CPEC UNDER SIEGE
July 16, 2022 | Expert Insights
Flush with funds from its rising GDP and its stature as a global factory, for more than a decade, China has been on a spending spree. From Asia to Africa and beyond into the heart of Europe, Chinese investments in infrastructures, mega projects and power projects are changing the face of nations, raising fresh hopes of jobs and financial security for millions.
However, rising cases of attacks on Chinese personnel working on the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have been ringing alarm bells in Beijing.
Since 2013, Pakistan has been one of the largest benefactors of Chinese munificence. Touted as the flagship of Chinese entrepreneurship and largesse towards 'building a better world', the CPEC has seen Chinese investments of over US $ 20 billion in a world-class port at Gwadar, a network of highways and railways and energy infrastructure. The project aims at connecting China’s remote west to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea, creating along its length a wide stretch of factories, power generation plants and assorted ancillary industries.
Once showcased as the proof of Pakistan’s ‘higher than Himalayas friendship’ with China, under the surface, cracks are opening, indicating tensions and underlying contradictions. These in no way bode well for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not only in Pakistan but elsewhere too. As the heartbreaking drama of a beautiful island nation collapsing internally unfolds in our neighbourhood, accusing fingers are being raised at the alleged unethical ways the Chinese do business with autocratic regimes. Unsurprisingly, Chinese workers and assets are coming under attack in countries that have publicly acknowledged Beijing as their economic saviours.
The CPEC passes through two of the many restive provinces of Pakistan. Starting from the port of Gwadar, created from scratch in the deserts of Baluchistan, it ascends into the high vales of Gilgit-Baltistan (under the illegal occupation of Pakistan as it is legally a part of Jammu and Kashmir) before the famous Karakoram highway winds its way into Kashgar prefecture of Xinjiang.
Pakistani state assets and personnel have been fair game for the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), waging an insurgency for an independent nation since the 1970s. In recent times, the BLA realised that killing Pakistani soldiers did not grab as much international media attention as attacks on the Chinese, who have proliferated all over their province. The most recent attack was on the Confucius Institute of Karachi University in April, in which three Chinese nationals lost their lives. The BLA claimed responsibility, making it clear that the primary targets were Chinese and not the locals. Almost a year back, in a major attack, nine Chinese were killed at the US$ 4.2 billion under-construction tunnel site of the Dasu hydropower project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
As a nation, Pakistan stands to gain significantly if the CPEC succeeds in all its objectives. However, there are many marginalised areas of Pakistan, with Sindh, Baluchistan, and Gilgit Baltistan being the prominent ones who feel that CPEC has left their interests unattended. There are accusations that while Punjab-dominated Federal Pakistan would gain, it would be at the cost of local economic interests. Together with high guaranteed returns to Chinese investors adding to an already unaffordable national debt, it is the common man who has to ultimately pay the bill. Sri Lanka is a glaring example where the ruling Rajapaksa family that for a decade cosied up to the Chinese and now the nation lies in ruins.
There have been long-standing tensions between Islamabad and smaller provinces suffering from inequitable resource distribution despite their natural resources like gas being exploited for the entire nation. These tensions were exacerbated when locals were forcibly evicted to make way for CPEC projects. There is overall discontentment as the belief had taken hold that while the CPEC passes majorly through Gilgit-Baltistan, Baluchistan and Sindh, the benefits will mostly accrue to Punjab.
It is clear that CPEC evolved with little consultation with local stakeholders like tribal leaders and businessmen. Even as resistance to CPEC grew, instead of consultation, it was met with heavy-handed military and an overbearing presence.
Pakistani leaders, and military, are quick to blame ‘external forces’ for the mischief with India and earlier, Afghanistan being blamed as the principal perpetrators. It is true that there are huge geopolitical gains for China in this strategically important part of South Asia if CPEC succeeds in accelerating Pakistan’s collapsing economy. Chinese rivals would exult at its failure and especially the U.S., which has lost no opportunity to warn client nations of the looming debt trap that they are entering into.
Rght from the beginning, the all-powerful Pakistani military had taken the responsibility of securing CPEC upon its broad shoulders. While the exact deployment of the Pakistani military to protect CPEC remains unclear, various press reports estimate that over 15000 personnel have been committed, and the numbers have been rising. Yet, small suicidal teams of Baluch/ Tribal fighters have managed to press home the attack successfully. There have been rumblings that China is keen to deploy its Private Security operators, as it has done to secure its BRI projects and personnel in Africa and Central Asia. So far, the Pakistani military is resisting such a move as it would be counterproductive and earn the ire of the locals even more.
- Even to the most uninitiated, it is clear that the answer to securing CPEC investments lies not in brute force but by making the benefits of Chinese investments more broad-based and building political consensus on its direction. The gains for all must be equitable.
- CPEC is a vital project for China to showcase its intentions to build economies without 'fear or favour', unlike the western colonial powers of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Failure in Pakistan, its closest ally, would send ripples across the host of its projects spread over Asia and Africa. Therefore, we are likely to see a pushback by the Chinese to tighten the security of CPEC, even if its private security contractors are deployed covertly.
- China is keen to rope in Iran and Afghanistan into the BRI/CPEC, and the security situation in Pakistan is not endearing the idea to potential partners. Till China and Pakistan jointly stop any more attacks, the lure of cheap Chinese investments may lose its charm.