Pakistan’s Great CPEC Mirage

By Khurram Husain
A road construction site near Balochistan’s city of Turbat. (PakistanWeek photo)

If you think China is gearing up for another round of massive business investments in Pakistan then I have a power plant to sell you. No such thing is about to happen and all the noise around a revival of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is either wishful thinking (at best) or a way to camouflage what really is going on.

Here is one way of knowing that CPEC is not on the cusp of a major revival: there is no mention of any such thing from the Chinese side. This is one thing I have learned in my years of watching Pakistan-China relations. Be wary of what you hear from official Pakistani quarters until you hear the same thing from official (or even semi-official) Chinese quarters.

The Chinese state has multiple sources from which to issue statements. One is the foreign ministry spokesman. But these can also come from other government functionaries, with or without attribution. Below this level, there is their media, which is entirely state-controlled, and where the editorials published can often be trial balloons or reflections of official thinking, which has not yet congealed into policy. Additionally, there can be news reports that cite developments in Pakistan and report statements by Pakistani officials, going on to cite Chinese officials on the same topic.

Any utterances from these quarters are meaningful. But so far on CPEC, there is silence. Con­si­der a few examples. On May 29, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, published a report quoting Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif talking about CPEC. The report quotes Sharif at length, saying “Pakistan desired to further enhance its cooperation with China in various sectors including agriculture, information technology, and energy un­­der the second phase of the China-Pakistan Econo­mic Corridor … a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, the prime minister said while cha­iring a meeting on Pakistan-China cooperation”. But the report ends without a single reciprocal quote from the Chinese side about CPEC. Its concluding sentence is illustrative. “Launched in 2013, the CPEC is a corridor linking the Gwadar Port in southwest Pakistan’s Balochistan province with Kashgar in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which highlights energy, transport, and industrial cooperation in the first phase, while the new phase expands to fields of agriculture and livelihood, among others.”

That’s all. Now notice something about the final sentence. First, it says CPEC is a corridor that links Gwadar with Xinjiang. This is consistent with how the Chinese have talked about CPEC all along. Even in their Long-Term Plan drawn up in the heyday of CPEC a decade ago, they did not talk about a China-Pakistan economic corridor. That document always mentioned a Xinjiang-Pakistan economic corridor. And the plans detailed therein talked about the economic benefits that would accrue to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region from greater integration with Pakistan, including access to Pakistani yarn for value addition in Xinjiang, and access to Gwadar for exports.

Next, notice how the report mentions agriculture as a possible field for expanding cooperation, and something vague called “livelihood”. It makes no mention of IT and energy, two other priorities mentioned in Sharif’s statement. This shows diminished interest on the Chinese side for getting further involved in Pakistan’s economy and its myriad dysfunctions and liquidity shortages, volatile politics and security challenges.

In mid-May, Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar travelled to Beijing to attend the Fifth Round of the China-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, following which a joint statement was issued. Some mention of CPEC was made in it, specifically an agreement to “accelerate progress on major connectivity projects including upgradation of ML-1, the Gwadar Port, realignment of Karakoram Highway Phase II, strengthen cooperation in agriculture, industrial parks, mining, information technology and other fields according to local conditions”. Of these ML-1 is a mirage, a multibillion-dollar project. At the outset, the Chinese refused even to pay for the costs of its feasibility. There is little to no chance that Pakistan will take on a $6bn-$7bn loan to pay for this project. We’ve been hearing about it for years, but it is a mirage.

Regarding Gwadar Port, China has made it clear that the responsibility to build connecting infrastructure between Gwadar and the rest of the country is Pakistan’s. Let’s see if they can afford this. We will find out in due course what it means to “strengthen cooperation” in the list of fields the statement lists, but it would not be a good idea to hold your breath while we wait for the facts to roll in, “according to local conditions”.

That statement was most emphatic and specific when talking about security. Every statement since then has followed suit in laying emphasis on security.

The warmest words coming from the Chinese side towards Pakistan were back in November 2022, when Shehbaz Sharif met Xi Jinping in Beijing and a joint statement was released. That statement lays out China’s view of growing industrial cooperation with Pakistan and adds the following: China “hopes the Pakistani side will provide a sound business environment”. Then in the next sentence it says “President Xi expressed his great concern about the safety of Chinese nationals in Pakistan…”.

So what exactly is Shehbaz Sharif going to China for in a visit which we were originally told would take place in May? Here is my guess. The IMF does not want its resources being used to service Chinese debt obligations, and has told the government that an agreement will only be possible if there is no positive net outflow from Pakistan to China during the programme period. This means rescheduling some of the maturities in the slew of Chinese debt instruments maturing in the next three years. And this is proving to be a hard sell for the Pakistani government. This approach is what they are dressing up as a relaunch of CPEC for public consumption.

The writer is a business and economy journalist.

X: @khurramhusain

This article first appeared in Dawn, click here to go to the original.

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