CPEC can withstand questioning, security concerns My Country
The port city of Gwadar in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, the centerpiece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has been in the limelight recently, as a local five-star hotel frequented by foreign and Pakistani politicians and business people was stormed by multiple gunmen in May, stirring security concerns over projects under CPEC. Apart from security concerns, voices featured prominently in some Western media calling the economic corridor a “debt trap” for Pakistan seem to have clouded the multi-billion-dollar flagship project of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, which has made progress in recent years in areas including energy, transportation and port construction.
Such worries are largely illusions, a reflection of misunderstandings about China-Pakistan relations, notably CPEC, through the lens of Western media, Muhammad Naseem Khan Achakzai (Naseem), executive director of the Center for Sustainability Research and Practice at the University of Lahore in Pakistan, said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times (GT) in Beijing. In addition to dispelling undue fears over the flagship project, the Focal Person of Chief Minister of Balochistan’s Task Force on Youth, Sustainable Development Goals also shared his thoughts on the future of China-Pakistan cooperation.
GT: Before the May terror attack in Gwadar, the Chinese Consulate General in Karachi was also attacked in November. What do you think about the current security situation in Balochistan?
Naseem: No conferences were being held in the hotel when the attack happened. The terrorists took the opportunity of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, and tried to enter the port.
This was the first incident of its kind in Gwadar, looking at the scale of the attack and security situation in Gwadar, specifically Balochistan. That being said, since the announcement of CPEC in 2013, the security situation in the whole of Balochistan has improved substantially. From 2013 to date, figures show there’s been a rapid decrease in attacks and other target killings. The Pakistani military has a special division assigned for the CPEC project. The military is also planning to form another unit for the security of the CPEC project after the Gwadar attack.
The stability in Gwadar and Balochistan is very important for CPEC, since Gwadar is the heart and soul of CPEC. After the attack, Pakistan needs to and has already been acting more against the terrorist groups.
Also, the attack was not as foreign media tried to portray in a way to show Gwadar is unsafe. A massive attack will not be possible because the area is heavily guarded, especially taking into account the security personnel being assigned by the Pakistan military.
At the end of March, the second international Gwadar expo was held in the port city, with many high-level Chinese and Pakistan officials attending the expo. If there would have been a security issue, they would have avoided the meeting. Balochistan is on the road toward progress and stability under the dynamic leadership of Jam Kamal Khan, Chief Minister Balochistan.
GT: Will the security situation in Balochistan affect the construction of Gwadar Port and other CPEC projects?
Naseem: For the growth of CPEC, the Gwadar international airport will be built three years from now, so the port is now somehow operational. There have been housing entities coming to Gwadar. Gwadar will have its new master plan as well. There’s a lot of construction going on when it comes to development projects. Thanks to CPEC, a lot of people, mostly Pakistanis, are purchasing property, both residential and commercial, in Gwadar. If you search them online, you’ll find lots of properties there.
There are military troops and the local police who are guarding CPEC projects. The port is not accessible to everyone, only relevant employees.
Private investors might be afraid because the only source that they have is media. It’s all about perceptions and narratives. Since it’s a media war, a war of narratives, enemies do not want Gwadar or Balochistan to progress. It’s well understood that the development of CPEC helps improve Pakistan’s infrastructure and its economy. It’s beneficial for neighboring countries such as Iran and Afghanistan as well. If all goes smoothly, Pakistan will be an even stronger player in the South Asian region.
Terrorist incidents and attacks actually occur all around the world, but it seems some enemies have tried a little more to sabotage the friendship between China and Pakistan, CPEC, and stability in Pakistan.
Most of the time, people look at Pakistan from the lens of Western media rather than from their own lens. Someone would believe an article published by the Guardian, the New York Times, or whatever other foreign media, but they wouldn’t believe what Pakistani media, government officials or common people would say. So I don’t even slightly think that the myth created regarding the security situation would affect any progress.
GT: What should be done to improve Pakistan’s own production capacity and employment?
Naseem: Increasing technology exchange is one of the important things that should be done. That can be best practiced in the agriculture sector, as Pakistan’s economy is highly dependent on the agriculture sector. It is hoped that there should be greater cooperation in agricultural field between China and Pakistan for local farmers and land owners to have more produce. A lot of technology has been used in farming in China. The same can be replicated in Pakistan.
Pakistan also needs to focus even more on healthcare and education, and obviously under the umbrella would be needing further support in these sectors. Education and employment are directly interrelated in that improved vocational and technical training, in particular, could better prepare the local labor force for wide-ranging job opportunities enabled by CPEC. As the project goes further, more jobs will be created and an increase in engineering and exchange in technical know-how will be expected, factoring into the vision that there will be industrial zones around the CPEC route.
GT: How would you evaluate the development of Pakistan-China relations after Imran Khan took office?
Naseem: Some people took the opportunity and speculated that Imran Khan might have some reservations toward relations with China and CPEC, but it was not the case. He has some different priorities though. He focused more on attracting investment in the social sector. Within the CPEC project, the Chinese government is expected to help Pakistan build hospitals and schools. This is one of his focuses, which will directly benefit the people of Pakistan.
One thing that should be remembered is CPEC is not something solely in the interest of Imran Khan. Every Pakistani is a stakeholder in CPEC, because the project affects every single life in Pakistan.
GT: Regarding the construction of CPEC, there have been some disputes in Pakistan over the route selection. After several years of construction, is it still the case?
Naseem: There was a disagreement over the route, as everyone wanted a share of the CPEC’s cake. But it’s different now, with side links out there connecting the CPEC main route to all provinces. There’s no such issue pending right now.
Once there’s heavy traffic coming on the main route, there are side links attached to it, initially giving a boost to local tourism and local businesses such as restaurants. Everybody is excited about it.
If you travel from Quetta, capital of Balochistan, like recently I did, it’s 15 hours by road to Lahore. You’ll find restaurants roadside and people selling local products. Provided you don’t have a chance to shop for local gifts and souvenirs in Quetta, you can buy them along the way as well. Increases in traffic flow would bring more opportunities for local people in many different ways.
In cities like Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, the menus at some restaurants can be found in Chinese as well. Signboards in Chinese are also visible along the route toward Gilgit. Also, there are already local newspapers that have one or two pages published in Chinese. On top of that, WeChat is becoming a new trend in Pakistan nowadays.
GT: Will the prosperity of side links deepen debt woes about CPEC?
Naseem: Not all the side links or connections are under the auspices of CPEC. The provincial governments have the right to build the roads leading to the main route. So there are no debt strings attached.
I should be more worried about the IMF rather than China, because of a direct impact on the lives of common people. It has proved in the recent past that the offerings of financial help by the IMF have come along with a list of demands, some of which are hidden, while some are public. For instance, the fund demands more taxes to be imposed on Pakistani people. With China, this has not been the case. China has never asked the Pakistani government to impose taxes on Pakistani people.
The IMF should have shown some kind of leniency in its financial help to Pakistan. It shouldn’t have based its bailout package on tough terms.
GT: The US energy giant ExxonMobil discovered huge oil reserves in Pakistan near the border with Iran. If Pakistan discovers massive oil reserves, will this be good news for the Gwadar port and CPEC?
Naseem: It would definitely be great news for CPEC, in that the oil reserves would enrich Pakistan in terms of the oil sector. It might make Pakistan one of the top 10 oil exporters.
It can be directly attached to CPEC. Obviously, it’s a value addition for the CPEC project. I don’t think this will create a conflict between China and the US though, because the land belongs to Pakistan.
GT: What do you think of CPEC in terms of people-to-people exchanges between the two countries? How would average Pakistanis compare China and the US?
Naseem: If you ask an average Pakistani to name five cities in China, besides Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the fourth name might be hardly thought of. Similarly, average Chinese people might know nothing about Pakistan other than the Gwadar port, Islamabad or Karachi. This shows disconnection between common people.
Still, there have been signs of increasing people-to-people exchanges in recent years, an improvement from merely diplomatic exchanges some years ago. For instance, Pakistani students studying in Chinese universities have become ambassadors of the Chinese educational system in Pakistan.
Universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Cambridge are still considered typical of US or Western educational strength and status symbols. But they have created a bubble, which I’m sure will burst soon as Asian education standards are going up with each passing day.
Policies adopted by the Donald Trump administration have changed the perception of the US, not only among Pakistanis, but Muslims all around the world. They don’t want to go there. This has changed rapidly. Wherever they’re treated well, they’ll prefer that place, instead of being insulted in a place where they don’t belong.
Some certain classes in Pakistan – mostly the elites, you might say -they still prefer going to the US or Europe, even for vacations, because they don’t know of the thousands of tourist attractions in China. If they get to know about it, they’ll never want to go to Rome or New York. There’s a Disneyland in Shanghai as well. They might think a visit to the Shanghai one is a better choice in the future.
A delegation of Tsinghua University students came to Pakistan earlier this year, which I hosted. It was the first time they came to the country and there were four girls in the delegation who bought burkas, thinking they had to wear them, but when they landed in the Lahore airport, they found local girls in shirts and jeans as well.
This was a perception. If you don’t address it, you would think it’s a reality. If you go to Tsinghua now, I believe there would be few people left with misconceptions about Pakistan. The exchange between people has increased and should be a two-way road in order to have a long-lasting impact.
CPEC can withstand questioning, security concerns My Country