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Chinese face hurdles in Pakistan

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In what could be considered a crucial development, Chinese National Development and Reform Commission Vice Chairman Ning Jizhe (寧吉喆) on Thursday last week said at the 10th Joint Cooperation Committee meeting of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that “high-quality operation” and “high-level security guarantees” are required to make the CPEC successful.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar

In another equally interesting development with long-term implications, Pakistan is now trying to include Taliban-led Afghanistan into the CPEC project. Clearly, while China is looking for greater security and safety of its investments, Pakistan is keen to include the Taliban, knowing full well that the project’s security depends on the Taliban.

The CPEC was widely hailed as a “game changer” when on April 20, 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and then-Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif signed 51 agreements and memoranda of understanding to launch US$46 billion of projects.

More than six years down the line, Chinese investments in Pakistan in general, and the CPEC in particular, have become a conundrum for Beijing.

Initially planned as a US$45 billion project, today, CPEC-linked projects are altogether valued at more than US$60 billion. Over the past few years, Beijing has pumped in more than US$50 billion into the controversial corridor connecting the city of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province to Xinjiang.

However, if recent developments are any signal, it is clear that China has been unable to achieve its desired outcome. Ning’s statement and Pakistan’s efforts to include the Taliban indicate that.

China’s CPEC dreams are held hostage to bureaucratic delays, lack of coordination between Pakistani agencies and their Chinese counterparts, and lack of law and order. The rise in violent acts of rebel groups, which are discontent with the prevailing situation in areas where China is trying to make its investments a reality, makes it even worse.

The Taliban’s spillover on Pakistan, especially in the context of the rise of radicalism, would also have a direct impact on Chinese projects in Pakistan, particularly in the latter’s vulnerable remote areas. An increase in the number of attacks and the Taliban takeover pose a twofold challenge for China in Xinjiang and along the CPEC.

A series of events on the corridor has made it clear that the CPEC’s security remains one of the most critical challenges confronting China, putting the long-term efficacy of the project at risk.

A crucial event in that context took place on July 14, when an attack by rebels claimed the lives of 14 people, including nine Chinese engineers and employees of China Gezhouba Group Co working on the US$4 billion Dasu hydropower project.

Located in the Kohistan region in the north, the project is the largest Chinese investment in Pakistan. The Dasu project has a total projected installed capacity of 4,300 megawatts. If and when completed, it could help Pakistan deal with its massive electricity crisis.

The attack led to the postponement of the 10th Joint Cooperation Committee meeting. In July, the Dasu project was suspended owing to the security situation. Interestingly, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the project was temporarily suspended, while adding that it was not part of the CPEC. How the situation unfolds remains to be seen, but it is clear that the inimical attitude of the Pakistani Taliban toward Pakistan creates risks for Chinese projects.

Even if the Dasu project is not a part of the CPEC, the fact remains that it is a massive Chinese project that was suspended after the attack.

That puts a question mark over the ease of doing business in Pakistan, and the government’s inability to protect Chinese investments and nationals.

After Dasu, a suicide bomber in August attacked a motorcade carrying Chinese workers who were deployed at the East Bay Expressway project in Gwadar.

That was the second violent attack within a one month targeting Chinese nationals working on CPEC projects. That these events coincide with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan make China and its projects even more vulnerable.

The rise of the Taliban 2.0 in Afghanistan is sure to lead to many unpredicted developments for all its neighbors, including China, even though the latter has tried to keep things under control.

However, the CPEC has never been just about ports and infrastructure. It also has strategic purposes. The CPEC directly impinges on India’s interests, as it passes through disputed territory claimed by India and Pakistan.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was inaugurated with the launch of the CPEC as its first project, with India seeing the Chinese initiative and the CPEC as detrimental to its territorial sovereignty, economic interests and diplomatic position in the region.

The CPEC and China’s presence in the subcontinent have India at the center. Relations between China and Pakistan have also been premised on the India factor. Containing India in the subcontinent and presenting a two-front geostrategic challenge is a binding factor for the China-Pakistan “ironclad friendship.” That made India the first country to voice its concerns about the initiative and the CPEC.

Although China tried initially to convince India to join the BRI bandwagon, it never tried to make the initiative inclusive, open and transparent. The inclusion of the CPEC into the BRI framework shows China’s motive of countering India in the region and presenting another challenge in the name of the CPEC. The China-Pakistan nexus has posed a grave challenge to India’s security for decades, and the CPEC is an addition to that.

Apart from the India factor, developing the area bordering Pakistan serves China’s interests, aiding its western development program and helps keep the Xinjiang issue under control. For years, China has acted on the premise that economic development would curb unrest in Xinjiang. However, terror attacks on the CPEC targeting Chinese nationals can only aggravate the situation for China. The rise of the Taliban 2.0 could spiral up matters in Xinjiang, although China is doing its best to keep things under tight control.

China is in a tricky situation. It is going to be one of the first few countries to recognize the Taliban. Providing legitimacy to the Taliban serves Beijing’s security interests as it is more concerned about spillover effects on Xinjiang and wants to secure Taliban support in curbing the activities of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Given that Xinjiang has been a cause of concern for China, and despite China’s strict control over the region, Beijing is insecure about its authority on Xinjiang. Over the past few years, China has taken several repressive measures in Xinjiang, including the much-discussed camps where millions of Uighurs are being “re-educated.” While China’s decision to grant legitimacy to the Taliban is directly linked to its security concerns in its west, the Taliban have also expressed its willingness to be a part of the CPEC.

Even if the Taliban considers the economic benefits and participates in China-Pakistan projects, that would only contribute to further loss of credibility for the CPEC and the BRI. With the upshot in violent attacks on the CPEC and the potential involvement of the Taliban, the problems for Chinese investments in Pakistan are nowhere near cessation.

This article was first published on Taipei Times website on Oct 1, 2021

Last Updated: 04/10/2021