A lot of rumours have been doing rounds to assess the ultimate aims of China behind Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a mega project started in 2013 by Xi Jinping. It is indeed described as the most significant economic and infrastructural project in recent world history. It can also be compared with the Marshall Plan because China will be able to further its strategic interests through BRI. China can counter US hegemony in the world through the institutions associated with BRI. In this regard, South Asia and Pakistan are vital for China to materialise BRI in its true essence.
Also Read: Belt and road
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can have far-reaching ramifications not only for China but for Pakistan as well. It will also boost trade in Central Asia and beyond. However, there are some challenges for the Pakistani government vis-a-vis CPEC. Instability in Baluchistan can hamper the dividends of this mega project. Baloch separatists want to undermine CPEC. Natives fear that foreigners and outsiders will flood Baluchistan and they will turn into a minority in their homeland. None of the governments took pains to redress these legitimate concerns. Eventually, this allows India to fill this vacuum. Kulbhushan’s arrest from Baluchistan attests this assertion. The other major problem in Baluchistan is sectarian violence. The recent atrocity in Hazarganji is a glaring illustration. Hazara community is paying with their blood for decades. These bigots and terrorists do not want CPEC to flourish.
Myopic politicians cannot see beyond the immediate horizon. The incumbent government left no stone unturned to demonise CPEC while in opposition. Xi Jinping had to postpone his visit to Pakistan in 2014 due to PTI’s ‘dharna’. Some believe that there is a proper campaign to vilify CPEC by hostile elements, and this current economic crisis is engineered to subvert CPEC. Debt traps, corruption charges, instability and terrorism, are the standard tools to retard this project.
The progress on CPEC cannot be isolated from the situation in Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan is viable for Baluchistan, for CPEC, and ultimately for the region. Those who see BRI as a threat to their strategic interests, do not want a peaceful Afghanistan. America has allowed IS or Daish to thrive under its watch. The US wants to restrict China to this region by engaging it in countering terrorism. The peace process initiated by America through Zalmy Khalilzad with Afghan Taliban will impact on the future of Afghanistan, the future of this region, and the future of BRI.
India is playing on both sides of the fence in BRI. It is opposing CPEC due to its lame concerns vis-a-vis Gilgit Baltistan. However, India is a part of BRI through BCIM corridor, but the work progress on that corridor is not up to the mark due to India’s uncertain stance. That is why China is focusing more on CMEC. This corridor will provide China with a land-route to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is also crucial for BRI. It can be a maritime hub in the coming days. It will be beneficial for China’s landlocked provinces. However, internal politics in Bangladesh is making it challenging for China to see the completion of CMEC promptly. Awami League, the incumbent government, is considered to be an Indian allay. Moreover, Bangladesh’s economy needs to rely on America because it is the major importer of Bangladesh’s garments. So, the strategic environment impedes prospects with China.
Hambantota port in Sri Lanka helped the opponents to term BRI as ‘debt trap’ because Sri Lanka was unable to pay. Detractors use it as a case study for vulnerable countries. But it’s a unique case. China has provided debt reliefs to more than 80 projects in the past. Hambantota port will enable China to keep an eye on offshore energy supply route.
It is believed that China wants a corridor consisted of China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Kazakhstan. Landlocked Central Asian states are much dependent on Russia for trade. Bilateral trade is minimal in Central Asia. This corridor will connect Central Asian nations to the rest of the world. These states will be transit states in operations, and the process will promote and bolster trade in the region as well. This corridor can connect Europe to the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and South-East Asia and beyond. Central Asia was the part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, so the political environment there is more suitable to China. This corridor can be an instrument for a prosperous Xinjiang, where instability exists for decades.
The response from Russia is yet to come. Central Asian states cannot be divorced from Russian influence. If China gets more leverage through the corridor mentioned above, Russia can respond by countering Chinese dominance in the region.
Opportunities always come with challenges. Political instability, corruption, economic crisis, conspiracies by different countries to settle the strategic scores, terrorism and extremism, uneven bilateral relations between the states, and inconsistencies in policies by respective governments are the major obstacles for BRI.
(This news/article originally appeared in The Nation on May 6th, 2019)