Interview: ‘CPEC consensus critical for Pakistan’, argues Imtiaz Gul

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In a detailed interview with Business Recorder, Imtiaz Gul, Executive Director Center for Research and Security Studies, argued why a national consensus is of utmost importance for CPEC, and its associated projects, to succeed. He further argued how China’s embrace of Pakistan through CPEC and OBOR has helped in propagation of a positive image of Islamabad around the word.

Below is the Business Recorder interview in full:

BR Research: Economic mood has lately become buoyant in Pakistan, thanks in part to a marked decline in violence, especially in major cities. How sustainable are the hard-earned security gains?

Imtiaz Gul: The last three years have certainly seen a turnaround, whether it is the economic or the security front. On the security front, the situation changed primarily because of the Operation Zarb-e-Azab, which was launched in June 2014 and made Pakistan go after the terrorists in a systematic way. Inconclusive rounds of talks with the TTP in 2014 had exposed the militants as proxies for external forces who were out as instruments of instability, using the name of Islam. That helped the army chart out its campaign to go after the command and control structures in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Around 2014, as the security situation started to improve, the idea of CPEC came up. It was a godsend opportunity for Pakistan. Remember, nobody was willing to invest in Pakistan. For many decades, Pakistan was looked down upon as the underdog, the source of regional problems. With CPEC, Pakistan, its government and the army, received new confidence. I regularly attend policy forums outside Pakistan, and I can tell you that there is a positive change in how Pakistan has been perceived since 2015. Had China not embraced Pakistan, we would still be talking about a doomsday scenario in coming years. Countries like Iran, Russia and Turkey have also rallied around Pakistan as far as the issue of Afghanistan is concerned.

BRR: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has emerged as a major plank of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). What, in your view, has worked out well so far, and what are the areas that require a better focus?

IG: One of the areas that need better focus is planning. Pakistan initially faltered quite a lot because of its weak planning and governance capacity. It was a huge challenge for the politicians, too. The Planning Commission and other departments kept developing different plans after they signed MOUs with the Chinese. But for nearly a year they could not match the expectations of the Chinese, who then helped Pakistan finalise some of the plans that are currently underway. This is up to Pakistani leadership to get the best deal out of CPEC for the Pakistani people. The onus is not on the Chinese. Then there is the issue of keeping political consensus on CPEC. The federal government didn’t properly handle the reservations of the KP and Balochistan governments. The Chinese leadership got very upset with the lack of national consensus on CPEC-related projects. They didn’t realize that despite its deficits, democracy in Pakistan remains functional, so there will be disagreements. Thanks to political efforts in 2016, CPEC finally has a consensus. Consensus on CPEC is critical for Pakistan. Perhaps the most critical area at this stage is security. What gave the Chinese confidence to go ahead was the Pakistani military, which is much organised. When the Chinese government approached Pakistan, they were concerned about security. The army listened and provided solutions. This is how the conversation started, where initially there was to be a dedicated division for security of CPEC. Now there are two divisions dedicated to the CPEC security and that has given the Chinese confidence that they will remain protected in Pakistan. And above all, Chinese officials are well aware that geo-political factors will keep affecting the security conditions in Pakistan and that they shall have to fight it off together with Pakistan. Having said all that, bilateral relations are need driven. Pakistan is lucky that it became the need for the Chinese. And the Chinese are fortunate that in Pakistan they have the shortest possible route to the Arabian Sea and in CPEC they see an opportunity to mainstream their Western region. The challenge is how to maximize this convergence of needs and interests. The stakeholders in Pakistan now need to be transparent and inclusive so that the CPEC-related projects mature and help stabilize Pakistan.

BRR: What prospects does CPEC offer for regional integration? Can this North-South corridor become a driver for regional integration, e.g. via an East-West corridor going through Pakistan?

IG: That will mostly be subject to the situation in Afghanistan. As you know, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative envisages three main corridors, CPEC being the top of all as flagship. The Chinese hope that India will be a part of OBOR initiatives—the ball is in India’s court. India is still averse to CPEC. China’s philosophy on OBOR is that they want to share the dividends of their prosperity and development with immediate neighbours. They are ready to invest in linking all the regions. It is about connectivity. For its part, Pakistan had been planning, with Chinese approval, to offer Afghanistan an alignment with the CPEC for their northern territories. But there is so much geopolitics involved. The Indians very openly lobbied against CPEC. Then, India and China as well as India and Pakistan are at odds over the situation in Afghanistan. With everyone waiting for the Trump administration’s Afghan policy review, progress is stalled.

BRR: South Asia is in need of a massive infrastructure facelift. No wonder many South Asian countries have been becoming warm towards BRI. Is India really isolating itself by not signing up to the BRI framework?

IG: With its current policies, India runs all the more risk of getting a little isolated and losing out on economic opportunities. The Chinese policy thinkers that I have interacted with are convinced that China can only continue to develop in a neighbourhood that is also developing. I think that India shall have to revise its belligerence and its hostile policy towards CPEC. It has to reconcile with the fact that because of the shortest possible route, CPEC is the flagship of OBOR.

BRR: What about the US role in the region? With Pakistan growing closer to China and with India pulling closer to the US, what prospects do you see for regional power equilibrium?

IG: The US is becoming less of a factor in Pakistan’s policymaking. Regardless of the deficiencies, if you are looking at the bigger picture, three to four years down the road, Pakistan would have more energy, more highways and link roads, and a new industrial zone in Gwadar. That is good for the region. But what India has been embarking on is belligerence towards Pakistan and China, but that is of course reflective of the new geo-political realignments. Pakistan’s advantage is that China is next door, whereas America is India’s distant neighbour, and under Trump, a transactional friend that wants to sell its military hardware. Then regional powers like Iran and Turkey are also sympathetic towards Pakistan. The biggest hope for Pakistan out of CPEC is that it is changing Pakistan’s security paradigm, as Chinese sensitivities to the religious extremist groups will be addressed over time. As for China, it will remain focused on economic consolidation in the region. They don’t seem to be interested in military interventions that jeopardize peace.

BRR: While they remain engaged, have the US and Pakistan given up on each other for achieving a turnaround in Afghanistan?

IG: It all depends on what kind of a review the Trump administration comes up with on Afghanistan and what kind of a role they have in mind for Pakistan regarding stabilizing Afghanistan. As of now, a divergence clearly remains. That divergence has in fact sharpened. Now, it is not just Pakistan, but the Russians and the Chinese, for instance, who are also looking at the Taliban as a legitimate party to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. Even Iran is viewing the Taliban as a bulwark against Daesh – which all of them suspect as a sponsored tool of destabilization, as former president Karzai and the Russian foreign minister pointed out in recent months.

BRR: The US has been locked down in the Afghan conflict for roughly 16 years now. Can they re-define the mission convincingly to justify a continued presence on Afghan soil?

IG: Well, if the US establishment defines the mission as a “strategic interest” to remain engaged there, then it will mean a perpetual war for which they are ready to inject any amount of money. They are still giving $5-6 billion every year to Afghanistan.

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