China and Pakistan have a trial and tribulation trajectory, and thus the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor i.e. CPEC has tales to tell. If an idiom is reworked, it is like “the operation was successful, but the patient is in coma!” Coma is tantamount to a state of disability.
This signifies what is going on in the region as the strategic $60 billion construction and connectivity project is yet in the doldrums. It has not been able to take off in the sense of generating enthusiasm for development. The sense of marginalisation in Balochistan, supposed to be the theatre of CPEC, is a case in point. It is a déjà vu for many as China comes down to connect with the southern states in pursuit of warm waters.
This is where Pakistan’s foreign policy had flunked as it contested the Soviets four decades ago. The change of heart and mind is now apparently owing to increasing economic interdependence and an evolving geo-strategic equation vis-à-vis the United States meddling in the region. Yet, the CPEC is a blessing in disguise for Pakistan as for the first time any major power has come up with a masterplan to develop the region — and that too without any political considerations of otherness.
Thus, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC are meant for investment in ports, roads, railways and airports, as well as power plants and telecommunications networks across the region. There is a catch-22 situation, nonetheless, as Pakistan reorients its policy perspective in relevance with Chinese wishes to make it a supra-regional success.
Building of infrastructure coupled with laying of industrial special economic zones makes it a win-win equation. But there are inherent bottlenecks and impediments all the way. The first is Afghanistan and the second is, of course, India. Until and unless, Islamabad strikes a chord of regional unanimity with these two western and eastern frontier neighbours, accordingly, nothing will move on.
The regrouping of terror elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan once again slipping into terror trap, as well as the fissures on the western frontiers of Chaman, hint at the emerging vulnerabilities in the security domain. CPEC, nonetheless, is captive to how Pakistan goes out to facilitate Kabul and Delhi, enabling them to become equal trading partners as Beijing goes on to re-enact the ancient Silk Route in the 21st century.
CPEC today has the potential to address the economic vibrancy of more than 100 states in four continents. Islamabad, moreover, is in a fix as it reportedly is sinking in a debt trap with China and its commercial banks, which many believe is not viable for its economy in the long run. The magnitude of loans runs into billions, in the realms of energy, infrastructure and communications. Last but not least, the economy has nosedived and is on the brink of collapse, with dollars trading at two indices and remittances shrinking to the core.
CPEC compulsions are changing the format of doing business with the emerging superpower. Memorandum of Understanding to trade in yuan and rupee poses a strategic international economics challenge, and crosses swords with Washington. Pakistan is also dovetailing a similar deal with Russia in rubles. Thus, the evolving China-Pakistan relationship is the beginning of a new regional order, which conveniently puts Islamabad in the Beijing camp.
This understanding, however, comes at the cost of alienating Pakistan from its neighbours, especially India, Afghanistan and Iran. It is primarily owing to conflict of interest. The sea port of Gwadar is at odds with Iran’s Chabahar port, and likewise Islamabad’s not being on the same page with India puts it in confrontation with the Chinese in the long run.
So is the case with Afghanistan that does not see through the same prism while dealing with Pakistan and is more tilted towards India. Pakistan, while being a strategic partner with China, must reorient its outlook and rewrite its foreign policy with Iran, India and Afghanistan. Dealing with them and sharing the bounties of geopolitics is a must to further geo-economics. Playing the China card will not work in the long run, as these three neighbours will sooner than later outclass Pakistan’s viability and indispensability
Note: This article appeared in Tribune, dated 28 December 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.