Ten Years of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: Has the ‘Game-Changer’ part been overhyped?

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CPEC project nad it's fate
Representative Photo

According to a recent news report carried by Nikkei Asia, China has spurned Pakistan’s proposals for inclusion of new projects in its Belt and Road Initiative [BRI]. It was a ‘source-based’ account that mentioned that “Two officials who have seen the minutes told Nikkei Asia that the Chinese side turned down Pakistan’s suggestions to add more projects related to energy, climate change, electricity transmission lines and tourism under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — the $50 billion Pakistani component of the Belt and Road.” [Emphasis added].

While both Beijing and Islamabad would like to rubbish this claim, this isn’t an easy task as the Nikkei Asia news report contains compelling details which clearly indicate that things aren’t as rosy as the two ‘iron clad’ brothers so vociferously maintain. For example, even though the Joint Cooperation Committee [top decision-making body for CPEC projects] meeting was held in October last year the minutes were ratified only in July this year. The inordinate delay of nine months between China’s meeting and the signing of its minutes certainly raises red flags!

Then, the report also reveals that in the minutes of this meeting there’s a mention of Beijing rejecting Islamabad’s proposal for a 500 KV transmission line to connect the port city of Gwadar to the national electricity grid from Karachi. Beijing has even refused to entertain cash-strapped Islamabad’s simple demand for relocating a 300 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Gwadar to facilitate use of domestic rather than imported coal, which is rather intriguing.   

That Nikkei Asia’s claim would elicit a response from Islamabad’s ‘Iron Brother’ Beijing was expected. After all, doesn’t Islamabad tout Sino-Pak friendship as being “higher than the mountains, deeper than the sea, sweeter than honey, and harder than steel”? However, the question was whether the response would come out in the form of an outright rebuttal of disclosures made by two unnamed officials to Nikkei Asia, or by playing down this embarrassing truth by trumpeting the CPEC success story.

Beijing expectedly chose to do the latter.

Exactly a week after the Nikkei Asia report appeared, The Express Tribune carried a news report that the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Jiang Zaidong had stated that “CPEC has brought a total of $25.4 billion in direct investment, 1, 55,000 direct jobs, 510 Km of expressways, 8,200 megawatts of power capacity and 886 Km of core power transmission grid to Pakistan.” He also contended that in the last decade, CPEC succeeded in “injecting strong momentum into Pakistan’s economic and social development” [Emphasis added].

However, Pakistan’s rapidly deteriorating economic condition and burgeoning unemployment belies Zaidong’s claim that CPEC has injected “strong momentum” in Pakistan’s economy and furthered social development. While there are no grounds to doubt the authenticity of data furnished by the Chinese ambassador, but given its precarious financial condition, the people of Pakistan have all the reasons to question as to where all this money has gone, and where are the jobs?

However, the answers aren’t very easy to find.

Inexplicable lack of transparency regarding the terms and conditions of CPEC contracts and the suspicious secrecy surrounding interest rates that Beijing is charging for its extraordinarily lavish loans to Islamabad certainly gives rise to suspicions that there’s more to it than what meets the eye. In 2017, the media was abuzz with news regarding rampant corruption in CPEC’s infrastructure projects of such humongous magnitude that Beijing temporarily stopped funding of three major road projects.

Just three years later, an investigative news report based on credible documentary evidence provided details of the mind boggling financial empire of retired Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa, who was serving as special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcast as well as chairman of CPEC authority. While the beleaguered Lt Gen Bajwa agreed to resign from the former post, his refusal to quit as chairman CPEC authority fuelled speculations that he was merrily dipping into the CPEC’s till.

However, the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan isn’t the only one who has tried to convince the world that all’s well with CPEC. Nikkei Asia has quoted Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at Center for China and Globalisation [which is close to Beijing] saying that “China’s approach to Belt and Road investments is guided by prudence and long-term sustainability.” Mok goes on to justify tardy CPEC progress by adding, “Concerns like political instability in partner countries like Pakistan necessitate greater caution, especially regarding the safety of Chinese nationals.”

Despite all the talk about CPEC being ‘game changer’ for Pakistan, the harsh reality is that Beijing primarily conceived CPEC to further  its own strategic and commercial interests, hence, any benefits from it that come Pakistan’s way are just incidental. However, it would be wrong to assume that the payback from CPEC for Pakistan is a dole from Beijing because Islamabad has paid a very heavy price for China’s ambitions.

Firstly, though its financial crisis predates CPEC, Pakistan’s external debt has risen astronomically due to investment in this project, both in terms of machinery and material imports as well as heavy loans taken from Chinese banks at near-commercial rates of interest. Secondly, by extending special privileges to Chinese players like permitting uncontrolled trawling off the Gwadar coast and giving them tax exemptions, locals have been marginalised. And public ire is evident from the massive two month long ‘Gwadar Ko Haq Do’ [Give Gwadar its rights] movement that in a first of sorts saw a massive turnout of women.

Thirdly, by escalating the level and frequency of punitive actions against innocent civilians as retribution for attacks by Baloch freedom fighters on CPEC assets and Chinese workers to protest exploitation of the region’s natural resources, the already alienated people of Balochistan have been pushed into a corner. Resultantly, the level of violence in Balochistan has surged exponentially and further invigorated separatist ideology. Lastly, by allowing CPEC projects in Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir [POJK], Islamabad has compromised its own narrative of J&K being ‘disputed territory’.  

So, while CPEC hasn’t exactly measured up to the expectations of Pakistanis even after a decade of its inception, one sincerely hopes that the situation changes soon and the promised unending downpour of money starts. After all, Islamabad desperately needs such a miracle in order to repay the estimated $30 billion loan that Beijing has extended at commercial rates of interest. Only this can ensure that the ‘sweeter than honey’ relationship between the two stays intact, and China remains a friend and doesn’t become the master, [in case this hasn’t happened already!]

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