The controversy of the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) has once again re-emerged, when the Balochistan government issued its report regarding the route on July 26. The report, entitled CPEC: The Route Controversy, mainly argues that the federal government does not consider the concerns of the federating units about changing the route, which will affect inter-provincial harmony and create discord among the provinces.
Earlier, the ruling parties and opposition of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had severely criticised the federal government’s decision to build the eastern route, rather than the western route that mostly passes through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Later, the federal government assured the opposition and ruling parties of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan that both the routes will be built. The report has been made on the basis of the three proposed routes, while considering their pros and cons in term of socioeconomic benefits as well as environmental impacts on the country. The three discussed aspects of the report are: population density, total area under cultivation along the route and total production of the major crops. The report claims, “Despite denials the route has been changed to pass through central Punjab.”
The CPEC faces some other challenges as well. The most serious challenge is militancy (in the case of the western route). Our external rivals will never want the Kashgar-Gwadar route to be built because it is a blow for anti-Chinese and anti-Pakistani elements in the region. In the western route, militancy is the main challenge, for which the government is making serious efforts. To control militancy and extremism in the region, China is facilitating the reconciliatory process, especially between the Afghan government and the Taliban which is underway. The said process will help bring peace in the region, as well as pave the way for the proposed Kashgar-Gwadar route. If China does not succeed in truly bringing peace to the region, it will never start practical work on this project.
If the western route faces security threats on one hand, the eastern route will face natural calamities on the other. The western route passes through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, which are less susceptible to natural calamities while the Eastern route is prone to floods in the monsoon. Another natural factor in the eastern route is fog. In most of the plain areas, there is fog in winter that will affect the operation and flow of traffic of this busy international route. This factor should also be taken into consideration.
China’s megaprojects always comply with national interests, rather than promoting sense of deprivation in a section of society. In the case of changing the Kashgar-Gwadar route, a sense of deprivation and negative feelings in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan will be created against the central government as well as China. This matter will negatively affect the Chinese image in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Furthermore, China’s good image in Pakistani society will be affected by this discord. The eastern route would be feasible because of the existing road and rail infrastructure but, on the other hand, Punjab and Sindh are comparatively more developed as compared to Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which needed development.
Pakistan’s access to the Central Asian Region (CAR) and other north-eastern countries are vital and will be facilitated by constructing a western route. Through the eastern route, our access to India will be easier, which is comparatively less important than the north-western side. Although the government says that both the routes will be built, the new route will be built first and the old one later; the government’s plans seem dubious. The Gwadar port’s location, as compared to the Dubai port, is of vital importance. The Strait of Hormuz, Dubai is a narrow way, through which only a few ships can cross at a time. On the other hand, Gwadar is a deep sea port and is located at the mouth of the Gulf, which increases its significance as compared to Dubai and other sea ports of the region.
The Chinese government has started work to set up a special economic zone in Kashgar, known as new Kashgar city. In this city, the investors will benefit from the tax-free zone and other government concessions. The said city will include residential areas, hospitals and other basic facilities. This will prove to be a mega trade city in the region. Albeit initially, the project seems economic in nature, it has strategic aspects in the long run as well. From an economic point of view, it will serve China as a short and safe route to the Middle East, Arab world and Europe, which is the need of the day. China’s giant industry needs imported Oil, Gas and other raw materials from the Middle East and Africa. For these products, they had to pass through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca, which is costly as well as unsafe.
Furthermore, the Kashgar-Gwadar corridor is indispensable, because to transport cargo from Gwadar highways or rail links are needed, by which containers could be transported to China as well as other parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and CAR. The Kashgar-Gwadar route will fulfil these major necessities. However, this route is the victim of internal politics nowadays.
From a strategic point of view, the Indo-US nexus in the Indian Ocean is a threat to China’s trade route because of the fragile relations of the latter with the other two. Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, once said during his visit to India, “In US’s new military strategy for Asia, India is a ‘linchpin’ and wants to expand its military partnership and presence in the arc extending from the western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.” Taking into account India’s potential power, its relationship with the US and pre-eminence in the region shows that India wants hegemony over the region. India’s late former president, Dr Abdul Kalam, once said, “India will soon become a world power with influence spreading across the Indian ocean , the Arabian Gulf and the four corners of Asia”.
Additionally, strategic significance is also vital for China. Gwadar is a short distance to China as compared to Chabahar, where India has invested heavily. This project is a crevasse in India’s hegemonic designs in the region. Moreover, India’s involvement in Chabahar and China’s involvement in Gwadar show that both want a strategic presence in the Arabian Gulf.
The most important stakeholders in this debate are the people of Balochistan. With Gwadar being located in Balochistan, the development of Balochistan is a pre-requisite for the successful accomplishment of this project. Similarly, it will also play a role to considerably minimise the Balochistan insurgency. Beyond intrinsic interests and provincial or political favouritism, the government should be provident in the construction of the Kashgar-Gwadar route. It should be decided with consensus, while juxtaposing the pros and cons of both the routes. Additionally, it must not aggravate inter-provincial discord. The government should also take into consideration the changing geopolitical situation in the region, now that the Iran nuclear issue has been resolved. Now that Iran has called upon India to invest in Chahbahar, we should start work on this megaproject while keeping in view our national integrity and interests.
The writer is a researcher and freelance columnist based in Peshawar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org