Pakistan has decided to lift lockdown to kick-start its tottering economy. The growth engine of Pakistan’s economic revival is powered by CPEC, flagship project of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). It is tempting to conjure up nightmarish scenarios, specially in pandemic induced global recession. Notwithstanding, our antagonism, laced with some degree of ‘schadenfreude’, it may be gross under estimation of Chinese resilience and persistence.
BRI, conceptualised, in pre-Covid-19 era is an audaciously, ambitious project designed to stamp China’s centrality in reordered global economic ecosystem. Hailed as ‘Project of Century’ by Chinese President Xi Jinping, it seeks to cover 65 countries, touching lives of 62% of global population. It’s bevy of projects, entail expenditure of 30% of world GDP, transporting 75% of energy products. Simply put, it will put China at the hub, connectivities radiating along Maritime Silk Road (String of Pearls, in Indian context) and BRI — with multiple surface links, dubbed as — Belt and Road Initiative.
While more than 120 countries lined up for two BRI summits, India remains the most significant naysayer. CPEC, with alignment through Gilgit-Baltistan and POK, violates de jure sovereignty. India has flagged contentious issues like opacity, financial viability and lack of multilateral consultation.
China justifies bilateral format, to surgically resolve issues and ensure adherence to deadlines. Most projects are Chinese driven with minimal local participation and capability building — labour and ancillaries sourced from China. The predatory nature has lead to debt trap and even leasing of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port for 99 years.
Noted strategic commentator Christine C Fair has described CPEC as “Colonisation of Pak by Economic Corridor”, harking back to comparisons with East India Company. This grandiose project has significant geostrategic consequences with economic connectivities meshed in.
The unviability of projects, executed in political hinterland of local rulers has sprouted the world’s emptiest airport Mattala, in vicinity of Hambantota. Every change in ruling arrangement, leads to inquiries as evidenced in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and even Pakistan targeting Nawaz Sharif. Gwadar, currently ghost harbour, resolves Malacca dilemma, obviating circuitous sea lanes through narrow Malacca straits. My take — CEPC is for China by Chinese, Pakistan just happens to be geographic reality on corridor.
Myitsone dam in Myanmar has been abandoned due to local backlash. CPEC projects like Kohala on Jhelum in POK and Daimer-Bhasha on Indus have triggered widespread protests. Ironically, power station is planned in KPK, getting royalties, while Baltis will suffer submergence. The current template, reflects uneasy compromises brokered by Pakistani army after regional tug of war. No wonder, Balochis and Sindhis have declared jehad against CPEC, citing blatant favouritism to Punjab.
Having taken stock of challenges, it is imperative that Chinese strengths and resilience are also factored in. Displaying remarkable agility, Health Silk Road and Digital Highways are being unveiled.
China is frontrunner on pandemic curve, emerging as leading supplier of medical equipment, medicines and expertise. It is also in the race to produce vaccine with domain competence and data bank on viruses. Developing countries are being showered with medical aid, giving shape to health silk road, notwithstanding, quality issues. 5G powered by Huawei has been activated on Mt Everest as part of digital silk road. It will harness space as medium with add-ons like facial recognition, geo-tagging, AI and robotics.
Chinese economy is limping back and global rating agencies forecast that despite deceleration it is likely to register positive growth. While downsizing, reprioritisation and repackaging is axiomatic, yet the Dragon’s persistent patience will ensure salvaging of projects, albeit in slowed down mode.
Feeble articulations for multilateralism are unlikely to find traction as UN, WHO, WTO and even EU are on retreat. America under Trump is looking inwards, distracted by internal politics. Japan with surplus funds is likely to remain focussed on decoupling and relocation of manufacturing chains. With no viable alternatives, debt rescheduling, more loans and enhanced Chinese suzerainty are inevitable.
BRI addresses, Chinese compulsions of excess project execution capability, specially skilled labour and surplus funds. While availability of resources will reduce but compulsion to apply stimulus and employ workforce may increase due to relocation of manufacturing. The choice would obviously be CPEC with early harvest dividends.
Many projects like Gwadar, power stations, highways and metro are in advanced stages. Power shortage has been alleviated to some extent. These are insulated from blowback of Wuhan virus with strong Pak miltestablishment support and FWO participation. Security challenges are being addressed with dedicated, special Division-sized force and another planned raising. Lt Gen Asim Bajwa has been recently appointed as CPEC Authority chairman and given concurrent charge as information advisor to PM. While most of 8,000-strong Chinese labour force went back for New year, they are already returning.
Xinjiang model seeks to transform Pak from agriculture to manufacturing economy with special economic zones and relocation of apparel manufacturing to bypass tariff barriers. Plans for pleasure parks, casinos and resorts, will trigger backlash from society. It includes even pig farms and vaccine projects, in society abhorring both. Wet markets with large Chinese workforce are inevitable. These elements of proposed 60 billion dollar project need serious relook. India with little leverage should remain committed to multilateral projects like Chabahar and Act East connectivities.
As CPEC comes back on steam, it will be appropriate to recall remarks of Lt Gen Aamer Riaz, erstwhile Southern Army Commander, “No doubt, CPEC is going to be great, Inshallah! But remember; the Chinese are Chinese-first, businessmen-second and Pakistan’s brothers-third.”