Counter narrative on CPEC, Dr Shabir Choudhry
London 28 May 2018
The Pakistani Chief Justice seems to be more interested in making news headlines by interfering in matters which are not directly related to his job of providing justice to all the Pakistanis. In Supreme Court of Pakistan on 30 April, there were 38,913 cases pending which require attention of Supreme Court Judges.1 Chief Justice is busy visiting hospitals and testing quality of water. I hope once he has finished his welfare work, and ‘jihad’ of nailing down Nawaz Sharif, he will provide justice to these people.
It must be pointed out that in 2001, there were 13,070 cases. May be Judges after that expressed more interest in grabbing headlines and doing work for which they were not paid. The learned justice express more interest in lambasting the civilian governments on social, political and economic issues that will earn him headlines.
By commenting on the CPEC, a mega project with international ramifications, the honourable Chief Justice of Pakistan has increased area of his interest. While addressing the 8th Judicial Conference that was the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan, the Chief Justice said:
‘There must be a consensus among all the stakeholders in going forward and evaluating the legal, social, cultural and economic aspects of the multi-billion-dollar Chinese investment. There is a need for a serious dialogue to assess the impact of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.’2
It is debateable if the CPEC will help the Pakistani economy; and moreover, if it will empower the local people. However, the CPEC has created divisions within various regions of Pakistan, where people in position of power accuse each other for disregarding interests of certain regions.
All civilised nations encourage debate on various issues which affect public; as long as people discuss pros and cons of the matter being discussed, and not call each other traitor and anti - state just because of contradictory views.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan and in the former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, dissent is not accepted as a right; and people forget rules of the debate and resort to abusive language. They make very serious allegations like treason, and call each other Kaffir and anti-state etc.
The issues arising out of this mega project have resulted in increased anxiety, bitterness and concern in various parts of Pakistan, and areas of Jammu and Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. No doubt, the CPEC is a mega project which is not only discussed and opposed within Pakistan, but it is also debated in many capitals of the world.
The CPEC is promoted as a ‘game changer’. However, it remains to be seen, in whose favour the game will change. Will the CPEC change lives of the people of:
· Pakistan, Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Kashmir for the better?
· Will the CPEC empower the down trodden people?
· Will the CPEC protect and inspire women and minorities?
· Will the CPEC make them more self-reliant, more versatile and capable to compete challenges of 21st Century?
· Or are they going to suffer as a result of the CPEC, which will have great impact on economy, finance, environment, social patterns and even on defence and sovereignty of Pakistan. How burden of massive loans on Pakistan will affect the ordinary people?
For reasons, best known to those who are at the helm of affairs of the CPEC, no attention is being paid to environment and ecology; and the Chief Justice has rightly pointed out this oversight or negligence. He has also expressed his serious concern on disputes and misgivings of different regions, and has suggested a mechanism to redress dispute of the parties.
No project can be completed or become fruitful by wishful thinking, or by having big dreams. Steel Mill was completed with help of Soviet Russia, what have Pakistanis made of it. What have they made of Pakistan International Airline, which was amongst the best airlines at one time.
Moonis Ahmar, Professor of International Relations says: ‘concerns are being raised by different quarters in Pakistan about the viability of CPEC in unleashing the process of infrastructural, industrial and economic modernisation of the country. Contentious issues which will arise in the near future dealing with ecological and environmental implications of projects carried out under CPEC must be analytical and critically addressed. 3
China has agreed to provide funds and other logistic support to various projects of the CPEC. However, has Pakistan professional expertise and required work ethics to complete their part of the projects on time, especially when there are deep divisions among the provinces and other stakeholders.
In this regard, despite lofty claims about the progress and benefits of the CPEC, Federal Minister for Planning and Reforms, did not hesitate to point out about non-cooperation of provinces in ‘presenting plans for special economic zones’.4 Can one envisage the CPEC without Special Economic Zones?
China has more than once emphasised to the concerned authorities that if the CPEC related projects are not completed on time, China may stop the investment. It is clear that if some stakeholders in Pakistan are not serious in completing deadlines, then it is not logical for China to continue investing more money. If that happens, surely it will be loss of Pakistan; and Chinese dream of controlling the world economy by One Belt One Road will also suffer.
CPEC and Chinese dream
Majority of people of Pakistan under influence of systematic propaganda believe that the CPEC will resolve all their problems, and Pakistan will emerge as an economic tiger or Asian Economic Tiger. We have heard these slogans many times in the past, which are floated basically to fool their own people.
Yes, Pakistan is getting a massive investment, which will help Pakistan to build roads, bridges, dams, railway lines etc. It will provide employment to tens of thousands of people in short term; and will solve energy problems of Pakistan as well.
However, people of Pakistan and policy makers need to understand that China is not doing this because they love Pakistanis; and want to alleviate their economic problems and misery. The Chinese want to help themselves. They want to fulfil their dream to become a great economic and military power again, as they were in the past.
No doubt, China was once a great power in the world. The Chinese leaders talk of ‘rejuvenation’ or ‘revival’- to gain what they lost. Their slogan is: “never forget national humiliation”. To fully appreciate their dream of revival one needs to understand China’s ‘Century of humiliation’. The new Chinese philosophy is, we cannot be great again until we are strong at home; and we can only be strong if we are economically and politically robust.
They have achieved that objective, and now they have launched the next stage of their plan, which is to use their economic muscle to advance their strategic and military agenda. This frightens the world, especially conscious neighbours, as the Chinese dream is closely linked with the military might of China. Only with formidable military and economic power China can become a great power again.
Xi Jinping, while inspecting a military base on 13 December 2012 said:
‘We must preserve the bond between a rich country and a strong military, and strive to build a consolidated national defence.’ 5
His dream of a strong country and a strong military can only be accomplished when they are economically strong, and have a formidable military and allies abroad that never again China could be subdued.
In the past decades, China as a matter of policy played rather passive and non-aggressive role in international relations. All this was to change with the arrival of Xi Jinping on the political scene of China. He declared that China will play a ‘proactive’ role in Asia. It was a major shift in Chinese foreign policy; as he wanted to first build allies in Asia by promoting a ‘neighbourhood diplomacy’.
‘Proactive role’ requires China to take initiatives on matters related to Asian Countries. This necessitates making more friends; and making countries dependent on the Chinese support, especially in Asia and Africa. China was less interested in making military or even economic alliances, rather idea was to have bilateral agreements, in which, of course China will have upper hand.
As China makes more friends and more countries are economically and militarily dependent on Beijing, it will provide China geo political leverage to advance their agenda abroad to bring back nation’s glory and self-respect.
This proactive policy is designed to thrust upon mega projects on weak countries to ensure that the Chinese economy keeps on its targets; and finding new markets for its surplus. The aid recipient country needs financial help and technical support to build their infrastructure, and support their economy.
Whether, in the long run, the completed projects fulfil requirements of the recipient country is not concern of China. To put it crudely, the country is ‘hooked’, and has to become more dependent on China; or end up losing part of its sovereignty, as it happened to Sri Lanka. After failure to pay the loans, China took control of Sri port of Hambantota for 99-year lease.
After the second World War, America helped to establish an economic and financial system which helped Washington to advance its agenda and keep hegemony in the World politics. On similar lines, China is busy establishing an economic and financial system in Asia that will help Beijing to advance their economic and strategic agenda.
China, in accordance with its planning, enhanced its investment in Asia, and many people may not know that China Development Bank, and Export Import Bank of China are already providing more funds in Asia than the loans provided by the World Bank and Asia Development Bank put together. By providing massive funds to build more roads, railway lines, ports and power lines in poor countries of Asia, China’s ambition is to bring these countries under their influence.
In order to support the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has established new financial institutions, for example, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Silk Road Bank (SRB). In this regard, BRICS and establishment of New Development Bank is also important. BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and their New Development Bank is seen as a ‘challenge’ to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was established by 50 founding member countries. China has the biggest share of 30 percent; and they also have the biggest say in it. It is interesting that America, the largest economy of the world and Japan, the third largest economy of the world refused to become part of the AIIB.
Some economic experts believe the establishment of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is important, but it should not be taken as the main weapon in the ‘financial arsenal’ of China, as the country has huge financial institutions to bolster its agenda. There are a number of Chinese commercial banks; and Bank of China alone has assured to lend 100 billion US dollars on these projects.
Some experts are of the view that China has so much cash and surplus of materials that, at times, they find it difficult to find worthwhile projects to invest in. As pointed out earlier, there is a fierce competition going on among the rich countries and banks to find worthwhile projects; and countries willing to accept terms and conditions attached with the development projects.
On issue of the AIIB, Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister said, the New Development Bank, "illustrates a new polycentric system of international relations" demonstrating the increasing influence of "new centres of power". 6
However, Li Daxiao, Chief Economist of Yingda Securities, while commenting on the New Development Bank said, aim of the new bank is not to challenge ‘other multilateral agencies. It's a complement, instead of a challenge, to existing international institutions." 7
Chinese strong economy, as it is, without the completion of Belt and Road Initiative, is almost half of the Asian GDP. Very few developing countries can resist financial and engineering proficiency and incentive of China, especially those who struggle to provide basic necessities for their population. Strategic and economic experts think once the BRI projects are completed, this will make China irresistible and a dominant power to dictate terms in the region, and beyond. Xi Jinping in December 2014 said:
‘Beijing should participate and lead, make China’s voice heard, and inject more Chinese elements into international rules.’ 8
CPEC, Pakistan and China
In above pages, it has been discussed why China is investing hundreds of billions of dollars. One point must be clear: it is to make China great again; and not because Beijing loves human beings and want to get them out of economic problems.
China’s human rights record is atrocious, but because of China’s position in the world, and economic muscle, not many like to talk about it. Instead, they talk of human rights records of vulnerable countries to show that they are still champions of human rights. Despite hundreds of billions of reserves, there are still millions of Chinese living below the poverty line, and if China is not getting them out of the poverty trap, why on earth they would do it for Pakistan, if it did not have some other agenda.
Call it One Belt One Road or Belt and Road Initiative, the CPEC is one of six economic corridors. Yes, the CPEC is a major component of the BRI, which is primarily designed to protect China’s national interests. These mega projects will help to make China stronger and increase its economic and political influence in neighbouring countries in such a way that they become natural friends and allies of China.
It is expected that in case of international crises, because of obligation, and in order to protect what China has established in their countries, rulers of these ‘dependencies’ will side with Beijing.
In countries where these economic corridors are going, their friendship with China is not higher than mountains and deeper than sea. So, remember, slogans like “Pak-China friendship is higher than Himalaya, deeper than the ocean, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel” are only used to fool people that they don’t question what deals rulers of Islamabad are making with Beijing.
China’s massive investment in neighbouring countries which are economically and militarily vulnerable, will be obliged for the Chinese help. The Chinese economic, technical and military assistance will establish bridges of trust, a common interest and ‘shared vision’ for the region. Beijing planners believe by establishing a network of these economic dependencies and friends, China will formulate unofficial alliances, and if these countries reciprocate that will help to defend interests of China and the region.
To achieve the above massive agenda, with so many complexities and challenges, the Chinese need to use the geographical position of Pakistan to advance their programme of making China great again.
In other words, the CPEC, and the Chinese ‘favour’ or ‘generosity’ should be understood in light of the above scenario. Take example of steel, in 2015, China had around 170 million metric tonnes of excess steel capacity. There were not enough development projects; and China had to ‘dump’ this surplus steel in the world market at a much-reduced price, which upset the trade market of steel in the world. 9
People of Pakistan should learn from plight of other nations who have suffered as a result of the Chinese investment. Also, they should look at views of people of other countries where the Chinese have invested or is still investing.
People in Kyrgyzstan make joke about Chinese labourers killing their donkeys and arranging ‘feasts’. The local people of Kyrgyzstan say: ‘Beijing’s plan to build a railway across their tiny country is more a threat than a potential boon.’ 10
One commentator from Kyrgyzstan said, the ‘China’s economic help is viewed as a huge magnet attracting all the small countries around it.’
Referring to the Chinese economic help, one salesman said: “We need them for economic growth, but if we’re not careful, we could lose our nation.” 11
Realising apprehensions of the weak countries, Xi Jinping in 2015 said:
‘China will never inflict its past suffering on any other nations. The Chinese people are resolved to pursue friendly relations with all other countries.’ 12
Despite this assurance, many experts fear that the ‘Chinese Dream’ is to build a new kind of empire which does not require physical invasion of foreign lands. When Chinese leaders say, they want to recover what they lost, it is clear that they mean the past glory. What they lost was their status as a great Asian military and economic power. Critics say, the Chinese have camouflaged their imperial designs. They want to establish themselves as a dominant Asian military economic power.
In view of writers like Tom Miller, China will not be able to ‘assert itself as a regional hegemon’, because of the strong presence of America in the region. He feels, countries like Japan and South Korea do not need the Chinese help, as they are powerful countries; and they are ‘competitors in the game of infrastructure diplomacy.’ Tom Miller asserts, ‘Xi Jinping’s vision of an Asian empire is probably a dream too far.’ 13
Many Pakistani analysts and economists believe that there is a serious threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty due to the financial burden, which Pakistan is undertaking because of the CPEC. Inability to pay will result surrendering certain areas to the Chinese. Already China is calling shots in certain parts of decision making.
Pakistan is not down yet, but China is already pressurising Pakistan to allow them to use Chinese currency in Gwadar. Question is for how long Pakistan will resist this pressure; and what will be the consequences of allowing Chinese currency in parts of Pakistan. A Pakistani Professor, Moonis Ahmar asserted:
‘The other side of CPEC will be unavoidable when in case of Pakistan’s failure to repay loans to China, Beijing will simply take control of Gwadar port and deprive Pakistan of its strategic asset.’ 14
The learned Professor is also concerned by ‘severe environmental and ecological implications of the CPEC’. Surely heavy traffic going in direction of Gwadar and Kashgar will have great impact on the environment of Gilgit and Baltistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, under the CPEC programme, construction of coal and gas based energy plants will result in environment mayhem. Sadly, both China and Pakistan are not remotely concerned about this.
Many Pakistanis regard the Chinese help and the CPEC has a blessing in disguise, as they desperately need financial help. Imran Jan, who is a pro CPEC writer and has special interest as an analyst on power politics, security studies and foreign policies of global powers, also thinks the CPEC is essential for the development of Pakistan. However, he also feels that views of Pakistani are gradually changing against the CPEC and what it has to offer. He writes:
‘Even one school of thought compares Chinese investment in CPEC with East Indian Company’s imperialist agenda. The soft image once China used to hold in Pakistani minds and hearts has started to erode through misguided and maligned social media propaganda. The propaganda to malign fruitful Chinese presence in Pakistan has been grasping more and more attention through social media. 15
The current Pakistani Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who is a business tycoon in his own right, feels the CPEC is great for Pakistan and the region. In his speech delivered in CPEC 2018 Summit he said:
‘The BRI is the vision of [Chinese] President Xi Jinping for the push for connectivity of China with the world. It is the project of a generation and, today, the CPEC is the visible part of the BRI. We are indeed privileged in the sense that CPEC will open Western China and Central Asia with connectivity to the sea with the most efficient route to the sea through Gwadar. 16
He said, the CPEC provides an opportunity to ‘all the people living in this region; and adds that the CPEC is a partnership between China and Pakistan. Really? Is it a partnership? Maybe we can call it a partnership of a senior partner and a junior partner, where one orders and the other obeys; or partnership of two unequal partners, where one partner will always work as a dominant and superior.
If Pakistani Prime Minister is happy, the ruling elite of Pakistan is happy; and the people of Pakistan don’t even care what is happening in Pakistan and in the region, perhaps I should also keep silent. But is it in the interest of Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir and the region? If in my considered opinion, it has a big hidden agenda; and can land Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir and the region in a big trouble, should I remain quiet? Is remaining quiet a sensible option, or is it a criminal negligence.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi thinks it is a new style of ‘working together’; and it will provide Islamabad a ‘platform for development. It integrates our own efforts for development with the package that CPEC provides’.
Maybe it is a new style of governance where within Pakistan 2 or 3 parallel governments and centres of power operate, and they try to dominate and subdue the others; even call it each other anti-state and traitor. Maybe, Pakistan does same in the international relations, where for the sake of political and economic benefits, and in some cases, for personal survival, countries don’t mind compromising with certain parts of sovereignty, as Pakistan has done a number of times in the past.
The learned Prime Minister talked about expansion of the ‘CPEC vision’, but did not articulate what is that vision and how it will help Pakistan and South Asia. If everything with the CPEC projects, and its future vision is satisfactory then, why I wonder, no one in the government comes out with the details people have been asking? Why is not transparent? Why so much secrecy is still surrounding with the CPEC projects?
Frustration with the CPEC and its projects can be summed up with one comment published with the speech of the Prime Minister, A Shah says:
‘Please no more CPEC. Tell me about other investments, development growth prosperity. Just not more lip service on CPEC.’ 17
For how long one can hear the same mantra again and again. Is there any other investment coming from other countries either because of the CPEC or what Pakistan can offer as an emerging market? What is the status of that investment, is it a loan or foreign direct investment? How is that going to help people of Pakistan and the struggling Pakistani economy?
Last year in a speech delivered in London on topic of the CPEC, I said, in order to pay off instalments of the existing loans and stabilise the economy, Pakistan will have to either go back to the IMF with a begging bowl, or obtain more loans from friendly countries like China and Saudi Arabia. Also, I said that because of the stigma attached with the IMF loans, and lofty claims that they have broken the IMF begging bowl forever, they may not approach the IMF; and more than likely will beg for help from Saudi Arabia and China.
That have proved true. Pakistan has gained some more money from Saudi Arabia; and in return they had hurriedly send some army to the Kingdom. A few days ago, State Bank of Pakistan confirmed that they have received ‘Chinese loans to stave off a foreign currency crisis as Islamabad finds itself caught in growing global pressure on emerging markets.’
Tariq Bajwa, the Governor of the State Bank confirmed that, ‘Pakistan received one billion US dollars’ worth of loans at “good, competitive rates” from Chinese banks last month after official data showed the country’s foreign currency reserves almost halved in the past two years. 18
I am sure before the end of this year; Pakistan will contact either China or some other lender to get a new loan to pay the instalments of the loans. This process of getting a new loan to pay interest of the existing loans will continue, until such time that Pakistan may end up losing certain aspects of its sovereignty in exchange of settling the loans.
It should also be pointed out that last week Pakistan has signed with China’s Central Bank a bilateral currency swap agreement worth 3.13 billion US dollars for three years. It is believed that this deal will help the parties to ‘facilitate bilateral trade and investment to help economic development in the two countries’; and enable two ‘institutions to exchange payments in one currency for equivalent amounts in the other to facilitate bilateral trade settlements and provide liquidity support to financial markets.’ 19
It is too early to say anything on ramifications of this deal, and how it will help the struggling Pakistani economy. However, one thing is clear, slowly but surely, Pakistan is sucked in to the Chines financial web. May Almighty help us all?
2. The other side of CPEC, Moonis Ahmar, Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi. Daily Times, May 11th 2018.
5. China’s Asian Dream, Tom Miller, page 9
8. Opcit, Tom Miller, Page 28
9. Ibid, page 49
10. Ibid, page 81
11. Ibid, page 81
12. Ibid, page 17
13. Ibid, page 19
14. Op cit, Monis Ahmar
15. Published in Daily Times, May 26th 2018.
CPEC 2018 Summit: A prototype for prosperity, By Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, https://www.dawn.com/news/1409495/cpec-2018-summit-a-prototype-for-prosperity
18. The News, 24 May 2018