Co-option of Pakistan: A New China Perspective

~ By Zulfiqar Shah

Pakistan has kicked off a new chapter in its strategic as well as economic history, which essentially can be dubbed as Sinification of Pakistan society and state. This would be first-ever initiative over seventy years history of the country that Pakistan has decided a major and futuristic shift in its strategic policy and planning.

In 2015, Pakistan and China launched China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) worth Chinese investment as well as interest free debt of US$ 46 billion. CPEC consists of several projects of roads, pipelinesandenergy infrastructure.Both countries have signed 51 agreements and memoranda, which also includesUS$ 33 billioninvestments in energy sectorand a US$ 44 million communication strategic project of China-Pakistan fibre optical cable.

The project connects China with Gawadarand Karachi Ports through road infrastructure. The major concern for China isoil security through this mega-engagement in Pakistan. The project would reduce the distance between China and Africa as well as with Europe. This is four-fold plan that includes Gawadar Port, transport infrastructure, energy and industrial cooperation.

The Chinese engagement with Pakistan haspromising as well as grey areas for the people of Pakistan.

Transformation of Pakistan

Some experts foresee that such a mega investmentwould transform Pakistan society in terms of political economy. Pakistan faces a decline in foreign investment. It also faces economic instability, particularly due torising unemployment. It is said that through CPEC 700,000 jobs would be created, which would change the face of Pakistan society. Pakistan already confronts inter-provincial disagreements over distribution of resources, excessive centralisation and one province’smonopoly over resources, employment and over state structures. This project would potentially create further economic cushion for Punjab province through projects and employment opportunities. This would probably further intensify the conflict among Pakistani federating provinces. Such apprehension has been expressed through statements by the Chief Minister of Sindh. CPEC is no doubt a major economic engagement and creation of job opportunities thatcould transform Pakistan society; however it seems that the transformation would limit itself to the Punjab province.There areno doubt some aspects of infrastructure development that would have long-term sociologically impacts on whole Pakistan. It is the political economy of the country that would decide whether these impacts are positive and inclusive for all.

Challenges

Pakistan is readying 4000 security personnel to protect Chinese personnel in Punjab province who would be involved in different projects under CPEC. The pool of Chinese security component in Pakistan wouldrise to 21000, up from 17000 already providing security to the Chinese. Chinese engineer and officials involved in various projects in Balochistanare already facing serious security risks.

Pakistani armed forces has undertaken various military operations against secessionists in Balochistanduring last couple of decades; the latter have suffered serious setbacks. However, the Balochsecessionists are still strong enough to resist CPEC and there are possibilities that the road construction and other projects may be delayed due to the Baloch insurgency.

China also plans to use ports of Sindh. Apart from CPEC, China intends to open about 17000 industrial units in Sindh. This would further cause non-Sindhi migration into towards Sindh from Punjab. Sindhi people are already protesting against Zulfiqarabadproject. The government has recently allocated 50 thousand acre land for Bahriya town in Karachi, a project by armed forces to construct settlement facilities for hundreds of thousands.It is expected that Sindh nationalism would protestagainst further marginalisation of Sindhi people reacting to the possibility of hegemony of one province (Punjab)in the context of CPEC.  There are possibilities that Sindhi nationalists may launch people’s movements.

Meanwhile, the possibilities of disturbance by religious extremists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are almost non-existent.

Strategic Isolation

Pakistan is feared to further tilt towards China and isolate itself in the regional perspective. Pakistan would have benefited from CPEC if it would have engaged with other international actor’s economic interests.The Afghanistan scenario and the developments in the region suggestthat there are possibilities thatin the long term,delayed development in Gawadar Port may limit Chinese activities amid communication insecurities.

Recently, Iran and India have signed 12 agreements worth US$ 500 million including for the Chahbahar Port project. Besides, a three way transit accord was signed among Iran-India-Afghanistan. It seems that land-locked Afghanistan would strategically inch towards Iran in the context of Chahbahar and Bandar Abbas. This would further isolate Pakistan in the region regarding its designs to choke Afghanistan and Central Asia in the context of their dependency of Gawadar and Karachi Ports. This probably would give fillip to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

CPEC is the major strategic and economic shift in Pakistan’s seven decades history of statecraft and foreign policy after its alliance with USA against Soviet Union.Pakistan’s internal factors, political economy, federal conflicts, and the absence of progressive economic policy would reduce the benefits of CPEC. Regional developments may isolate Pakistan in the wake of CPECin the Central and South Asia. There are possibilities that Pakistan would go Sinicised in the coming decades.

The author is a Sindhi refugee from Pakistan currently staying in India. The views expressed are his own. 

(This article appeared in India Foundation Journal, May-June 2016 issue.)

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