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Monika Chansoria

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

China-Pak corridor faces uncertain future

A significant portion of the benefits of the corridor is being kept aside for the ruling party’s state of Punjab.

The commencement of the first phase of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was a prominent highlight of Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to Pakistan earlier this week, with Chinese companies kick-starting an investment of $22.5 billion in coal-fired, hydro, wind and solar energy projects in Pakistan (most crucially in the PoK region).

Projects announced as part of Phase 1 of the CPEC include reconstruction and upgrading of the Karakorum Highway (Phase II), the Gwadar Port, the Karachi-Lahore motorway (Multan-Sukkur section), the Lahore metro orange line, the Haier-Ruba economic zone, the Suki Kinari hydropower project, and the Pakistan-China cross-border fibre optic cable. Although it was expected that reconstruction and expansion of the existing mail rail line from Peshawar to Karachi and construction of the Havelian dry port, too, would be announced as part of CPEC's Phase 1, these two projects did not figure in the final joint statement.

The 3,000 km-long CPEC route starts from Kashgar in China, which is the traditional business centre of the Xinjiang province, subsequently passing through the 1,300 km Karakorum Highway and finally ends by reaching the Chinese-funded Gwadar Port (South of Baluchistan), in the Arabian Sea.

The Xi Jinping administration shall eventually be rolling out contracts worth an estimated Rs 157 billion ($45 billion) on this corridor. As the Chinese government provides concessional loans for these infrastructure projects, Pakistan is attaching great hopes that the economic corridor shall provide a much-needed boost to the nation's sluggish economy, and bring some respite to its seemingly ceaseless economic woes, while providing employment opportunities.

That apart, the domestic political squabble surrounding the CPEC across Pakistan's political spectrum, has been doing the rounds for quite a while now. In what appeared an attempt by the Nawaz Sharif government to placate the opposition and build agreement towards the corridor, Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Ehsan Iqbal briefed the parliamentary heads of various political parties on the CPEC. However, he reportedly did not clearly spell out which part of the route would industries, hydel projects and economics-related infrastructure be built. Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) Chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, stated following the meeting that the government will not be changing the original route of the CPEC. Besides, Rehman also said that his party would not oppose the move of developing more routes that would establish linkages with Lahore.

There is growing clamour demanding inclusion of regions such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the modified route of the CPEC. Conspicuously, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which leads a coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along with the support of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Qaumi Watan Party, refused to send any representative to participate in the above-mentioned meeting for the parliamentary heads. The Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pervez Khattak alleged that the original plan of the CPEC passing through Khunjerab, Gilgit and Abbottabad, among others has been changed.

Although the government has reiterated that the route through Dera Ismail Khan would be given preference, political backlash for Nawaz Sharif's government only seems to be crystallising furthermore, with his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), facing fire amid allegations that a significant portion of the benefits of the CPEC have been kept side for the ruling party's state of Punjab. In fact, two key projects that are highlighted by the PML-N are Phase 1 of the CPEC and the rapid transit system for Karachi from Saddar to Surjani.

With reference to the above cited argument, a delegation from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd, one of China's "Big Four" state-owned commercial banks, headed by chairman Jiang Jianqing called on Punjab Chief Minister and PM Nawaz Sharif's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, in Murree, and offered to be a financial advisor for bringing in greater investments.Notwithstanding these big ticket investments, the Chinese must surely have their concerns pertaining to security in regions such as Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Just about a month back, five oil tankers reportedly carrying fuel for a Chinese company were set ablaze in Balochistan's Chaghi district. Fuel tankers have been a frequent target in this area and it also needs to be recalled that three Chinese oil companies pulled out from Balochistan in the midst of serious security concerns when in 2004, Chinese engineers working on the seaport project were killed in an attack in Gwadar.

The economic corridor in Pakistan has often been interpreted as a significant milestone of Xi Jinping's Silk Belt and Road dream project. However, as time goes by, the realities of the uphill task of working in a fragile, high-risk security environment shall begin to get uncovered.

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