CPEC in the shadow of US anti-China strategies
The much-publicized remarks of Alice Wells, US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, regarding the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on Nov. 21, are notable for three reasons. One, it is the first public critique of CPEC by the US. Two, it opens up a debate regarding the path to development with strong ideological undertones. And three, it brought the Pakistan-Afghanistan region into the ambit of US anti-China strategies.
Ms. Wells targeted the Chinese Communist Party and critiqued its global economic reach as opaque, exploitative, a cause of corruption and debt, and one which compelled developing countries to cede sovereignty and diminish freedoms.
The theme of the great power competition is now a strategic norm that shapes the entire US global outlook. The US views China as a rival, a potential challenge to its primacy. It has sought to portray China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a vehicle to dominate Africa and Eurasia. It is working with the EU and NATO to impose roadblocks to BRI. In the process, a mindset of bloc politics is being revived.
Ideological aspects ensuing from the global debate on competing for development and economic models are merely an aspect of the underlying poignancy of the competition. China continues to underscore the need for coexistence, mutual accommodation, cooperation and the need to work for win-win outcomes. The BRI is premised on equal-footed cooperation by extending transport and communication networks for peaceful development.
The US has misread CPEC, as was clear by Wells’ comments and by criticizing CPEC, Washington intends to expand its anti-China Indo Pacific strategy to Pakistan.
The BRI is an inclusive concept open to the participation of all interested parties, including the US. China has put forward its theme of ‘shared destiny’ and put forth a holistic view of a prosperous future for the people of the world. A high degree of altruism makes BRI attractive for developing countries.
CPEC is a flagship project of the BRI, with China committing roughly $70 billion to develop infrastructure, ports, energy, industry, social sector, and agriculture in Pakistan. A large component of CPEC financing is through soft loans with long repayment periods.
A billion-dollar grant was given to Pakistan for social sector development. The road link between China and Pakistan is being upgraded. Gwadar port is a new addition. Several energy projects including renewables have been completed. Plans are afoot to extend CPEC to Afghanistan by extending A-grade infrastructure-roads and rails- linking that landlocked country to the Arabian sea. Essentially, CPEC is a convenient label to describe a collection of Chinese assisted economic development projects. As a corridor, CPEC’s future direction is to the west.
But this is not exclusively a corridor to China — it is open to the participation of all countries. Lately, Japan and some European countries, as well as the Gulf states, have shown an interest in participating in CPEC.
The concept of ‘CPEC- Plus’ is certain to become an operating norm. The US has misread CPEC, as was clear by Wells’ comments and by criticizing CPEC, Washington intends to expand its anti-China Indo Pacific strategy to Pakistan. This could be hugely consequential for the interests of regional states and for US interests in this region.
In response to Wells, Pakistan and China have dismissed the US criticism with facts and reason. It has been pointed out that Pakistan’s CPEC related debt liability is only $4.9 billion out of a total debt of 74 billion, which is less than 10 percent of the total liability. Chinese financing has been transparent and the IMF has evaluated Pakistan’s debt servicing requirements including loans for CPEC.
Washington’s negative view of CPEC is most unfortunate, even though Pakistan has repeatedly expressed its sincere intent to revive its relations with the US. American and Chinese interests converge in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. CPEC could be an excellent means to concert international efforts for economic and social development for Afghanistan and the region. Pragmatism demands that the US and China cooperate in areas where their respective interests converge. This means collaborative efforts for promoting peace and development in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
*Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.