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ColumnsChanging colours of CPEC

Changing colours of CPEC

Published: 6th Dec 2020 12:29 am

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is set to see significant governance changes. These changes could not only impact the pace of the massive project, it could change the power dynamics in Pakistan with China and the Pakistan military tangoing to sidestep the country’s civilian government.

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Recently, a parliamentary committee gave the go-ahead for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2020. Pakistan’s Parliament is likely to vote on it this month. The Bill intends to cut out Pakistan’s Planning Commission, which has served as the country’s chief economic policy development body since the 1950s, as the administrative authority of CPEC division and bring it directly under the supervision of the Prime Minister.

In fact, the military had already taken control of the CPEC last year through a presidential ordinance that bypassed parliament. Retired Army Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa now helms the project. Under the proposed Bill, the government would cede more ground and Bajwa would report directly to Imran Khan. With this, the CPEC would come directly under the Pakistani Army and given that Khan is seen as a ‘puppet’ of the Rawalpindi bosses, the Army could have a free run with the CPEC Authority having the sole power to conceive and develop projects.

Given the size, scope and likely impact of the CPEC, this could severely undermine the civilian authority and create a parallel governance structure in Pakistan, say opposition parties. Though the opposition has severely criticised the creation of the CPECA as “unnecessary” and a “white elephant”, it is unlikely to change things. There are indications that the Army is using Bajwa and CPEC to claw power back from the civilian government.

Military Might

The $60-billion CPEC, fully funded by Beijing under the multi-billion One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, was launched in 2015 and progressed well until 2018. But since then, it has slowed down owing to political instability, insurgency in Baluchistan, economic recession in Pakistan, and large-scale corruption.

In 2018, the World Bank cautioned the participating countries on the debt risks, stranded infrastructure, social risks, and corruption in the project. In September of the same year, Abdul Razzak Dawood, Pakistan’s minister for commerce, industry, and investment, told the Financial Times: “The previous government did a bad job negotiating with China on CPEC. They didn’t do their homework correctly and didn’t negotiate correctly, so they gave away a lot” adding that “Khan had established a committee to think through CPEC — all of the benefits and the liabilities. I think we should put everything on hold for a year so we can get our act together. Perhaps we can stretch CPEC over another five years or so.” (At all costs: how Pakistan and China control the narrative on the China-Pakistan economic corridor. Brookings. June 2002)

But Dawood had to backtrack his statements stating they were “taken out of context and distorted” and that “Pakistan-China relations are impregnable and the government’s commitment to the CPEC is unwavering.” Ten days thereafter, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s chief of army staff (COAS), suddenly took off to China “on special invitation” from Xi, the paper noted.

The Inter Services Public Relations, Pakistan military’s public relations arm, issued the following statement after Bajwa’s meeting with Xi: “BRI with CPEC as its flagship is destined to succeed despite all odds and Pak Army shall ensure the security of CPEC at all costs. COAS said that while we work for peace we need to stay strong to thwart designs of all inimical forces challenging our resolve and we greatly value Chinese support in this regard.”

The Impact 

So what would a complete military takeover of the CPEC mean? Anam Kuraishi, a Pakistani PhD scholar from the Department of Government, University of Essex, who has widely researched the CPEC, says “domestically, it will mean a shift in control from the planning and development ministry run by a civilian bureaucracy to the military officials. This is problematic on two accounts — one, it grants legal immunity to the CPEC authority officials and two, it also stipulates that the non-cooperation of any public officeholder with the CPEC authority will result in investigation of that public officeholder. These will not only act as a hindrance to transparency over the planning and development of CPEC projects but also provide an avenue for the military personnel to entrench their power within the political realm. The lack of oversight by civilian authorities is also a matter of concern as it allows the CPEC authority to function with impunity and without accountability to elected officials.”

Internationally too, such a move may not receive a nod of approval as it only shows the interference of the military in civilian matters, she says. “This may also prove to be a barrier in developing economic and social ties between the regions the CPEC route intends to take and will act as an obstacle in deepening relations with the neighbouring countries”, she adds spotlighting the minuses of this military takeover.

Writing in the Foreign Policy, commentator Arif Rafiq focuses both on the short and long-term impact of the changing colours of the CPEC. “For Pakistan, the renewed emphasis on CPEC and the growing role for the Army are double-edged swords. In the short term, paired together, they will inject much-needed aid and investment into the Pakistani economy. And a tighter embrace with China will bolster Pakistan’s security against archrival India. But in the long term — with absent civilian ownership, renegotiated terms, and structural reforms — CPEC may burden Pakistan with unaffordable electricity and unsustainable debt, cannibalise its federal budget, entangle Pakistan in broader US-Chinese tensions, and further entrench the Army in the country’s politics and economy.”

Taming Balochistan

The CPEC has inflamed Baluchistan, which has been on burn due to insurgency by ethnic Baluchs demanding independence. The Baluch Liberation Army took responsibility for the attack on the Chinese Consulate in 2018 and threatened more attacks if China does not halt “the exploitation of Baluchistan’s mineral wealth and occupation of Baluch territory.”

Gen Asim Bajwa was the head of the army’s Southern Command, which covers the province of Balochistan and his appointment needs to be seen in this light. “Bajwa was undoubtedly selected out of a belief that he could address security concerns. Beijing is worried about terrorism in Baluchistan, where separatists have stepped up attacks on Chinese targets in recent years. Bajwa also served as lead military spokesman for three years and is credited as having taken the Army’s media management game into the digital era. The Army sees CPEC as being the target of a malicious foreign propaganda campaign (for example, several senior US officials have publicly questioned the sustainability, transparency, and even the legitimacy of the program) and wants to fight back,” writes Arif Rafiq.

CPEC projects have progressed better in Punjab and Sindh compared with the historically marginalised provinces such as Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Influence on India

These developments on the CPEC front in addition to India staying out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) stand to make India an outlier in the region. China has been strengthening its relations with Pakistan and Asean (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) both on the economic and defence fronts.

“India can only go so far without serious structural reforms at the borders and regulatory evolutions. While as a market India is hard to ignore, it is becoming increasingly unattractive to the region as a trade partner due to new certification rules and complex customs rules in the absence of Free Trade Agreement (FTAs) granting greater trade facilitation,” points out Jhanvi Tripathi, an International Trade Policy analyst.

With CPEC deepening an already strong relationship between China and Pakistan, and now more importantly between their armies, India needs to rethink its strategy not just from the point of defence but from the political and economic perspectives as well.

 One Road, Many Challenges

  • CPEC, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is a global endeavour aimed at reconstituting the Silk Road and linking China to all corners of Asia. In Pakistan, it has been billed as a massive development programme that will bring new prosperity
  • Announced in April 2015 during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, it was inaugurated by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Islamabad that month. It promised $46 billion in infrastructure and energy projects in the form of loans and investments over 15 years; the total was later revised upward to $62 billion
  • Chinese firms have been contracted to build a number of coal-fired and hydro-electric power plants, as well as wind and solar projects. Other firms will be building new road and rail links between Pakistani cities and mass transit systems within them. China is also helping expand and develop the Gwadar port. In addition, China is also installing cross-border fiber-optic cables, an early warning system for the Pakistan Meteorological Department and experimental agricultural projects
  • China’s footprint has grown considerably in Pakistan, with some estimates saying about 7,00,000 Chinese nationals are currently in the country, directly or indirectly connected to the One Road Project.


– With inputs from Agencies

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