China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the jewel in the crown of China’s trade and maritime connectivity megaproject, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The multi-billion dollar initiative, that connects Pakistan’s Gwadar Port with China’s Northeast province of Xinjiang, reached a ten-year milestone this year despite its fluctuating performance, controversial nature, and recurring challenges. Pakistan and China showed commitment to CPEC as it bears immediate and long-term strategic benefits for both countries. On the one hand, the project brought investment crucial for Pakistan to deal with the economic crisis while on the other hand, it offered China an alternate avenue to address its strategic challenges and explore markets far beyond its borders.
Continued Crisis and All-Weather Friendship
CPEC left its biggest impact on the energy sector of Pakistan. However, even though Phase I predominantly reversed the trend of prolonged hours of load-shedding across the country, the high-stakes involvement of Chinese companies in the investment and returns of these energy projects continuously raised concerns about the just distribution of their benefits throughout the decade. After all, energy affordability remains low in the country and indigenous power generation still constitutes only a lower portion of the mix. Furthermore, as energy- though high-priced, brought the netizens out of darkness, shadows of criticism also began to consolidate against CPEC.
Insurgency in Baluchistan, over the course of the first decade of CPEC, has remained a critical challenge for the smooth execution of this project. Moreover, movements and protests in Gwadar, the vital part of CPEC that makes this project global, also presented renewed obstacles for this mega project. However, Pakistani officials conveniently classify these acts as anti-CPEC supported by hostile neighbors in the region and this argument may not lack substance, especially in the wake of Narendra Modi’s loud and persistent support towards the Baloch “separatist” cause and India’s various alleged attempts at sabotaging the smooth progression.
Despite of all the challenges, it is important to note that even though the faint whispers from separatists in Balochistan grew louder, threats from its neighbor exacerbated, and warnings from the West came pouring in, Pakistan has remained positively indifferent to any criticisms of China’s approach to economic integration. The entire political elite continuously reiterated its support for CPEC and official ceremonies continue to recognize the booming potential of CPEC for the country’s socioeconomic development.
China’s determination to maintain the project is also astounding as work on CPEC projects continued to progress even after targeted attacks on Chinese nationals and workers in the form of assassination attempts. In fact, as Pakistan’s economy crumbles down- with the balance of payment crisis, massive debt burdens, record-high inflation, industry shutdowns, and severe brain drain, the projects face only an interim standstill rather than permanent closure. Therefore, a decade of Sino-Pak collaboration on this megaproject represents more than an initiative of cooperation and development. It reflects the necessity of the two states whose national interests coincide just like their geographic boundaries despite numerous challenges.
Longstanding Relationship and Geopolitics
For instance, in an attempt to shield the global competitiveness of its economy from the Malacca Dilemma and disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing landed in the warm water port of Gwadar, which offers a shorter, smoother, and safer route into the Indian Ocean. Once operational, the network of roads, pipelines, railways, and ports will find an outlet in the oil and gas fields of the Middle East, lay the blueprint for China’s lines of communication via land and sea, and provide access to the thriving markets of Central, East, and South Asia.
On the other hand, against the backdrop of severe power shortages faced by Pakistan in the first half of the previous decade, CPEC arrived as its savior from the crippling energy crises. When Beijing and Islamabad officially signed the $46 billion agreement in 2015, the cross-border corridor prioritized energy generation which resulted in the successful formation and ongoing operations of coal-fired power plants at Sahiwal, Port Qasim, Hub, and Thar.
Therefore, while it may be foolish to ignore the controversies and criticisms directed at CPEC, it is totally unwise to deny its mutual strategic significance for Beijing and Islamabad which remains pivotal in the evolving regional and global geopolitics.
Lessons from the Decade
Countless reports refer to this initiative as a “trillion-dollar blunder” and “a humbling experience” for China’s ambitions based on the delayed (in)completion of the projects, stalling investments, and corrupt bureaucratic involvement since the inception of CPEC ten years ago. However, sustaining these challenges remains the true lesson of a decade of CPEC.
China’s rivalry with the West and its regional conflicts are only rising, and its threats to shift the global order are only gaining momentum, thereby fueling China’s ambitions toward CPEC despite Pakistan’s fall into the fold of its own political crisis, socioeconomic collapse, and internal instability. On the other hand, as allies turn their backs on the debt-stricken economy of Pakistan and announce no intention of rekindling their ties, the country’s future looks bleak, and its present appears highly dependent on the developmental efforts of China.
Even though desperation seems to guide the motivation of Beijing and Islamabad, the extent of their mutual dependence represents an acute asymmetry. China’s connectivity projects are continuously expanding their footprints in the ports of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Iran, road and rail networks of Europe and Asia, and markets of the entire world- and supporting its growth as the second-largest global economy. In contrast, Pakistan relies on China’s assistance in reviving its role as a key regional player.
As a result, Pakistan may not be able to leverage its position with China if the opposition and hostility towards CPEC are not brought under control. The country remains in dire and immediate need of investor confidence, job creation, and infrastructure to plunge out of its current catastrophe like it once did out of the darkness of power shortages with the assistance of CPEC.
Hence, after a decade of slowed performance and sustained potential of CPEC, Pakistan must learn its lesson to give momentum to this megaproject by encouraging the role of the private sector and countering any narrative that blames China’s presence for the state’s internal crises. It must fix the true evil of political inconsistencies, government failure, and bureaucratic delays that might force CPEC to succumb to the pressures of bureaucratic fraud and international criticism. After all, being a country on the brink of default, with faltering ties with the West, and an increasingly isolated presence in the region, Pakistan cannot afford to lose the consistency and reliability it finds in CPEC that shines a ray of hope on its prospects of survival, sustenance, and stimulus in the next decade.
Author is member of Youth Access Program of the Pakistan Council on Foreign Relations (PCFR) and can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Coverpage’s editorial stance