For the troubled state of Pakistan, which cannot live without crutches, its all- weather friend China has bestowed upon it a heavenly gift in the shape of the so called China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is supposed to transport the Land of the Pure into an El Dorado. The hype around CPEC sees the Pakistanis dream of becoming an economic giant and also a military power– again with the help of the Chinese crutches– that will overrun India.
Despite the prevailing euphoria in the country over CPEC which will connect China’s backward western province of Xingjian and equally if not more backward Balochistan’s Gwadar after crisscrossing through parts of Pakistan, there seems to be a lurking doubt in some quarters. In a discussion in the National Assembly (Parliament) some ruling and opposition lawmakers have wondered if the CPEC will turn out to be another East India Company, a trading outpost which eventually led to British Raj in the sub-continent. Two sore points are: the CPEC corridor in Pakistan will not uniformly benefit the country and the Chinese are being clever in asking the Pakistanis to finance many of the ‘local’ projects that form part of CPEC. In fact, Beijing has made Prime Minister Sharif to treat Chinese investment on CPEC ventures as FDI, and thus provide for liberal profit repatriation regime.
An earlier much trumpeted Chinese project in Pakistan is turning out to be a white elephant. The Karakoram Highway has failed to bring the prosperity to Gilgit- Baltistan, as was envisaged. On the other hand, the ‘outsiders’ (Pakistanis from the mainland) settled in Gilgit-Baltistan after the completion of the Karakoram Highway have brought with them their narrow sectarian politics which has upset the local Shia population and has generated sectarian violence unheard in that belt for generations.
Yet another much publicised Chinese aided project, a swanky motorway connecting Islamabad and Lahore, remains deserted because most motorists prefer to use the old road where they can travel without paying any toll tax. The new motorway was one of the pet projects of Nawaz Sharif during his earlier stint as prime minister in 2003. Now it is the pet project of his younger brother,Shahbaz Sharif, who is the chief minister of Punjab province.
Given the determined manner in which the Chinese pursue their goals, there is little to doubt that they will execute the CPEC project. But the Pakistanis, ever suffering from paranoia about India and a lack of self-confidence, have been expressing imaginary fears about Indian efforts to sabotage it. In a country where anything anti-India is instantly believed, all kinds of stories are being circulated about the Indian designs on CPEC.
One of these stories is that a CPEC wing has been set up within the Indian spy agency with an allocation of $300 million. Its job: Of course, to wreck CPEC, and that the agency RAW has already got cracking on this devious project by engineering violence in many parts of Balochistan in particular.
Indians would laugh off such juvenile theories of the Pakistanis. But their effort to get the Chinese support in their tirade against India on CPEC cannot be laughed off. The Chinese have duly obliged the Pakistanis by asking India to desist from any activity to harm CPEC. In fact, the Chinese have asked India to join CPEC, which is part of its more grandiose ‘One Belt – One Road’ plan to establish overland route between China and the West.
Overcoming their deep-seated animus towards India, Pakistani officials have also asked India to join CPEC in the interest of ‘peace’ and prosperity in the region. It seems to suggest that there are Pakistanis who feel that they cannot enjoy the full fruits of CPEC without India joining the project?
Not surprisingly, there are also Indians who say that being a part of CPEC will benefit the country. This is hard to comprehend because cooperation or association with Islamabad which is dominated by Rawalpindi is inconceivable. Pakistan has refused to work for peace or cooperate with India unless it gets Kashmir—and, no doubt, followed by more Indian territories.
The invitation—if at all there is one– to join CPEC looks all the more incongruous when the political dispensation of the country under the pressure of military Shura has refused to grant access to Indian exports to Afghanistan by the land route that passes through its territory. Is India prepared to accept a perpetual denial of access to land route via Pakistan but is still ready to be part of CPEC or any similar project in Pakistan?
No Indian whether a hard-liner or a dove is likely to be enamoured of such a proposition. Being part of CPEC in any manner will amount to India granting Pakistan the right to block export to Afghanistan via the land route.
India has officially questioned CPEC, mainly because it passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir, a ‘disputed’ territory the status of which, even according to Pakistan, is yet to be determined. But there are security issues which concern India.
CPEC may be touted as a massive ‘infrastructure’ project designed to transform Pakistan. But the Chinese have clearly foreseen a strategic utility for it. The deep sea port of Gwadar built and now operated by China is bound to become a Chinese Naval base in due course of time.
Chinese Naval ships have been sailing into Gwadar. More importantly, the Chinese have taken upon themselves to modernise the Pakistan Navy to bring it on par with India. The Chinese-Pakistan nexus has been working to undermine India in every possible manner. In recent days, the Chinese have been using their state-controlled media to issue various warnings and threats to India and Pakistan has increased its belligerency towards India.
Nearly 44 per cent of world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, on the mouth of which sits Gwadar. The Chinese at Gwadar will certainly go on the offensive if they feel threatened in any manner. To help their client Pakistan, the Chinese may join Pakistan to undermine the importance of the nearby Chabahar port in Iran which India is developing to gain access for its exports to Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing Pakistan.
By joining CPEC in any manner India will be harming its interest in the Chabahar port where, unfortunately, progress has been slow. Instead of entertaining prospects of becoming a part of CPEC, India must step up completion of Chabahar. There were reports that Japan is interested in joining Chabahar. That needs to be followed vigorously.
Because the CPEC will straddle across a country not known to be at peace with itself it can be said that its future may not be as rosy as the Chinese and the Pakistanis make out. In fact, questions have been raised about benefits from the CPEC project reaching Balochistan, a traditionally neglected area, and also Sindh and Khyber –Pakhtoonkhwa. CPEC may or may not be fine for Pakistan; India’s prosperity cannot depend on a project in Pakistan.