The long road to Gwadar - I

Pakistan will have to do more to reap the benefits of CPEC

The long road to Gwadar - I
Some very clinical language is used to describe the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is a “game-changer” for Pakistan, “an unprecedented economic opportunity”, and “the foundation for industrial and technological revolution”. This is largely accurate, but in order to achieve it, Pakistan will have to move a few steps beyond the financing, the infrastructure, and the rhetoric. Pakistan will need to drastically improve its strategic communication with all stakeholders and citizens, and engage in transparency of information. This was a key takeaway in a recent bilateral dialogue between Chinese and Pakistani security sector practitioners.

CPEC is indeed a game-changer, a veritable metamorphosis for Pakistan, catapulting the country into economic and cultural maturity. It is the beginning of a much larger Chinese vision, a vision that ends with China at the center of a united, inter-dependent, free-trading Eurasia. The CPEC, approximately 3,000 kilometers long, connecting Gwadar port in Balochistan to Kashgar province in western China, is just one of the several planned roads China plans to build over the next decades. Strategically, it is the most important for two reasons. First, it is the pilot project for the massive undertaking, and its success could make or break Pakistan’s future. Second, the CPEC connects the planned Chinese maritime route with the overland silk route, thus providing the crucial connection between the two roads.
Working with Pakistan is like working with several governments at once

The Chinese have trusted Pakistan with improving its internal security situation in order to facilitate the CPEC. This is paramount, because China has finally managed to provide Pakistan with something that six decades of western policy was never able to provide: a tangible, economic, existential reason for why Pakistan should stabilize itself from within and cast out the cancerous tumors that have been feeding on its soul for decades. However, this is not to say that the Chinese do not have reservations.

Wang Xu, Deputy Director of South-East Study Center of Peking University, and affectionately known by his Pakistani counterparts as “Khawar”, believes that the instability associated with the Western Route of the CPEC is of major concern, and of equal concern is the political turmoil resulting from the route controversy. In order to understand these concerns, the matter needs to be studied closely.

Publically, the CPEC had three proposed routes, Western, Central and Eastern. The Western Route passes through most of Balochistan and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, whereas the Eastern Route banks sharply to the east, and passes through most of Sindh and Punjab. A significant amount of infrastructure, including Special Economic Zones will be set up along the CPEC, and naturally, this creates provincial competition for deployed resources. It was announced that the CPEC would first be built along the Eastern Route, causing an uproar from opposition political parties, especially those that represent constituent interests in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The federal government was quick to point out that this will eventually be a series of roads, and the Western Route will also be built over time. However, because Punjab has a lot of pre-existing infrastructure, especially highways, it would be easier to route the CPEC through the Eastern route first, capitalize on the so-called “low-hanging fruit”.

However, Xu’s comments indicate that this pressure to use the Eastern Route first may have indeed come from China, though the Chinese are tight-lipped about confirming this as fact. The insurgent and separatist turmoil in Balochistan is a major red flag for the Chinese, who perhaps feel that the Western Route would not be as secure as the Eastern. It is fortunate for the ruling Sharif brothers that this narrative fits so well with their incessant need to prioritize Punjab over the rest of the country, an excuse idea to mask true intent. However, the Easter bombing and increasing evidence of militancy and infiltration in Punjab, Xu says, is now of equal concern. Punjab has already started a much-touted crackdown on militancy in the province following the horrific incident that left 76 dead, but it has not done much to alleviate Chinese trepidation.

The political friction resulting from the route controversy is another issue for China. China has a one-party system, and there is no political dissention in its ranks. However, China is fully cognizant of the fact that Pakistan has hundreds of parties, and dozens of them prominent, and that political diversity is normal in the country. The Chinese feel sometimes that working with Pakistan is almost like working with several governments at the provincial level at once. However, they can only communicate their agenda and concerns to the government at the federal level.

On the security front, the Chinese have three sources of unease. First, there is urban crime, such as the situation in Karachi further exacerbated by political militancy and Taliban infiltration. Second, there is terrorism, especially from groups that China is particularly wary of, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) and especially the Islamic State (IS). Within this, the porous nature of the border of Afghanistan, and the relative ease with which cross-border infiltration takes place, is also bothersome for China. Third, there is sectarianism, especially in the form of violence and hate-mongering from hardliners on either side of the sectarian divide. Xu feels that these three coalesce to create friction for Pakistan, thus for CPEC, and thus for China.

Xu says that Chinese scholars and think tanks are particularly concerned with mapping precisely what threat each of these extremist groups pose to Pakistan, China, and CPEC. That through think tanks in both countries can serve the role of bridges, both between governments and their people, and between governments, said Ms Jiang Xiheng, Deputy Director General of the International Cooperation Department at the Development Research Center of the State Council of China. By leveraging hard data, think tanks can help their respective governments make better decisions on tackling the threats posed to their respective people.

To be continued…

The author is a journalist and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: zeeshan[dot]salahuddin[at]

Twitter: @zeesalahuddin