Pakistan must seek CPEC 2.0
Pakistan’s relations with China are an excellent example of the end results of pursuing national interest. The two do not share the same religion nor are they culturally aligned. The past decade has witnessed a phenomenal new dimension to their bond which was thus far predominantly limited to diplomatic and strategic cooperation. The Sino-Pak ties grew at an uncharacteristically faster pace, thus becoming prone to honest mistakes, strategic miscalculations and vested interests. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, an integral and crucial arm of the One Belt and Road Initiative, overwhelmed the nation. The otherwise nitpicky parliament didn’t bother looking at the terms and conditions of the economic cooperation worth $60 billion and more, without concerns for the leaders’ respective districts and constituencies. The short political interests of the parliamentarians and politicians soon pushed the country into a geo-economic abyss.
Prime Minister Imran Khan did not mince his words on the campaign trail, seeking transparency about the CPEC-related projects and questioning his predecessor’s priorities. Beijing has been listening to the Pakistani leadership and bureaucracy – civil and military alike -- while doling out money for the projects. The metro-bus and motorway project did not impress the premier either. Now at the helm, the man has some serious choices to make and some tough talking to do. Beijing is alarmed and ready to hear him out and address his concerns. Yet again, what is worrying is not his intent but his team’s homework.
China, however, will be a different ballgame. As a tough negotiator that talks from a position of strength, more so in the case of Pakistan, the Chinese lobby is strong and its stratagem shrewd, not to be confused with a bad intent for its southwestern ally. Khan is not a regular politician either. His unpredictability is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) asset. Pomp and show doesn’t impress him. He neither has a dynasty to groom nor a lobby to serve. So what can an observer say about Khan’s assessment of what Pakistan’s needs are?
Evidently, the PTI leadership has found itself in a mess much worse than anticipated. Khan is rightly fixated with reviving the economy by injecting liquidity for the short term and a win-win investment in the long term. The government will seek to renegotiate the terms of certain key projects where either the cost or interest is exaggerated. The economic burden of the CPEC is no more a myth and the rather delayed trip to China is about negotiating the CPEC 2.0, with vivid signatures of efficiency, austerity and viability. Power-generation and agriculture are Pakistan’s primary needs with low or no-risk investments.
Amidst US President Donald Trump’s trade war, Beijing must be convinced to relocate some of the under-fire industrial sectors to Pakistan along the CPEC network.
China has proven its mettle as a production house of heavy-duty equipment for solar and wind energy units. The list of orders has piled up, exposing a wide supply void. Khan must shift focus from hydrocarbon-fed expensive electricity production to harnessing the potential of wind and solar energy. Seeing potential profits and a substantive market, the delivery of units could be sped up, too. Though dams are expensive propositions for power generation, they remain Pakistan’s existential need nonetheless. The PTI has learned it the hard way that finance for mega-dams can’t be crowdsourced, especially when the buying power of the people is being undermined by perpetual taxation and pilferage of the state resources. It’s high time for Pakistan and China to renegotiate the details of the Diamer-Bhasha dam but outside the ambit of the CPEC. Islamabad did not oblige China owing to its hyper-strict conditions for funding the project terming them “not doable and against our interests”. Beijing, on its part, had sought ownership of the project, the operations and demanded to charge maintenance cost, to name a few. The 4,500 megawatts hydropower project remains shelved due to a lack of funds, which have not attracted impressive results despite an active appeal for crowdsourcing. A further delay is only going to increase the cost of the mega project without diminishing its significance.
China’s impressive feat in agriculture is a story less told. Not only does the country export agricultural and dairy products but also stays at par with the latest innovations and research in the field. Pakistan has much to learn from countries like China on the one hand, and Australia and New Zealand on the other. In the 1980s, Pakistan was an emerging star in innovating agri-appliances and developing better seeds. Yes, it was before the cancer of nepotism hit the agricultural research institutions. Khan must link the revival of Pakistan’s agricultural sector with the logistical network created using the Chinese investment. By all means, the country’s agricultural produce can easily compete in the nearby and profitable GCC markets and bring home the much-needed foreign exchange.
Islamabad has realized that an imbalance of trade with China, especially in the industrial production sector, hit the economy hard. Amidst US President Donald Trump’s trade war, Beijing must be convinced to relocate some of the under-fire industrial sectors to Pakistan along the CPEC network. Khan must seek Chinese President Xi Jinping’s support to revive the local industry and ensure its at par with global standards. Alas, Khan’s itinerary does not include a day-long visit to Shenzhen, a technology city that Pakistan must try to emulate over and over again.
The relations between the two neighboring Asian countries have evolved from strength to strength despite unforeseen challenges and limitations. President Jinping and Khan can’t cement the ties to boost their strength with strictly due-diligence, compassion and pragmatism. The friends of Islamabad can’t provide $6 billion every now and then. There are no better options than reviving the economy while striving for an efficient and accountable governance.
– Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the GCC with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. Besides other honors, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Twitter: @naveed360