges that his home country is facing. “Taking care of I.4bn- strong population is not a mean challenge in itself, especially when the GDP growth rate has moderated to 6.1 per cent from over 8pc annual average. The global slowdown and trade frictions with the United States are there. The fear of a virus epidemic in a country of high population density has soaked up the government attention. In this environment, China can’t afford to be too generous. Like others, we also need to justify to our people the resources diverted to other countries.”

He said the next Joint Coordination Committee meeting is still on the agenda. “The tradition of top-level exchange of visits will be maintained this year. Such frequent bilateral visits will further promote and strengthen the existing relations and cooperation.”

Experts involved in CPEC-related affairs agree that sometimes China raises issues, but it would be wrong to interpret those as second thoughts on Pakistan. “The problem is on Pakistan’s side. The PTI leadership took long to absorb the value of Chinese support to the economy that is on a slippery slope. All members of the leading team might still not be fully convinced by the official line to make CPEC fly. This, however, has proven to be insufficient.

“The Khan government is still struggling to put in place a workable mechanism acceptable to all federating units for implementing the second phase of CPEC,” a well-connected source in Islamabad commented.

Several attempts to reach retired Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa, chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPECA), for his input did not succeed.

Zafar Hasan, federal secretary for planning , was upbeat about the future of CPEC. He confirmed that the incentives package for local and Chinese investors in SEZs was in the works in collaboration with Chinese counterparts.

He defended the newly established autonomous authority that he said would be sufficiently empowered and made financially independent to coordinate and streamline dealings with all relevant departments and ministries and lower tiers of the government in CPEC-related projects across Pakistan.

As for the past and present inflow of funds from China, Mr Hasan said working out the exact quantum was a little difficult and involved monetising goods and services associated with CPEC projects. He did not confirm or dismiss the projection of $1bn worth of support in 2020 mentioned by the Chinese consul general.

“The intent might be there but the pace of progress is woefully slow. It is almost criminal. The government must immediately remove irritants delaying the arrival of Chinese investment that might ease economic stress through job creation or the strengthening of social protection programmes,” commented a senior officer anonymously.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 10th, 2020

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