Have we done our homework on CPEC?

If government says that the long-term plan published by DAWN is just a draft, then how different is the final version?

Have we done our homework on CPEC?

The Planning Commission is blowing hot and cold over the daily Dawn’s expose on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The long-term plan, whose details have been revealed in the DAWN report, was apparently prepared by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) — equivalent to our Planning Commission — and the China Development Bank.

Thus, it provides China’s vision on CPEC. Apparently, the document was shared with the Government of Pakistan, and has been “commented on”. But the final version agreed upon by both governments has yet to be made public. This last point has been stressed by the Minister for Planning, who claims that daily DAWN’s aforementioned report simply commented on a draft.

What is interesting is that the minister was displeased about how the report stokes fears and spreads misinformation about CPEC, and raises doubts in people’s minds about what will possibly be the biggest development push in the country’s history since the British laid down the irrigation canal network. But what makes him think that the report promotes a negative view of CPEC?

Firstly, there is the revelation that China is mainly interested in investing in Pakistan’s agriculture sector, with a view to develop products for export markets.

Secondly, there is the implication that China’s interest in developing our textile sector is mainly to feed its own textile industry with raw material.

Thirdly, it seems that China is not as enthusiastic about the Gwadar Port as we may have thought earlier. And fourthly, there is the news that the CPEC’s western corridor will mainly service extraction of mineral resources, with little or no development of industry or agriculture along the route.

None of the above is particularly surprising. When such a big project is planned, interests of the parties involved are not necessarily aligned at the onset — such a convergence comes about through negotiations following the onset of the project. There is always give and take involved in such a process, and it should be obvious that the weaker party will be at a disadvantage, unless it really pulls out all the stops to gather information and assess its position.

Thus, it is not a revelation that the plan — made by China — prioritises Chinese interests. It is already well known that China is outsourcing its food production, as its economy rapidly urbanises and manufacturing assumes an ever growing share of the economy. From pig farms in Latin America to rice processing units in the Far East, the Chinese are not only importing more food than ever before but are also working out arrangements for “offshore cultivation”, so to speak.

There is also a determined push on their part to develop the Xinjiang region on the lines of coastal provinces, not least because they want to control unrest in the region and mainstream the local economy. Notwithstanding, the oft-repeated refrains that China wants to use the Gwadar Port, we know that China has access to well established trade routes, both land and sea. So how much of a priority Gwadar Port can be anyway? And as for Balochistan, why should a foreign power be interested in broad-based development over there? It is up to the Pakistan government to use the infrastructure being put in place effectively, and to leverage it for provision of essential services in what has historically been a neglected area.

The publication of the plan does, however, put the government in a defensive position. If the government’s response is that the long term plan is just a draft, then how different is the final version? What changes have been made in the long-term plan on Pakistan’s prodding? Which areas have been toned down, and what has been re-emphasised?

The Planning Commission now has to prove that it employed its resources to assess the implications of what the Chinese government put out — and that it presented Pakistan’s priorities effectively. For an investment of this magnitude, it would be a travesty to find out that the Pakistan government did not do its homework. Let’s hope we hear good news whenever the final plan is made public.


The writer is an economist and policy analyst based in Islamabad