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China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Where do we stand?

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China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the buzzword these days, not only in Pakistan and neighbouring countries but also in the capitals of many countries around the world. CPEC is not a standalone project, it’s a part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative under which Chinese government envisions to connect China in general, and its western regions in particular, with Central Asia, West Asia, Europe, Middle East, Africa and the Far East.

The CPEC is a long-term comprehensive cooperation framework between Pakistan and China covering the time period, as per the existing plans, from 2013 to 2030. The entire project is slated to have a total outlay of $46 billion. The current phase of CPEC is comprised of several projects, predominantly in transportation and communication sectors — such as roads, railways, fibre optic cable, industrial cooperation and energy. In the long-run, it has been planned to expand the cooperation mechanism to broad-spectrum, envisaged benefits in the fields of finance, science & technology, tourism, education, poverty elimination and urban planning and transport.

The road projects under CPEC have been the centre of attention ever since information about this game-changer project was made public. Majority of discussions pivot around the road projects and to many CPEC and road projects are synonymous. Under CPEC, a carriageway is being constructed from Gwadar Port in Pakistan to Kashgar in China. Within Pakistani territory, the road will run from Gwadar to Khunjerab, the border crossing between the two countries. The carriageway has three main portions: first is from Khunjerab to Burhan (an interchange near Islamabad where different roads from southern parts of the country join the only road to the north); second portion comprises different roads (routes) from Burhan to Hoshab, Balochistan, and these different routes are actually the cause behind misgivings on CPEC; and the third portion is again a sole road in Balochistan from Hoshab to Gwadar.
The two routes of the second portion i.e. Hoshab to Burhan, are the Eastern Route and the Western Route. The Eastern Route makes use of existing and under-construction motorways connecting Peshawar to Karachi. It passes through eastern areas of the country, mostly Punjab and northern Sindh that have most population, industries and better road infrastructure as compared to the western route. For this route, Peshawar-Karachi Motorway (PKM) will be joined with Hoshab through a connecting road from Sukkur. The total distance from Khunjerab to Gwadar on this route will be 2,769 km. The other alignment, the Western Route, which passes through western Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), is 2,459km long (310 km or 11% less than the Eastern Route) and has existing road networks — albeit not of very good standard — on almost all points. It will connect Hoshab with Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, Zhob, Dera Ismail Khan and Burhan.

Due to short distance and development prospects this route offers, provinces of Balochistan and KP are pressing upon its construction as the main road for CPEC. However, the federal government’s focus appears to be on construction of both the routes, although with some time frame differences. If the Western Route is to be constructed, it will connect Hoshab to Burhan via Quetta, Zhob and Yarik (D.I. Khan). The route can be divided into four sections: Hoshab-Quetta, Quetta-Zhob, Zhob-Yarik and Burhan-Yarik. The first three sections are in Balochistan while the last one is in KP. Among the three sections in Balochistan, Yarik-Zhob section has been included in the PSDP 2016-17 and an amount of Rs 850 million has been allocated for this 245-km road. A detailed design of this section is being prepared by NESPAK and it is expected that funding for this Rs 90 billion project will significantly increase once design in complete.

For Burhan-Yarik section (4-lane motorway), funds to the tune of Rs 22 billion have been allocated in the PSDP 2016-17 while land acquisition for the project has already been completed. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated construction work on this section earlier this year and this section is slated to be functional by June 2018.

Economic development, prosperity and gains are the driving force behind all projects. There will be gains in business, trade and employment for Balochistan and KP with the ongoing and future construction of roads under CPEC. Two million jobs are expected to be created in the next couple of years. A number of allied industrial zones along the roads are also included in the CPEC and both the provinces will have some of the industrial zones established in their areas too.

After the road projects, it’s the energy sector that will be receiving most investment under CPEC. At present, 24 CPEC energy projects are underway in different parts of the country. Once completed, these projects will inject much-needed electricity into the system to cater for not only the existing requirements but also the future requirements of an expanding industry. Pakistan Railways will also benefit considerably from CPEC. A number of feasibilities for improvement, dualization and overhauling of various sections on the Karachi-Peshawar railway track, the lifeline of rail service in the county, are currently underway.

An important concern over CPEC was fragile security situation in the country in general, and Balochistan and KP in particular. However, with Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the country has witnessed a quantum shift in improvement in the security situation. Since the Western Route would pass through regions with proximity to terrorism-infested areas that include tribal agencies, Afghan border and pockets of unrest in Balochistan, steps for improving security in these regions were of crucial significance. In a written reply submitted in the National Assembly recently, Ministry of Interior has informed that a total of 16,703 security personnel were deployed for the protection of 8,819 Chinese nationals working on different projects under CPEC. Out of these, 6,346 were deployed in Punjab for the security of 3,754 Chinese nationals, 3,134 in Balochistan for 558 Chinese nationals, 1,912 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for 698 Chinese nationals, and 2,645 security personnel have been deployed in Sindh as security arrangement for protection of 1,141 Chinese nationals. In Islamabad Capital Territory, 439 personnel of the law-enforcement agencies have been deployed for the protection of 885 Chinese personnel. Moreover, a Special Security Division (SSD), consisting of nine composite Infantry Battalions and six Civil Armed Forces (CAF) wings, had been constituted at a cost of Rs 21.57 billion in order to provide security to the Chinese nationals. With these steps, security concerns over CPEC have been addressed to a great extent. It can be expected that progress on various projects would continue without any hurdles.

Since CPEC is a game-changer project, it has generated a lot of debate within and outside Pakistan. An important consideration in the debate at the national level, however, is the lack of objectivity. Most of those opposing CPEC rely on rhetoric instead of presenting their case based on facts, figures and feasible alternatives. They also completely overlook all positive outcomes of CPEC and try to project as if it was an uncalled for venture by focussing only on controversial issues. This lack of objectivity may serve political agenda but is certainly not in line with the national interest.

The federal government can further improve situation regarding CPEC. A precise policy and information statement for the general public, encompassing facts about progress on different routes, timeline for different routes, rationale behind preference and priority assigned to industrial and energy projects, and specific projects under consideration and in the pipeline for Balochistan and KP will clear the air and will effectively counter petty politics being played by certain political elements. A dedicated web portal on the website of Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform can be provided where real-time progress on all CPEC projects should be made available for everyone to see. Work on Western Route should be carried without any delays so that there is progress on ground to show government’s commitment in the long run.

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The writer is a Fulbright alumnus, presently serving as Deputy Secretary in the Federal Government. Email: rehman.alpha@gmail.com

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