Research, Synergy Key to Realizing Benefits Of CPEC For Pakistan

Research, Synergy Key to Realizing Benefits Of CPEC For Pakistan
In a collaborative effort to platform the views and recommendations of research institutes and think-tanks working on the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) hosted a webinar on "Knowledge Partnership" and invited leading researchers, academics, policy specialists and experts to speak on the subject.

Opening the discussion, Dr. Nadeem ul Haque, Vice Chancellor PIDE, lamented how the CPEC Centre of Excellence (CoE) was treated like a 'football' by previous governments. Instead of focusing on building the institution and achieving its vision and core purpose, its administrative control was transferred to different authorities over time, as a result of which its core work suffered.

Dr. Talat Shabbir, Director of the China Study Centre at Islamabad's Institute of Strategic Studies (ISSI), said that advocacy for CPEC is one area that everyone must focus on. "This is the project of your prosperity, this is the project which promises economic development of Pakistan," is the message that should be spread to the masses, according to Dr. Shabbir. Academics and policy planners also need to develop clarity on the current status and future trajectory of CPEC, he added.

Dr. Nasir Afghan, Director of the China Study Centre at Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, said that he learned about the CPEC project for the first time during a delegation visit to China in December 2015. "We arranged conferences on CPEC in 2016 and then 2017, jointly with Shanghai University" Dr. Afghan said. On the political side, former industries minister Razzak Dawood saying "everything on CPEC stop for a year" was a "very wrong signal", while on the academic side, a lot of multidisciplinary work has been published but "unfortunately there has been no implementation" on them.
"One view of CPEC is that it is dead, nothing is happening... We are not really focused on CPEC: as a nation we have almost lost the opportunity"

"Policy makers and decision makers, unfortunately they don't listen to think-tanks", Dr. Afghan opined, lamenting that not just the CPEC CoE - but all of CPEC itself - had become a 'football'. Dr. Afghan recommended that academics must focus on the ongoing second phase of CPEC, and harmonise all efforts to make at least one special economic zone (SEZ) successful. He identified Dhabeji SEZ as the ideal candidate for such concentrated focus, saying that Chinese industries are also interested in setting up export facilities there. Dr. Afghan said Pakistan must take advantage of Chinese know-how in agricultural productivity, and also create a suitable and safe environment to attract Chinese industrial relocation into Pakistan, to make CPEC truly a success.

Ms. Scarlet Xiang Yang, Director of the China Study Centre at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) Islamabad, delivered a presentation on a 'new era' of China-Pakistan cooperation. "After COVID, we need to change our logic for cooperating", Ms. Xiang said, clarifying that Chinese companies' hesitancy to set up shop in Pakistan should not be taken as a defeat. Instead, delegation-level interactions between Pakistani and Chinese businesses could better help Pakistanis replicate the Chinese model of export-oriented growth. Recalling former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's slogan of 'reform and opening up', Ms. Xiang said that Pakistan must 'open up' in terms of increasing trade flows with China.
"If we open our minds and think along the lines of remediation, there is still a lot we can do for CPEC"

Ms. Xiang said that 17 provincial and local governments in China were keenly interested in investing on different CPEC projects, and could have also partaken in the webinar, if it was hosted on the 'VooV' platform that used for video-conferencing in China. "Using a new logic, we need to promote Pakistan in China, because the love Chinese have for Pakistan is based on history, not realpolitik", she said. "We need Pakistan's voice in China," Ms. Xiang said as she urged Pakistanis to market themselves through their TV shows and entertainment more aggressively to a Chinese audience. She was of the view that China Study Centres in Pakistan should collectively urge the Chinese government to allow access to Chinese social media platforms like Douyin, Weibo, and others. Ms. Xiang called for "inter-dimensional thinking" to keep CPEC on track, and for Pakistan to fully benefit from the economic corridor project.

Mustafa Hyder Syed, CEO of Pak-China Institute (PCI) Islamabad, lauded PIDE for hosting a webinar at a time when China was reopening after three years of a pandemic-induced lockdown. He said that CPEC is not a single project, but a "galaxy of projects" each of which is at a different stage of fruition. Syed said that the second phase of CPEC was oriented on what he called "soft connectivity" in comparison to the high-profile or "big ticket" projects in the first phase. "What we need is an export-led growth model... and the only real player in town who's choosing to come to Pakistan - despite the financial issues, the political instability, and also some of the security aspects - is China," he said.

Syed called for a more nuanced discussion on CPEC and its outlook, as it would yield clarity on the economic corridor and also help "manage our expectations accordingly". The role of think-tanks should be to "anticipate, with evidence-based research, what the economic market trends of Pakistan will be 20 years from now" and then invite the requisite investment from China. He agreed with previous speakers talking of 'out of the box' approaches to keep CPEC going, and gave the example of sufficient power production in Pakistan being rendered useless due to a poor electricity transmission system.
"Instead of keeping CPEC discussions focused in Islamabad, we need to arrange visits to CPEC projects and keep visiting them to see the progress being made on the ground"

Dr. Erfa Iqbal, CEO of Punjab Board of Investment and Trade (PBIT), said that the number of SEZs in Pakistan were reduced from 39 in the beginning to three which are being focused on now. "We need to know the model that the Chinese are following, and the international best practices for SEZs," Dr. Iqbal said, adding that she had yet to see any Pakistani SEZs being modeled on a viable design. "How many of the 85 million jobs that China was planning to outsource over the past ten years or so, has Pakistan been able to attract?" she asked.

"Chinese companies cannot repatriate their capital outside Pakistan, they cannot even repatriate the loans they have taken from their parent companies, and then we talk about an investment friendly atmosphere?" Dr. Iqbal questioned. "We need to address these issues to attract foreign investment, and more so Chinese investment," she stated.

Ms. Xiang interjected, saying that Pakistan needed to streamline its rules and legal framework for Chinese investment coming into Pakistan, and the government should take strict action against officials seeking bribes from Chinese who come to Pakistan.

Mr. Muhammad Tufail, patron of the CPEC cell at NED University Karachi, said that his university was perhaps the only one in Pakistan where all undergraduate students were mandated to learn Chinese language up to the HSK-2 level. This was being facilitated through the Karachi University's Confucius Institute. He detailed the academic exchanges his institute had undertaken with Chinese partners over the past few years, including vocational training for specialists of different sectors. Mr. Tufail said that there were agreements in place to expand the exchanges, but "the problem is that the government of Pakistan has declared that you can not sign an MoU without... [approval from] the federal cabinet". He urged the government to devolve the authority to sign off on MoUs between Pakistani and Chinese universities, and to set up a one-window operation to facilitate these MoUs as well as establish the credibility of the institutions involved.

Dr. Nadeem ul Haque asked how intellectual engagement - in addition to engagement on investment and finance - could be enhanced with the Chinese, if there was a more coherent theme than "series of projects" that defined CPEC, and how would Pakistan overcome barriers manufactured by its "heavily regulated economy, overly bureaucratised with too many government departments falling all over themselves trying to keep investment out"?

Development expert Amer Zafar Durrani said that Chinese companies are hesitant to come to Pakistan because "we showed them how poor we are with this intellectual table-tennis that we call CPEC". He said that the dialogue on CPEC had been "hijacked" by some of the very elites present and speaking in the webinar, and called on PIDE to make the CPEC narrative "a common person's dialogue". He also asked Pakistan to truly introspect and reconsider where it had any uptake capacity for CPEC, and for the projects and investments envisaged therein. "We need to come to terms with our own reality," Durrani urged.
"We need to ask ourselves: can we really work with China? Do we have the ability to truly work with China on a people-to-people level?"

Durrani said he had not heard anyone mention China's other initiatives, such as the Global Development Initiative (GDI) or the Global Security Initiative (GSI), through which it would be trying to replace the Bretton Woods framework of financial institutions. "Pakistan's problem is that our government holds us back from people-to-people relations," he said, and added that people should not wait for the government's permission to build ties between nations. He also appreciated Ms. Xiang for showing Pakistan and the Pakistani government a mirror exposing the reality of official efforts for CPEC.

Ms. Farhat Asif, president of the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies (IPDS) Islamabad, said that think-tanks and businesses must continue engaging with the Chinese counterparts to better understand them, and to communicate the Pakistani perspective to them honestly and as completely as possible. "These kinds of conversations should be a series of conversations, on a regular basis, so it could be translated into sector-wise initiatives in the future," she recommended. She also urged PIDE to serve as the focal point for strategically planning partnerships between Pakistani and Chinese research institutes from both the public and private sectors. Ms. Asif outlined the need for a platform for all interested entities to collaborate, as well as share data and research outputs that they have generated through their own specialised studies.

Other experts on CPEC, public policy, economic development, and representatives from China Study Centres at various universities also contributed their findings and suggestions at the webinar.