Is ChiPak Coming Unstuck?
Beijing’s mandarins like to describe relations with Pakistan as “all-weather”. But in recent weeks, the sunny forecast has turned to a rare bout of stormy weather. On December 8, the Chinese embassy in Islamabad issued a public warning, saying “terrorists are planning a series of attacks targeting Chinese organisations and people in Pakistan”. The warning, covered widely in the Chinese media, led an expert in Shanghai to say “the attacks could threaten Chinese investment in Pakistan”.
The subtext, according to two Asian diplomats in Beijing, is a growing Chinese discomfort over both security and other arrangements for ongoing projects under the $46 billion ChinaPakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a network of roads and power projects running from Kashgar to the Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, running through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
In May, two young Chinese were abducted and murdered in Quetta. Pakistan accused them of illegally preaching for South Korean missionaries, and Beijing duly limited media coverage at home over their deaths.
Perhaps the bigger concern for Beijing is differences over several CPEC projects. First, Pakistan surprised Beijing by announcing days before a CPEC planning meeting that it had withdrawn the $14 billion Diamer Bhasha hydel project because of “strict” Chinese financing conditions that were “against our [Pakistan’s] interests”.
Then, a Chinese company all but stopped work on the $2 billion Lahore-Matiari transmission line because of “differences with the government” over setting up a revolving fund, reported Pakistani newspaper Dawn, which also claimed that at the November planning meeting, Beijing conveyed it would stop funding for three major road projects as well because of corruption concerns. Chinese officials, however, insist the meeting went smoothly. “We commend Pakistan for attaching high importance to both the project and safety of Chinese citizens,” foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said on December 11.
The view among some scholars in Beijing is that CPEC’s long-term viability is uncertain unless it can be linked up with other regional projects under the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan. Some officials say this would require bringing on board India, which is the region’s biggest market but opposed OBOR as its flagship corridor violates India’s sovereignty in PoK. Curiously, China’s envoy to India, Luo Zhaohui, last month again revived his offer to rename CPEC to acknowledge India’s concerns. Luo was speaking at Delhi’s JNU, but whether he had Beijing’s backing remains unclear as the Chinese foreign ministry declined to endorse his offer.
Indian officials believe the likelihood of China renaming CPEC or, as Luo suggested, building an alternative corridor to J&K, remains remote, considering China’s general deference to Pakistani sensitivities. Whether the gathering of storm clouds over the “all-weather” relationship will alter that equation still remains unclear.
TRACK RECORD A Pakistani policeman guards Chinese workers during the inauguration of a metro train line in Lahore on October 8, 2017 ARIF ALI/AFP