With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Pakistan is giving safe transit services to China for very little in return.
The hype around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been created by those who view it with suspicion as well as those who describe it as a game-changer. The voices of the internal critics were weak and ignored, while the concerns of foreign powers have been effectively dismissed.
Some, like myself perhaps, have an interest in the CPEC because of a romantic fascination with travelling to China by road on the historic Silk Route. The idea of the CPEC caught my fancy instantly. After the elections, the Nawaz Sharif government didn’t waste a single minute, and none of the political opposition showed any interest in it or had any knowledge of this huge project.
Now that the CPEC-related projects are being inaugurated one after another, everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon. Everyone seems to suggest it was their idea, to begin with. Senior ex-military officers insist it was a plan they drafted back in the 70s, while Musharraf’s supporters attribute it to him.
The incumbent government faced a lot of criticism for going full steam on CPEC and related projects, but now that all parties are in full election campaign mode, even the opposition parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party want to claim credit.
But the fact is—no one talked about the CPEC until it was all signed and sealed. I initially found it frustrating that the minister for planning and development, Ahsan Iqbal, was not sharing full information about the CPEC. Retrospectively, I suspect, he was wary about alerting the opposing lobby as the work was quietly carried out at breakneck speed.
By February 2015, long before the All Party Conference in May that year, the final route had been decided. Much to the annoyance of my bosses, I had devoted a lot of my airtime in 2014 to the ignored issue of the dynamics and the proposed route of the CPEC.
In 2015, I watched in despair at the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) continued disregard for the implications of the eastern route being favoured over the earlier suggested western route. Back then, I had even gently nudged the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to take briefings from experts, but the powerpoint presentations bored him.
When it was set in stone, and work had actually started on the eastern corridor (which runs mainly through Punjab), a few feeble political point-scoring efforts were made. However, by then, there was no more money left for the deprived areas in the west. The long-neglected provinces of KP and Balochistan were set to suffer yet again. Poor leadership and lack of representation from these areas meant there was no share in the CPEC for them. By January 2015, the nervousness of the Americans was palpable as their news channels gasped hysterically about the $46 billion investment by China.
There are valid criticisms. No new job opportunities have been created for the locals as per international CSR guidelines. Local businesses are not getting a share of the honeypot, but beyond these concerns are issues of geo-strategic balancing that Pakistan has seemingly failed to consider so far.
The friendly Twitter timeline of the Chinese deputy mission depicts a picture of corporate responsiveness with local investments in child education. The government of Punjab boasts of completion of the railway lines at lightning speed. The media shows friendly Chinese neighbours trying our masalas in advertisements.
But we have made the age-old mistake of tilting heavily towards one friend and ally over another. With the CPEC, we have alienated the already irritated Americans. Our increasingly uncomfortable relationship with the US is turning toxic, not least because of the Trump effect. The frustration over the Afghan policy is exacerbated by our commitment to our old Himalayan friend.
On a flight back from Qatar, I happened to sit next to an American who worked in the embassy. The conversation during the entire flight centred on what he called ‘the Chinese invasion’ and how we were about to become a Chinese outpost.
I responded by saying: “We have a history of being colonised. We allowed the British to rule over us, then practically did America’s bidding for decades. We might as well try the Chinese out too. After all, we love their food already.”
I am not sure whether my British-cultivated sarcasm was understood by the American, or he was just incredibly worried, as he continued to try to warn me of the consequences anyway.
The Americans will naturally want to curb China’s growing economic hold globally.
However, in Pakistan, we need to at least get a good deal out of the Chinese. Pakistan will clearly benefit from the vast infrastructure of the motorways, the railway lines and the power projects, but we appear to be giving safe transit services for very little in exchange. The Chinese get to develop their sparsely populated West, where rising insurgencies have been a concern. They will be ensured a shorter, safer marine route from Gwadar saving them Yuans and miles.
The military will be deployed for the security of the Chinese along the mineral-rich land route.
Chinese businesses from construction to telecommunications are already taking over Pakistan. Along the route, I wouldn’t be surprised if the hospitality and tourism facilities are also outsourced to them. The Chinese were initially employing local drivers, but now even these are being replaced with Chinese-origin ones.
While the Chinese are happily conducting trade activities via Gwadar they can always fight their battles undisturbed in the South China Sea.
Did we lay down any conditions to protect our sovereign land?
Did we insist on free higher training with job placements for 65 per cent of our under-30s? Did we ask for toll stations along the trade route for foreign companies using this trade route?
If it was up to me, I would even ask if we could get a share in the spoils of the mineral-rich South China Sea.
Isn’t it time we in Pakistan realised our worth for services rendered to our friends?
Reham Khan is a journalist, child rights activist, and single parent in Pakistan.