In its numerous dimensions, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is perceived as the pinnacle of the modern silk road, connecting the fragmented and developing economies of the Asian subcontinent to Western and Arab markets. An intriguing component of this initiative is CPEC, namely China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, connecting Western China (Xinjian) with the Arabian Peninsula and the wider world, through a vast network of largely Chinese-funded infrastructure, rail and energy projects down the spine of the nation of Pakistan, from Northern Punjab down to Karachi and Gwadar Port. Historically, Sino-Pakistani relations favour consistent co-operation and mutual understanding, considering Pakistan made an effort to formalize diplomatic ties with the PRC (People’s Republic of China) in 1950, 3 years after Pakistan’s bloody independence from the British.
Despite historically strong ties, China’s rising hegemony provides reasonable ground to argue an economic project of this magnitude acts as the pivotal factor in changing relations between the two nations. Notably, previous Chinese backed projects in other developing nations have been deeply criticized by impartial finance institutions and numerous borrowers. For example, China demanded and eventually took full control of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port for a period of 99 years, after the Sri Lankan state failed to sustain debt repayments. Regardless of economic dimensions, most concerning are social and political consequences Pakistan may face, namely violence, conflict and deepening division in an already divided, and by some accounts, a failed state. Primarily, the operational opaqueness of CPEC projects, including labourers details, suppliers and financing, as documented by Lahore based Dawn Newspaper, casts doubt on the ‘all-weather friendship’ between the Sino-Pakistani spheres, risking deeper regional divisions as locals are excluded. Moreover, infamous shadowy regional politics, seemingly native to Pakistan, is sternly rooted in this ambitious plan, for example, some regions in the state of Punjab forcing small farmers to sell their holding to pave way for CPEC projects, as reported by Dawn. This partly reflects the historical mismanagement of the nation’s political regions peripheral to the main cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.
Aptly, in relaying a grandiose project, the Sino-Pakistani political and economic elite vehemently fail to consider regional and local dynamics, and the consequential likely fuelling of violence and anti-foreigner movements. For example, organisations such as Tahreeb-E-Labaik, rally violent protests in the western Balochistan and Punjab provinces, upon fears of increasingly societal secularization following a partnership with an irreligious and anti-Islam Chinese establishment. The proponents of such regional concerns have spread their dogma to economic centres, for example Karachi on the Southern Coast, where recently Chinese businessman Chen Zhu was murdered, symbolising a cold stance to any Chinese activity.
Entwined in this refusal to pass consideration to regional and local elements of violence and political movements is the Pakistani nation’s dire and divided state. The core identity of the nation rests upon differentiation from Hindu majority India, or Hindustan, inferring absence of a core and independent Pakistani identity, a charitable interpretation considering a history tainted with militancy and disorder following a bloody partition in 1947. It is thus that both Foreign Policy and Stratfor account this ambitious project being born out of the desperation of the South Asian state, in an effort to cement a civilian-liberal order backed by a strong economic system, no easy challenge considering the dire state of the country’s finances. Pertinently, the Pakistani government officially declared an estimated 34% Return on Investment for an average CPEC related project, whereas the Official Chinese Tax Administration estimated a ‘low return on investment’.
Perhaps most starkest of commentary on this disturbing lack of peripheral consideration comes from The International Crises Group, which cites lack of alignment between the cities of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, and smaller regional federal units and tribal areas, culminating in a ‘disturbingly high chance of tension and violence in regional areas’. For example, local Gwadar residents are unlikely to benefit from heavy Chinese investments, poignantly expressed in The Guardian: stately Chinese vehicles equipped with heavily armed guards climbing the steep hills towards Gwadar’s only Chinese-owned 5 star hotel, reflecting the concentrated outflow of benefits to foreign investors at the expense of locals. A concurrent narrative of division and fragmentation in a state as ethnically diverse as Pakistan aligns with mainstream criticism of previous Chinese investment initiatives to the developing world; Maria Al-Habib of the New York Times sums up accusations of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as ‘a debt trap for vulnerable countries’.
Notably, CPEC political elites and the Islamabad establishment seem consistent in adopting a policy of repressing any arising criticism, whilst simultaneously espousing the potential of regional benefits. For example, CPEC’s official website states benefits of poverty alleviation and ‘integration of civilizations’, in absence of any break-down of outflows and material benefits to deprived regions. Despite an initially unfavourable opaqueness, the joint economic plan can both maintain a degree of opaqueness (for reasonable Chinese security concerns) whilst practically adhering to its’ commitments of regional inclusion. Primarily, regional plurality is imperative in enhancing any citizenry involvement in the periphery regions of Punjab, Baluchistan, Sindh to as far North to Gilgit and Azad Kashmir. For example, expanding Confucius Programmes from Higher Education institutions, often restricted to Pakistan’s wealthy classes, to rural and regional areas. Central government must work with regional authorities to ensure cross-cultural education is applied where needed; amongst young, rural workers often excluded from CPEC projects, as those at highest risk of adopting extremist ideology.
Additionally, the central government would also be wise to utilize Pakistani society’s adulation of its’ military, as a means of pluralizing the debate around CPEC and its eventual gains. For example, expanding military funded Mandarin courses, currently under test run in the northern regions, to regional state and private educational institutions, whilst moulding material to each jurisdiction i.e. Indian bordering Punjab and Afghanistan bordering Baluchistan. Alongside active efforts of pluralization to mitigate any increased fragmentation and likelihood of political tensions within the periphery of the nation, the Pakistani Government may also consider developing a resettlement framework for those individuals whose exclusion is inevitable; as is unfortunately the case in Gwadar, a geography which currently seems to be under Chinese monopoly. The underlining consideration any compensation framework, financial or otherwise, relating to a loss from CPEC programmes, must consider numerous factors. This may be achieved through consistent financial aid to excluded individuals and families based upon purchasing power and quality of life i.e. compensating for non-financial losses such as geography-specific cultural elements. Undoubtedly, the accumulation of a myriad of efforts, including capitalizing on the nation’s military bravado to ease tensions, and improving plurality within the often isolated peripheries of the nation, first must totally dampen the likelihood of any conflict, and second, pave an optimistic route forward to the improvement of relations between the central economic elite and the populace on the fringes of the nation.