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Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif has hailed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a harbinger of change for the region. But analyst Siegfried O. Wolf tells DW the project comes with a big price for Islamabad.
On Sunday, November 13, Pakistan's top civilian and military leaders inaugurated a new international route which connects the country's renovated southwestern Gwadar port to the Chinese city of Kashgar as part of a joint multi-billion-dollar project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The first convoy of Chinese trucks carrying goods for sale abroad arrived in the South Asian country on Saturday, and the Pakistani authorities saw them off on Sunday.
Last year, China announced CPEC worth $46 billion (41 billion euros). With the project, Beijing aims to expand its influence in Pakistan and across Central and South Asia in order to counter US and Indian influence. CPEC also includes plans to create road, rail and oil pipeline links to improve connectivity between China and the Middle East.
Pakistan is grappling with an acute economic crisis. Experts say that CPEC can certainly stir the much-needed economic activity in the country.
In his speech on Sunday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that CPEC would benefit some three billion people in the region.
"The participants of the pilot convoy, who have made it to Gwadar, are the harbingers of development and progress, that this region is to see soon," Sharif told audience at the ceremony that included his country's powerful army chief Raheel Sharif and senior Chinese officials.
"The Enemies of CPEC are enemies of Pakistan," Sharif said, vowing to provide security to all foreign investors.
The security situation in Baluchistan, where Gwadar is located, is worsening, with "Islamic State" (IS) claiming two large-scale attacks in the past few weeks. On Saturday, the group attacked a Sufi shrine in the Lasbela district of the volatile Baluchistan province, killing at least 50 worshippers.
The Baluch separatists strongly oppose CPEC, saying that the bigger Punjab province want to reap all the benefits while using their lands and resources to implement the project. Ignoring the concerns of the local communities and their leaders, Islamabad vowed to continue with CPEC at all costs. The military says that those opposing the economic corridor plan are against Pakistan's economic prosperity and are "traitors."
Will CPEC prove to be a game changer for the Pakistani economy? How is the domestic opposition to the project and a deteriorating security situation complicating Islamabad's ambitions? In a DW interview, Siegfried O Wolf, a South Asia expert at the University of Heidelberg, who is currently researching CPEC and has written several scholarly papers on the issue, talks about some of the pressing questions related to the project.
DW: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says the project would bring unprecedented progress to Pakistan and the region. Do you agree with his statement?
Siegfried O Wolf: The CPEC project will open the way for Chinese investments in Pakistan. This is much needed as Pakistan is trying to reduce its dependence on the US support, which Pakistani authorities think could be further at stake when India-friendly US President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January.
CPEC has the potential to boost the South Asian country's national economy but not all Pakistani provinces will profit from this economic "game changer." We see that provincial asymmetries related to infrastructure, energy projects and budget allocations are skewed in favor of the Punjab province, where the Pakistani civilian and military ruling classes hail from. Also, areas like Gilgit-Baltistan will be severely affected by the negative impacts of CPEC projects, particularly on the environment. Additionally, the economic corridor project will most likely lack regional connectivity. In other words, Pakistan's deteriorating relations with India and Afghanistan will hinder the reach and scope of the project.
Security problems have mired CPEC with numerous militant attacks in Baluchistan and other parts of the country, but Beijing says it is confident the Pakistani military is in control. Can Islamabad ensure security for the project?
CPEC's success depends largely on regional stability, security, and rule of law. Without these guarantees, Chinese companies will be hesitant to make more investments beyond the current agreements. Consequently, Pakistan is stepping up its security engagement regarding CPEC - the deployment of an increased number of troops along the CPEC route and new counter-terrorism policies accompanied by special laws to empower the military and its intelligence services are some examples.
Despite the fact that the number of terrorist attacks in the country has dropped, terrorists are still able to carry out major attacks. There is a big question mark on Pakistan's ability to secure CPEC projects.
Some analysts say that CPEC would benefit China more than Pakistan. Some even say it would turn Pakistan into china's "economic colony." What is your take on that?
These new Chinese investments could boost Pakistan's economy but at the same time it will also create dependency. The CPEC projects come with a price. Besides infrastructural and economic linkages, Beijing is also aiming for security and political connectivity. Islamabad will be expected to align its political decision making with Beijing's approach towards South Asia and beyond. Subsequently, the argument that CPEC will turn Pakistan into China's client state will be strengthened.
Last year, China and Pakistan signed deals related to energy and infrastructure projects worth $46 billion
IS has claimed two attacks in Baluchistan in the past few weeks. Is the group expanding in the province? Will it be a problem for Pakistan's CPEC implementation?
There is no doubt that IS activities are increasing in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. It definitely poses a serious challenge to CPEC. We must not forget that terrorist organizations like IS and al Qaeda are critical of China's handling of its Uighur Muslim population. There is a threat that these groups will identify CPEC projects as potential targets in their so-called "jihad against China."
Much will depend on how Pakistan's security establishment deals with this new threat. With the impending decline of IS in Iraq, we should expect an influx of more jihadists not only in Syria but also in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Which countries in the region are opposing CPEC, and why?
Every country in the region, including India and Afghanistan, is in favor of regional economic cooperation. However, the main problem with CPEC lies in the fact that China is trying to gain strategic and political leverage in Pakistan by increasing connectivity through economic linkages. The fact that CPEC is combined with a remarkable increase of security and defense cooperation between Islamabad and Beijing can be identified as an indicator that CPEC goes far beyond trade and economic collaboration. This has alarmed Indian policy makers.
Also, the fact that CPEC includes the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan inside Pakistan will create further problems. The area is close to Kashmir, South Asia's major conflict zone. Getting strengthened by CPEC in those areas, some Pakistan-based terrorist groups could seek to destabilize India-administered Kashmir. This will have international repercussions.
Siegfried O. Wolf is a researcher at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute. He is also the director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).
The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.