CPEC Controversy: Naivety and Geopolitics

Salman Bashir*

The Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaaf (PTI) Government, after some initial missteps, has come around to realizing the merits of Pakistan-China economic cooperation, epitomized by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).  

The establishment of the CPEC Authority is an important step and manifestation of this resolve. It is a pragmatic instrument to accomplish the CPEC vision, at least its bilateral component, unencumbered by the vicissitudes of domestic politics and bureaucratic red tape. 

Unfortunately, the propensity to politicize CPEC had been a serious issue from the outset. Sheer inability of Pakistani politics to rise above petty prejudices and grasp the immense significance of this enterprise for Pakistan’s socio-economic development reflects poorly on the civil political spectrum.

Equally, the governance institutions fell short in their commitment and competence in realizing the high order of the CPEC opportunity. The development, planning and implementation institutions were a total mismatch to their Chinese counterparts. 

Despite these shortcomings, what is inexcusable is that ‘critique’ on CPEC was allowed to find resonance in many quarters, much to the shock and amazement of the Chinese. The critics willingly jumped onto the bandwagon of Indo-American logic against the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which CPEC is a pivot.   

The propaganda blitz against CPEC initiated by US Secretary of State Pompeo and Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells became a theme song to beat China’s BRI. 

The effectiveness of this campaign can be gauged from the gullibility of many in Pakistan to equate CPEC with colonizing project at par with East India Company. But this comparison is misplaced.

The CPEC projects involved ‘equal’ footed negotiations. There was no coercion or intent to extract surplus from Pakistan. We know well that even debt servicing with China has never been an issue. China has always been magnanimous in deferring debt repayments and provided loans on concessional terms. The argument of predatory economic practices simply does not apply here. 

The bottom line is that Pakistan’s balance of payments is not likely to come under significant strain due to CPEC. In fact, for decades, China has been providing the balance of payment support to improve our financial situation. What probably will put the external account under strain is the quantum of the non-CPEC related energy imports and obligations to other debtors.

Some circles in Pakistan, without realizing the drift, seemed to be veering against China by unwittingly or naively becoming a mouthpiece in the new Cold War propaganda which centres on the BRI. India considers CPEC as its main threat. Gwadar is being developed as a commercial port and to connote it a strategic maritime orientation is clearly an exaggeration.  

India, by opposing CPEC and the BRI, has virtually isolated itself in the region. The animus against Pakistan has blinded India to the substantial benefits that may accrue from healthy and mutually beneficial regional economic cooperation. History teaches us that those who put a premium on development over power games eventually prospered. Geo-economics not geopolitics matters in this age.

Thus, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s reaffirmation to make CPEC a success is a good, albeit belated, course correction embedded in preserving national sovereignty.  

A nation that has a murky vision in grasping and pursuing its national interests may lose its sovereignty. Sovereignty is, first of all, a state of mind. One could be independent but not sovereign if the leaders or elders have less than national interest in their hearts.

*Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as the High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.

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