The proverbial ‘higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the seas’ Pak-China friendship is now going to be translated into an economic reality as both countries have formally agreed to construct the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) extending from the Gwadar deep sea port to the trans-Himalayan city of Kashgar. This 3000 km long integrated network of highways, railways and pipelines is generally being referred to as the economic game changer. The energy corridor will help china connect to the Middle East, Europe and Africa in a convenient way bypassing the longer logistical maritime route through the Strait of Malacca. It will go a long way in positively facilitating the international trade of China, the largest trading partner of the EU and biggest oil importer in the world.
Presently, militancy and terrorism in Pakistan are being perceived as the greatest threat to this vital economic megaproject. However, Pakistan has decided to raise a Special Security Division of Pakistan’s army to provide security to Chinese nationals working on various projects in Pakistan.
The so-called nationalists, especially in Balochistan and KPK province, are also posing another significant threat to this project in Pakistan, adhering to their past tradition of opposing every vital national economic project. They are now blaming the Punjab and federal government for deliberately diverting the route of this corridor to the province of Punjab and Sindh, bypassing Balochistan and KPK. The various members of the provincial assembly of Balochistan, and the chief minister KPK Pervez Khattak, has publicly criticized this project on this ground. Brahamdagh Bugti, another Baloch nationalist leader living in exile in Switzerland, has announced he will resist this project, terming it a deliberate plan to ‘colonize’ Balochistan.
Similarly, Awami National Party (ANP) has also openly begun opposing the project. In this respect, it has recently organized a multi-party conference in Islamabad to harmonize political opposition to the project in Pakistan. Now, it is planning to call an APC on the issue. ANP leader Asfandyar Wali has also warned the federation will face ‘serious consequences’ if the PML(N) government tries to bypass backwards areas of KPK and Balochistan. The ANP, as a political party, is known for its unique ability to instantly scandalize issues of national importance. Earlier, it successfully politicized the Kalabagh Dam issue in Pakistan. The economic corridor project must, by all means, be kept out of its reach now.
Before criticizing it on any grounds, one should not forget that the primary object of this project is to facilitate China’s international trade through this route. Therefore, the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of this route will ultimately determine its utility and usage. China will only prefer this route if it offers to it a sort of ‘comparative advantage’ in terms of time-saving and reduction of distance. The topography or physical condition of a terrain effects the efficacy of the means of communication. It has been generally observed that the mountainous areas are comparatively less hospitable than plains for such long distance land travel. Besides this, the construction of such a long corridor through a mountainous region would also involve heavy cost and technical hardships. Therefore, the topography of Punjab and Sindh may be more conducive for the route of this economic corridor. Similarly, the law and order situation in Punjab and Sindh are comparatively better that that of Balochistan and KPK.
The political parties in Pakistan must understand that the basic purpose of this corridor is not the uplift of backward areas in Pakistan. Therefore, it should not be treated as such. Pakistan will get great monetary befits from this project which can ultimately be utilized to uplift these areas. The most important component of this entire project is Gwadar port which is situated in Balochistan. Therefore, Baloch nationalists should not oppose the project in any way.
India is also closely monitoring the developments in this region. It has been interested in grabbing this great economic opportunity, and has already built a road in the Nimroz province to connect Afghanistan with Iran, providing an alternative route to Afghanistan through the Chabahar port in Iran. It is taking keen interest in further developing the port. For this purpose, India is all set to ink a deal with Iran.
As a matter of fact, land-locked Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics (CAR’s) no longer depend on Pakistan solely for their international trade after the construction of this alternative route in Afghanistan. Now, Pakistan should realistically and prudently exploit its strategic location by providing transit facilities to the greatest economy of the world. Pakistan must finalize the route of the proposed economic corridor on a purely technical rather than political basis. No interest and pressure group in Pakistan should be allowed to sabotage the project in any way. For this purpose, Pakistan should exhibit the same degree of resolution and determination that it did while launching a decisive crackdown on militancy and terrorism in the country some time ago. Without strong political will, firm national resolve and a keen sense of priority, Pakistan cannot successfully seize this game-changing economic opportunity.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.