Although the much touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is aimed at consolidating relations between the two sides — the project continues to face multiple security and political challenges here in Pakistan.
Both sides have cooperated closely at a strategic, political and economic level. Yet CPEC remains a milestone of sorts in terms of how it signifies a shift towards the latter given its focus on energy, land and maritime infrastructure. That being said, before the realisation of mutual benefits — including a new source of potential synergy between their respective national development strategies — Pakistan must address existing challenges from its end.
CPEC must also be understood within the context of Beijing’s key interests in East Asia and the subsequent American challenges to its rising star. Given these difficulties, therefore, the Middle Kingdom hopes to expand its strategic reach by heading west. And Islamabad, for its part, represents the bridge between China, Central and South Asia as well as the Middle East. A stable and secure Pakistan will make it possible for Beijing to exercise greater influence in these regions while ensuring security at home. Thus China is willing to invest in CPEC in order to use the lure of economic development to achieve its objectives.
Indeed, Islamabad has come to recognise that no other nation attaches so much strategic importance to it regarding the above. In turn, one of Pakistan’s top priorities is to go from middle-income status upper-middle-income by 20125; meaning it has to do its best to attract as much foreign investment as possible. Towards this end, the country is working to improve infrastructure, including energy, to create employment and positively impact governance. The hope held by both sides is that an economic boom will effectively counter the threat posed by extremism of all kinds; from the political to the religious. Especially considering how terrorism has long affected Pakistan’s internal security and stability.
The PMLN record on curbing terrorism has been found wanting. After all, the primary responsibility of any political leadership must be maintaining law and order. Yet almost as soon as it assumed power, the Nawaz Shairf government lost its direction and began focusing on indicting Musharraf on various non-pressing charges
This, despite the fact that the country is doing its best has to combat the threat. In fact, terrorist incidents have drastically dropped in recent years. Though Chinese personnel have been targeted in the past, by religious and separatist extremists alike. Naturally Islamabad has pledged to do everything in its power to reduce the risk. Yet the reality is that terrorism will remain a challenge in terms of CPEC’s growing transportation networks and this will mean Pakistan beefing up security all round; such as maintaining a sufficiently strong military presence to safeguard these routes.
Then there is the matter of the country’s domestic politics, which equally holds sway over CPEC’s success given that this oscillates regularly between civilian and military rule. Gen (rtd) Pervez Musharraf’s resignation from the presidency back in 2008 brought the last period of Army rule to an end. Thus since then the military has been pushed off centre stage. Fast-forward to the 2013 general elections and the PPP was voted out in favour of the PMLN. Yet the PPP was the first civilian set-up to fulfil its tenure, thereby paving the way for the smooth transition of democratic power. That being said, Pakistan’s political power continues to be almost feudal in nature, with influence shared among a few prominent families across the country; such as the Bhuttos in Sindh and the Sharifs in the Punjab. And behind party politics rest local interest groups associated with these clans.
There has been much disagreement across the political divide about how CPEC transport routes should be mapped out. In other words, parties have been primarily concerned with how the cake should be divided. Thus all vested interests are hopeful that the Corridor will pass through areas that they hold thereby transferring economic benefits to their constituents; who will return them to power out of gratitude in the summer’s general elections. This is because the project will not serve only as a roadway connecting China to Pakistan — it will also facilitate multi-sector economic cooperation in energy, finance, trade and industry.
Indeed, Nawaz Sharif swept the 2013 polls on a mandate of economic reform. Thus his government has been working hard on this front, particularly in terms of ending the energy deficit. The PMLN has therefore been working towards restructuring Pakistan’s this sector in a bid to secure increased electricity production. Similarly, it has worked hard to strengthen investment in infrastructure.
As far as China is concerned, President Xi Jinping is following in the footsteps of Chairman Mao in making the country a global power. Thus during the completion of the CPEC deal — Beijing enjoyed political stability. This is in sharp to contrast to Pakistan; which after the loss of its founding father plunged into immense chaos. And even today, the last five years of political instability have posed challenges to both the Corridor and, of course, to the Pakistani citizenry itself. And despite its best efforts to curb terrorism — the PMLN record has been found wanting. After all, the first and foremost responsibility of any political leadership must be maintaining law and order as well as guaranteeing political stability. Yet almost as soon as it assumed power, the Nawaz Shairf government lost its direction and began focusing on indicting Musharraf on various non-pressing charges. The result being that this entire strategy turned turtle. Not long afterwards, the ruling regime was confronted with a nerve-racking sit-in by PTI Chairman Imran Khan and PAT leader Tahir-ul-Qadri. Then, more recently, back in November, the state once more faced a challenge to its writ when the religious right came out on to the streets and effectively ‘hijacked’ the capital with the Faizabad protest. Indeed, this prompted the Islamabad High Court (IHC) to take suo motto notice of this alarming development. The sit-in coincided with scheduled state visits by Chinese leaders and those of other nations. Thus such political uncertainty simply highlights the short-sightedness of those at the helm; risking the vast rewards that CPEC has to offer. The most unfortunate part being that Nawaz Sharif, despite being a seasoned politician, failed to contain the rapidly deteriorating political situation; which came to a head when he was deposed by the Supreme Court on corruption charges.
By contrast, China, which happens to be a country with a 1.35 billion-strong population, has remained steadfast throughout. Whereas we, with a population of just 220 million, needed to be put on a political ventilator, as it were. In short, we have neither followed China’s example nor have we learned anything from it. And although both sides have taken positive measures to ensure CPEC’s success, much still hinges on Pakistan’s internal situation. Meaning that until this country manages to turn a corner in terms of political and security stability — it will remain difficult to judge the Corridor’s future prospects.
The writer is author of several books, a columnist and political analyst based in Islamabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, January 23rd 2018.