CPEC & the Army: Red flag

Pakistan's divergent civil-military outlook over CPEC won't stay quiet for long

CPEC & the Army: Red flag
Relations between the civilian and military leaders in Pakistan have historically remained uneasy with confrontation between the two invariably surfacing in all spheres of the national context. At times the tension is easy to read and on other occasions it tends to simmer as subtext. Given this equation, it is unlikely that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—the multi-billion dollar investment, infrastructure and communications project dubbed a fate changer for both Pakistan and the region—will be an exception.

Barring occasional stories, the civil-military tiff on CPEC has rarely been reported in the media in detail as political disputes over the route of the road linking Gwadar to China and the distribution of projects among the provinces kept the center stage. The other reason civil-military wrangling did not get the spotlight is that neither side wanted it to become public, knowing that the Chinese friends would not be too amused. A curtain of secrecy has been drawn across.

There is, however, no escaping the reality of the unease between the Civilians and GHQ over CPEC. The turf war emanates from the traditional military mindset that looks at the civilians with skepticism and considers itself the final arbiter in matters of foreign relations and security. For their part, the civilians are wary of conceding more space to the Khakis.

The civil-military row started some time late last year at the peak of the political disputes over the route alignment. The military, fearing that the political controversies could get out of hand, proposed to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a CPEC Board headed by the premier himself and comprising ministers for finance, planning and development, water and power, and communications, the four chief ministers and all four services chiefs (the chairman joint chiefs of staff committee, chief of army staff, and air force and naval chiefs). The military envisaged the board as an apex policy-making and coordination body for CPEC. Also proposed was a CPEC Development Authority to be headed by the planning minister to deal with day-to-day operational matters.

The prime minister did not say ‘no’ to Gen. Raheel Sharif, but went ahead to form a steering committee after an all-parties conference on CPEC held earlier this year. The steering committee was composed much like the CPEC board proposed by the military but it did not include the four services chiefs. It was this decision that made GHQ doubt the government intention to keep the military in the loop. But it chose to stay silent afterwards even though this move continued to upset. There was, perhaps, some wisdom in that as the military-less steering committee has not ever met even though eight months have passed since it was formed.

Speaking in the background, military officials contend that the involvement of armed forces in the oversight of the project is crucial for three reasons: the regional and global geo-politics, the government’s poor performance implementing the National Action Plan and Beijing’s insistence on beng given a stable and secure environment to execute the project.

The government sees this issue from an entirely different perspective. It fears that involving the military in CPEC’s policy-making body would formalize its role in governance matters and would thus hurt its efforts to establish civilian supremacy. It also worries that doing so would enhance the military’s profile in Pak-China relations, which is already quite strong. Whether or not the apprehensions of civilian leaders are correct, they acted in a manner that widened the civil-military gulf.

A security source revealed that CPEC’s security plan has been held up because of bureaucratic hurdles. Thus, other than the controversy about keeping the armed forces out of the CPEC Board, issues with the security arrangements are a bigger cause of concern for the military.

How do the Chinese see all this?

Naturally, they are disturbed. But, the Chinese, unlike the Americans, do not go public with their concerns and prefer discreet diplomacy. Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong, speaking at a CPEC seminar in Islamabad this week, observed that the project was more or less progressing well. “We shall promote the two wheels of construction and safety for CPEC simultaneously and strive to build a safe corridor,” the ambassador did add, nonetheless. “China appreciates Pakistan’s efforts to protect the CPEC projects and personnel. We look forward to creating a safe and sound environment for CPEC along with the Pakistani side.”

Indeed, the Chinese have brought up security in almost all of their interactions with the Pakistanis. They are well aware that only the military can guarantee this which is why the khakis will stay relevant to CPEC. But at the same time we can expect civil-military friction to also continue.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and tweets at @bokhari_mr