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China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: Will it really be a corridor of opportunities for Pakistan?

By Iqra Akram

CPEC is being dubbed as game changer project in terms of increasing the opportunity of development for both China and Pakistan. However, the growing challenges and ambiguities continue to hamper its prospects for Pakistan. The project has three main routes. The first one will run from Kashgar to Gwadar via Karachi, the second would pass through Iran and Turkey and the third one is a network of road, railways lines to improve connectivity across Pakistan.

This difference over the CPEC routes in Pakistan is arguably one of the most prominent challenges, as it has sparked debate among the provinces at the national level. Political parties have expressed their concerns regarding the distribution of these resources for deprived provinces. Moreover, the apprehensions of Baluchistan seem to be based on the politically inflated problems in addition to the valid grievances. And the potential of economic opportunities is often downplayed by the power players in these provinces. Similarly, the trust deficit and mishandling of the issue obstructed the progress of the project to an extent. According to the official perspective, this issue has been resolved by the government; however, the contentions among the provinces can be blown out of proportion by the foreign players in the future. Furthermore, the uncertain security situation in Balochistan and insurgency at Afghanistan border continues to threaten the future of CPEC.

In the viewpoint of experts, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is beneficial for economic progress of both China and Pakistan. The initial cost of the project was $ 46 billion, which has gone up to around $54 billion. The main aim is to build infrastructure, exclusive economic zones within Pakistan and to turn Gwadar into an economic hub for international investors, as it will boost the export indicators for the economy of the country. Additionally, China is financing a 1,100 km long motorway in order to connect Karachi and Lahore under this project, which will increase the trade and connectivity between these two major cities of Pakistan.

At present, the bilateral trade volume is around $12b per year, which is expected to reach $15b in near future. The economic growth of Pakistan has undergone ups and down in the past. Therefore, the significance of foreign direct investment in both infrastructure build-up and relevant technology can play an important role. Correspondingly, the plants of 2100 megawatts and development of Gwadar port will increase the economic capability of Pakistan. Strategically, the collaborative projects of JF-17 Thunder and agreements on the sale of eight conventional submarines will strengthen the military capability. Furthermore, the diplomatic ties of Sino-Pakistan are likely to get better, which may provide opportunities to Pakistan for improving the international stature.

In the larger context, Pakistan’s energy and economic security depend on the CPEC, as it can connect Pakistan directly to the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. Accordingly, the infrastructure is being developed to create a shorter route to Central Asian states for meeting energy needs and improving the trade with the Eurasia and Asia. The completion of this project will not only ensure energy security but also provide Pakistan the room to expand its area of influence in Asia. Hence, it can increase Pakistan’s ability to garner political clout without having to exhaust military capability.

In terms of challenges of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, one of the weaknesses is to ensure the security in Balochistan and neighboring areas of Pak-Afghan border, as the extremist element in Balochistan poses a threat for the completion of CPEC in Pakistan. Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) involvement, for example, in the killings of Chinese workers can disrupt ongoing project by creating a rift between China and Pakistan. Another obstacle is to curtail the movement of Afghan Taliban to Pakistan, which is responsible for deteriorating the law and order situation within the country. Since Afghanistan is also considered as an important part of CPEC, without its stability, the success of  China-Pakistan Economic Corridor cannot be guaranteed.

To conclude, one can say that CPEC is likely to increase opportunities for Pakistan, yet the completion of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is largely dependent upon feasible conditions. Similarly, the security and consensus of all the stakeholders involved within Pakistan is another important facet. Moreover, the role of external players cannot be overlooked in sabotaging the completion of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and its long-term implications for Pakistan. At the national level, however, consensus building may facilitate the process of getting all stakeholders on board particularly people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan who are marginalized in major policy decisions.

Recommendations

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor can be changed into India-Iran-China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (IICPEC) for increasing regional integration in South Asia and larger interest of this region. The role of Council of Common Interest can be used for building consensus of all stakeholders at the national level. Incomplete information on the major projects of CPEC will continue to foster skepticism and lay the groundwork for uncertainties. Therefore, generation of relevant literature on the challenges of CPEC can help to critically evaluate the project and save the policy makers from potential disasters. In particular, there is a need to divert the attention from the expected advantages to the potential pitfalls of CPEC in order to prepare for the aspects that could go wrong with the corridor. Lastly, the environmental impact of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor should be given due consideration as its long-terms repercussions for Pakistan can prove to be horrendous.

Iqra Akram holds MPhil in International Relations.

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