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CPEC: Apprehensions, and India’s Response

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By Onkareshwar Pandey

Without fearing any apprehension of becoming economic slave of China, Prime Minister Imran Khan led Pakistan Government is actively pursuing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. The CPEC appears to be a crucial project for both the countries. For China it provides an alternate secure route to import Energy and find new markets for its goods and services and for Pakistan, it positions itself as a major transit point connecting Eurasian region with South Asia and South East Asia and provide a much needed base to kick start its economic growth.

Last month on June 17, 2019, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Planning, Development & Reform Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar and Ambassador of China Mr. Yao Jing during a meeting in Islamabad agreed to expedite the work on Eastern Corridor from Sukkur to Hyderabad in BOT (Build, Operate, and Transfer) mode for its early completion.

The two sides expressed their satisfaction over the pace of projects under CPEC framework. The Minister said that the incumbent Government is committed to fast track the progress on this flagship project between Pakistan and China.

The Minister said that Gwadar Smart Port City Master Plan will be finalized soon which will chalk away out the way forward for the development of the coastal city.

Various projects under CPEC framework including 300 MW Coal based power plant in Gwadar and Kohala Hydro power Station also came under discussion.

Before the above meeting, Prime Minister Imran Khan held a meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing on April 28, 2019.Reaffirming ‘All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership’ between Pakistan and China, the two leaders, accompanied by Ministers and senior-level delegations, exchanged views on the entire gamut of bilateral relations in a warm and cordial atmosphere.

Reaffirming Pakistan’s unflinching commitment to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Pak Prime Minister highlighted CPEC’s next phase and its extension into new areas of agriculture, industrial development, and socio-economic uplift with livelihood projects. Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated China’s unwavering support to Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and appreciated the government’s agenda for socio-economic development and people-centered progress.

The CPEC project, surrounded by all optimism, yet cannot be totally perceived without apprehensions. Government of Pakistan (GoP) claims to revive Diamer-Bhasha dam on Indus River in Gilgit –Baltistan, in the second phase of CPEC, resulting in the production of 4500MW of electricity in addition to serving as a huge water reservoir for the country, which being authenticated by Asian Development Bank (ADB), Gilgit-Baltistan has the potential to produce nearly 50,000MW of energy. Just Bunji Dam, a run-of-the-river project that the ADB has invested in, has the capacity to generate up to 7,100MW electricity when completed.

There seems to be fear that the CPEC may lead to widespread displacement of the locals. Of the 73,000 square kilometers, cultivable land is just 1pc. If that is also swallowed by rich investors from outside, we will become a minority and economically subservient once there will be no farmland or orchards left to earn our livelihood from. Local businessman and many political parties have repeatedly expressed serious on the opaqueness regarding the project.

It is widely acknowledged that “CPEC is not the problem. It has just highlighted the imbalance in provinces with the largest one, Punjab, being seen as favored specially as far as investments on road infrastructure are concerned and fueling bitterness among the rest of the three provinces.”

However, many Intellectuals of Pakistan do not subscribe to the idea that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, is actually a “debt trap”. “Despite Pakistani government departments issuing innumerable clarifications, along with the real facts and figures about the CPEC, the international CPEC cynics are bent on calling it a “debt trap”. Let us solve this puzzle by analysing the CPEC’s financial figures shared by the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. For instance, only $5.9bn of the $18.9bn funding provided by the Chinese companies so far for infrastructure projects constitute loans with 2 per cent interest payable from 2021. The rest of the sum is meant for energy projects funded by Chinese companies and other partners,” wrote Yasir Masood, deputy director of media and publications at the CPEC Centre of Excellence, Islamabad, recently wrote in The Telegraph, UK.

Recently, the world has witnessed a seismic shift in the global power dynamics, with the focus of the international debate moving increasingly to the East. As the economic, social and political spheres evolve to accommodate new structures, the rise of one Asian powerhouse towards regional and global supremacy cannot be disregarded. The Chinese policy of “peaceful development” emerges in contrast to the Western order, as it employs mutual benefit and non-interference while engaging with players in the Central, Western and South Asian network.

Determining that a military approach to encouraging friendly ties in South Asia would hamper the peace and security of the area; China launched the historic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to secure regional harmony through beneficial economic, social, and cultural exchanges. For this purpose, as well as to safeguard itself against the energy politics developing in the South China Sea, China opened its avenues through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)- a flagship project that engages the geostrategically significant Pakistan state to allow economic integration and trade routes in the region to flourish. Even as the initiative emphasises peace and security, several regional dynamics raise the question of whether a cross-border corridor involving strategic ports and outlays greater than $60 billion, could possibly have no impact on the status quo in the region.

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The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping as the key to elevating the Asian economy, aims at increasing the interconnectivity of Eurasia through a series of roads, belts and other infrastructure, the project envisages two international trade connections- the land based ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the oceangoing ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’. As part of the former, the CPEC engages Pakistan to create a network of roads, railway tracks, oil and gas pipelines, ports, airports and special economic zones linking Xinjiang (China) to the Gwadar Port in Balochistan (Pakistan), passing through the Khunjerab Pass in northern Pakistan.

By allowing China direct access to the Indian Ocean, the CPEC reduces the energy supply strain in the Asia-Pacific region. Considering that China transports 80% of its oil and energy requirements through the Strait of Malacca, an increasingly contested waterway, the Gwadar Port in Balochistan offers significant strategic and economic benefit, by reducing maritime transportation cost and distance.

While the corridor paves the way for China into the Middle East and Africa on one hand, it also offers a solution to Pakistan’s energy crisis, faltering economy, and obsolete infrastructure. As the CPEC brings together the world’s second largest economy with a state whose military operations have been flagged as an international security concern in the past, the project has invited several critical interpretations from global players. With the CPEC extending beyond national territory, it has the potential to reorder the status of regional peace and security.

Historically, the China-Pakistan relations have been characterised by a military orientation, though the CPEC marks a new era of economic interdependence and energy cooperation, which threatens the geopolitics of Asia. Although Pakistan’s internal and external security is a concern for large-scale developmental projects, its location makes it the most suitable choice for transit and trade, opening up pathways to Central, South, East and West Asia. However, Pakistan hasn’t been able to tap into the potential of its location and can thus benefit greatly in terms of access to the resource rich region of Central Asia and the economic boost.

Pakistan’s internal security situation involving militants, as well as its antagonising external conflict with India, poses a serious threat of disruption to the CPEC building process, leading to severe economic losses. In response to this, a special security force has been formed to protect the CPEC, particularly in the difficult terrains around the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This step, however, has inevitably led to the Pakistani military assuming an increasingly powerful role in the execution of the plan.

Under the guise of security concerns, the Pakistani military has exonerated the state from making the CPEC transparent and open to public scrutiny. This problem is exacerbated in the turbulent and terror-prone Balochistan province of Pakistan. Militant presence of nationalist forces and Islamic extremists makes Balochistan a very contentious space. Although Balochistan is evidently dangerous for state actors involved in the CPEC, the regional problem exceeds its boundaries. Regionalist forces oppose the project either by demanding a greater share in the project or through an outright rejection. Despite the assurance of connectivity, integration, and widespread development, the CPEC has consequently mobilised a new wave of regional politics.

Adding to the peace and security issues created by the long-lasting insurgency in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, the alarming state of national security in Afghanistan is also a roadblock to the CPEC’s development and outcome. Politically unstable territories, where the disruption stems from terrorist operations, tend to provide hostile environments for multilateral projects like the CPEC, as any act of the stakeholders can incite violence that destabilises the entire region.

One of the most significant aspects of the CPEC’s multilateral spillover is that of India and its exclusion. Besides the fact that the exclusion of the second largest economy in the region after China could hardly lack political motive, another issue comes to light- India has always desired access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through trade routes passing via Pakistan, however, the rivalry between the two countries has led to a complete denial of this privilege. Further, the route of the CPEC has become the hub of controversy, as it passes through the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

As a disputed territory that both countries claim as their own, the region has been carefully avoided by China in the past. However, with China’s investment in the CPEC and their approval of the corridor passing through Gilgit-Baltistan, the international community has made fair assumptions about the Chinese stance on the issue.

India’s concerns regarding the CPEC do not end with the Kashmir conflict. Since the commencement of infrastructure for the project, there has been a marked increase in the presence of Chinese and Pakistani military in the regions surrounding India.

With the Gwadar Port being under the control of China, India’s apprehensions that the increasing access of China to the Indian Ocean would allow them to make India a landlocked nation, seem increasingly possible.

Encircling India from all sides, China has greater access to inland Asia, because the Gwadar Port lies on the conduit of the three most commercially significant areas in the continent- West, Central and South Asia.

One may compare this with the trilateral investment (India, Iran and Afghanistan) in the Chabahar Port, Which will provide India with a foothold at the mouth of the strategic Straits of Hormuz, through which a third of the entire world’s sea-borne oil passes. China’s presence in this region has grown rapidly in recent years, especially with Pakistan handing over Gwadar port, which is the gateway to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), to China on a 40-year lease.

India’s participation in the Chabahar port project would enable it to keep an eye on Chinese activity at Gwadar, which is just 72 kilometers away. The message is clear; under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi regime, India is concerned about the CPEC, keeping close eyes on the developments in the region, and taking all possible steps to counter any impending threat to national security.

(Onkareshwar Pandey is Group Editor of Morning India group of publications, former Senior Group Editor– Rashtriya Sahara (Hindi & Urdu) and also former Editor – News, ANI. He can be contacted at – editoronkar@gmail.com / http://bit.ly/2mh7hih).

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