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Maintaining a strategically consequential relationship with China, while being allied to the United States during the height of cold war, has been an extraordinary success of Pakistan’s foreign policy. It was evident in April, 2015, when President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan, both countries announced a $46billion investment package–consisting of roads, railways, pipelines and a port. Gwadar, a port in south-western Baluchistan province is to be linked with Xinjiang, China’s western-most autonomous region, thus giving Beijing a much coveted access to the Indian Ocean. Multibillion dollar investments will go a long-way in strengthening bilateral ties that go at least five decades back. Since then China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has topped every discussion in Pakistan and about Pakistan around the world, irrespective of ‘support’ or ‘criticism’ of the project.
As a post-conflict society, Pakistan’s focus is on reconstruction of the infrastructure, revival of economy, overcoming energy shortfall and economic development. CPEC, thus, presents once in a generation opportunity to Pakistan for putting itself together, while it moves on the road to stability and prosperity. Even critics agree that CPEC has the potential to transform Pakistan, after a decade of internal turmoil and instability.
The investment package, however, is being viewed as an aid or assistance programme from China to Pakistan. It is being hailed as symbolising special strategic partnership between both countries. No doubt, Beijing and Islamabad share a special bilateral relationship based on strong security cooperation and convergence of views on political issues. And, definitely, Beijing is going out of the way to assist Pakistan in consolidating stability and ushering in an era of economic development, after a decade of turmoil. Yet, there is another side of the CPEC story.
CPEC is one component of the larger One Belt, One Road (OBOR)or Belt and Road Initiative of China. OBOR is Chinese response to the U.S. led ‘Rebalance to Asia-Pacific’’. By connecting with Eurasian heartland, through overland corridors and sea-lanes. China is expanding its own geo-political space by attempting to reshape political and economic order of Euro-Asia region. Pakistan was not part of the ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy of the U.S. And, Pakistan has been critical of deepening Indo-U.S. strategic relationship, which is an off-shoot of the wider U.S. rebalance towards Asia-Pacific region. OBOR, and by extension CPEC also addresses Pakistan’s strategic concerns, and provides the country an opportunity to balance regional power in South Asia.
At present China actively seeks rail, road and sea connectivity to Europe and Africa, and CPEC is connected with it. OBOR is one of the most ambitious infrastructure initiatives in recent history. It has, thus, received worldwide attention. It will place China at the centre of expanding networks of overland and sea routes connecting Pacific-rim countries with Eurasian heartland, Middle East, and Africa, via China and Central Asia. It will transform political and economic map of the region, and world. Thus, for China successful implementation of CPEC is vital for long-term realization of OBOR and Chinese geostrategic interests in the region and beyond.
CPEC, for Pakistan is a not a special aid package or a gift from China. It is a pact between two countries symbolising a geo-political shift. For it to be successfully implemented Pakistan has to go extra-mile in addressing political concerns being raised, bring provincial governments on board and improve security climate. In recent weeks, Increasingly Chinese experts are raising concerns over Pakistani ability to deliver, provide security and address political issues surrounding the CPEC projects. If CPEC is impeded due to internal political squabbling, bureaucratic inertia, or security-related issues, it will have direct effect on OBOR initiative. Pakistan would, then, have to face Chinese wrath, which could potentially undermine country’s special strategic relationship with China.
Faisal Ahmed is an IPI Resident Scholar specializing in Southern Asia.