The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is fast being recognized as the flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The multi-billion dollars project has now become the face of what Pakistan and China term as an “all weather” and “time-tested” friendship. The advent of CPEC has, arguably, shifted the focus of ties from defense to economics. The word “game-changer” has virtually been ascribed to the project as if it is analogous to it. Indeed, CPEC offers many opportunities for not only China and Pakistan but other countries too. However, given the enormity of this mega project, many challenges need to be grappled with. It is important to analyze the pay-offs and the threat matrix associated with CPEC in order to make its holistic assessment
Geographically, Pakistan is the most suitable conduit for enhancing regional economic connectivity, therefore, regional and internal security architectures pose a challenge to CPEC and its smooth operations. The CPEC-specific security threats stem from the Afghan conundrum and turmoil in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. An end to the war in Afghanistan is integral to connectivity between the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Pakistan. The continued spillovers of the gridlock in Afghanistan can destabilize the security conditions of Pakistan’s two provinces that border Afghanistan : Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and western parts of China (Xinjiang). Given that these areas lie at the heart of the project, security threats could disrupt the smooth functioning of CPEC. One of the reasons as to why Pakistan and China are robustly playing a part in the Afghan peace process relates to reducing turmoil along the corridor’s route.
The insurgency in Balochistan could pose another threat to CPEC. China had raised objections on the security conditions along the CPEC route. In the meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee ( JCC) held in Islamabad last year , China sought more security assurances for CPEC projects. Recently, assailants of the Balochistan Liberation Army(BLA) boisterously claimed responsibility of an attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi. Though the attack was foiled, it highlighted one major threat that China and Pakistan will have to deal with.
Linked to this are concerns about India’s involvement in Balochistan, something that came to the fore after the confession of an Indian spy, Kulbushan Jadhav who was apprehended by Pakistani security forces in 2016. India has openly detested BRI and CPEC, calling the latter as an infringement of its sovereignty . India’s rivalries with China and Pakistan, coupled with its ingress into Iran through the Chabahar Port, have increased doubts about India’s abilities and intentions to sabotage CPEC.
Also, CPEC could become a target of the growing geopolitical tussle between Beijing and Washington. The US has not only raised objections to BRI and CPEC, but more importantly, expanded the scope of its relations with India, terming it its net security provider in the Indo-Pacific. By virtue of its capacity to obviate China’s reliance on the Strait of Malacca and give it cheaper access to West Asia and beyond, CPEC could be subverted to cause damage to China’s BRI.
Challenges aside, strategically and economically CPEC is significantly important for both the signatory states. CPEC offers a great deal of opportunities too. The foremost is the economic development. The hefty inflow of foreign direct investment will work as an economic spur for Pakistan’s public and private sectors. The industrialization process will create jobs especially for Balochistan’s under-employed population. This could be a boon for Balochistan that has long been afflicted with poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. With improved security, stability and investment in manufacturing, energy and development sectors, the flagship project will offer a respectable alleyway out of poverty to those who are exploited by terrorist organizations including ISIS and Taliban. The economic growth will help maintain internal stability and enhance Pakistan’s capability to fight terrorism and secessionist movements.
As mentioned above, CPEC will reduce China’s dependence on the Strait of Malacca by connecting it directly to Indian Ocean and Middle East from Gwadar port. Gwadar’s deep sea port is a strategic pivot for China. It will also reduce its maritime distance from 12,000 to 3, 000 KM.
Finally, CPEC could promote inter-regional connectivity, something that happens to be the core vision of the project. Through CPEC, Pakistan will provide a gateway to West Asia and Central Asian States (CARs) and access to regional markets to transport their goods. The improved infrastructure with increased connectivity will enable the states to sell their goods to regional and global markets.
Indeed, CPEC could accelerate economic development, regional trade connectivity and integration between the regional states. CPEC could also become instrumental in resolving regional conflicts through economic cooperation. However, expectations reposed from the project must be tempered; geopolitical realities of the region need to be considered. China and Pakistan are required to navigate through India and US’ opposition to the project and also deal with security concerns.
Kishwar Munir is a Lecturer at the School of Integrated Social Sciences, University of Lahore.