Opportunities and Risks
Envisaged in mid-2013 and launched in April 2015, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a set of projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, marks a new era of economic ties in a bilateral relationship historically defined by security cooperation. Pakistan’s economy clearly needs reform to better serve its people, and many officials say CPEC will help in this regard. But as currently rolled out, the corridor risks aggravating political tension, widening social divides and generating new sources of conflict in Pakistan. The PTI government that has assumed power after July elections should mitigate these risks by being more transparent about CPEC plans, consulting all stakeholders, including smaller provinces, the business community and civil society, and addressing concerns that the corridor subordinates Pakistan’s interests to those of China. For its part, Beijing also should consult stakeholders in regions that will host CPEC projects it agrees upon with Islamabad. It should encourage Chinese companies to display sensitivity to residents of those areas, including by hiring local labour.
CPEC, which comprises loans, investments and grants that could grow to around $60 billion, travels a 2,700km route. It starts on the Pakistani Arabian Sea port of Gwadar, in Balochistan province, climbs along the Karakoram highway through the Khunjerab pass in Gilgit-Baltistan, before crossing into the Kashgar prefecture in China’s Xinjiang region. Within Pakistan’s territory, the economic and development project prioritises transport infrastructure, industrial development, energy and Balochistan’s strategically located Gwadar port. Agricultural modernisation and production form another critical component.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, which came to power after elections in 2013 and stepped down on 31 May 2018, depicted CPEC as a leap forward both in relations with China and for the country’s economic development. Contenders to national office from across the political spectrum have broadly endorsed this view. Yet some high-level officials and prominent voices in Pakistani business are concerned about the failure to protect local economic interests, high guaranteed returns on equity to Chinese investors and unaffordable national debt.
While it is too early to assess if CPEC can deliver the economic gains Islamabad promises, the project risks inflaming longstanding tensions between the centre and smaller federal units and within provinces over inequitable economic development and resource distribution. Less-developed federal units such as Balochistan and Sindh contend that the corridor’s route, infrastructure and industrial projects will mostly benefit Punjab, already the country’s wealthiest and politically powerful province. Yet, even in Punjab, locals could forcibly resist the state’s acquisition of land for CPEC’s agricultural projects.
Read More: The Other Side of the CPEC
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