For Pak­ista­nis, China road runs one way

‘Friend­ship High­way’ has no ben­e­fit for Pak­istan

Kuwait Times - - LOCAL -

The China-Pak­istan Friend­ship High­way runs over 1,300 kilo­me­ters from the far western Chi­nese city of Kash­gar through the world’s high­est moun­tain pass and across the bor­der. For China, the two-lane thor­ough­fare sym­bol­izes a blos­som­ing part­ner­ship, nour­ished with tens of bil­lions of dol­lars of in­fras­truc­ture in­vest­ment. But for many Pak­istani busi­ness­men liv­ing and work­ing on the Chi­nese side of the bor­der, the road is a one way street.

“China says our friend­ship is as high as the Hi­malayas and as deep as the sea, but it has no heart,” said Pak­istani busi­ness­man Mu­rad Shah, as he tended his shop in Tashkur­gan, 120 kilo­me­ters from the moun­tain pass where trucks line up to cross between China’s vast Xin­jiang re­gion and Pak­istan. “There is no ben­e­fit for Pak­istan. It’s all about ex­pand­ing China’s growth,” Shah said, as he straight­ened a dis­play of precious stones.

The re­mote town of around 9,000 is at the geo­graphic heart of Bei­jing’s plans to build a ma­jor trade artery-the China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor (CPEC) — con­nect­ing Kash­gar to the Ara­bian Sea port of Gwadar. The project is a crown jewel of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) ini­tia­tive, a mas­sive global in­fras­truc­ture pro­gram to re­vive the an­cient Silk Road and con­nect Chi­nese com­pa­nies to new mar­kets around the world. In 2013, Bei­jing and Islamabad signed agree­ments worth $46 bil­lion to build trans­port and en­ergy in­fras­truc­ture along the cor­ri­dor and China has up­graded the treach­er­ous moun­tain road bet­ter known as the Karako­ram High­way.

While both coun­tries say the project is mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial, data shows a dif­fer­ent story. Pak­istan’s ex­ports to China fell by al­most eight per­cent in the sec­ond half of 2016, while im­ports jumped by al­most 29 per­cent. In May, Pak­istan ac­cused China of flood­ing its mar­ket with cut rate steel and threat­ened to re­spond with high tar­iffs. “There are all of th­ese hopes and dreams about Pak­istan ex­ports,” said Jonathan Hill­man, a fel­low at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton. “But if you’re con­nect­ing with China, what are you go­ing to be ex­port­ing?”

This is not al­lowed

One an­swer is Nige­rian “male en­hance­ment” sup­ple­ments: ex­pired med­i­ca­tions which Pak­istani mer­chants in the oa­sis city of Hotan re­cently ped­dled to bearded Mus­lims walk­ing home from Friday prayers. The prod­ucts were typ­i­cal of the kinds of small con­sumer goods brought by Pak­istani traders into Xin­jiang: medicine, toi­letries, semi-precious stones, rugs and hand­i­crafts. Pak­istani busi­ness­men in Xin­jiang see few ben­e­fits from CPEC, com­plain­ing of in­tru­sive se­cu­rity and capri­cious cus­toms ar­range­ments.

“If you bring any­thing from China, no prob­lem,” said Muham­mad, a trader in the an­cient Silk Road city of Kash­gar, who de­clined to give his full name. But he said tar­iffs on im­ported Pak­istani goods are “not de­clared. To­day it’s five per­cent, to­mor­row maybe 20. Some­times, they just say this is not al­lowed”. Three years ago, Shah was charged between eight and 15 yuan per kilo to bring lapis lazuli, a blue stone. The duty has since soared to 50 yuan per kilo, he said. Cus­toms of­fi­cials said the “el­e­ments in­flu­enc­ing prices were too many” for them to offer a “def­i­nite and de­tailed list” of costs.

While large-scale im­porters can ab­sorb the tar­iffs, in­de­pen­dent Pak­istani traders have ben­e­fited lit­tle from CPEC, said Hasan Kar­rar, po­lit­i­cal econ­omy pro­fes­sor at the La­hore Univer­sity of Man­age­ment Sci­ences. Alessan­dro Rippa, an ex­pert on Chi­nese in­fras­truc­ture projects at Lud­wig Max­i­m­il­ian Univer­sity Mu­nich, said the high­way “is not very rel­e­vant to over­all trade” be­cause “the sea route is just cheaper and faster”. The project is bet­ter un­der­stood as a tool for China to pro­mote its geopo­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests and help strug­gling state-owned com­pa­nies ex­port ex­cess pro­duc­tion, he said.

Maybe it will be good

Traders also face over­bear­ing se­cu­rity in China. Over the last year, Bei­jing has flooded Xin­jiang, which has a large Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, with tens of thou­sands of se­cu­rity per­son­nel and im­posed dra­co­nian rules to elim­i­nate “ex­trem­ism”. Busi­ness­men com­plain they are not al­lowed to wor­ship at lo­cal mosques, while shops can be closed for up to a year for im­port­ing mer­chan­dise with Ara­bic script. In June, on the 300 kilo­me­ter trip between Kash­gar and Tashkur­gan, driv­ers were stopped at six po­lice check­points, while their pas­sen­gers had to walk through metal de­tec­tors and show iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards.

Signs warn that of­fi­cials can check mo­bile phones for “il­le­gal” re­li­gious con­tent. Po­lice of­fi­cers in­ter­rupted an in­ter­view in Tashkur­gan to de­mand a shop­keeper hand over his smart­phone and com­puter for in­spec­tion, an event he said oc­curs sev­eral times a week. Shah said that when he first ar­rived in the town, the in­tru­sive se­cu­rity made him ner­vous: “But now I’m used to it. I al­most feel like I’m one of the po­lice.” As he spoke, an alarm sounded.

He grabbed a crude spear, body ar­mor and a black hel­met off his counter and rushed into the street, where po­lice had as­sem­bled over a dozen peo­ple for im­promptu counter-ter­ror­ism drills. The ex­er­cises are held up to four times a day. Stores are closed for sev­eral days if they do not par­tic­i­pate. Back in Kash­gar, Muham­mad hopes that CPEC will make life bet­ter, but he be­lieves the op­pres­sive se­cu­rity will re­main an ob­sta­cle. He plans to give it an­other three years. But, he said, he can­not wait forever: “Many peo­ple have al­ready gone back.”—AFP

TASHKUR­GAN: This pic­ture shows a woman col­lect­ing wa­ter from the Karakul Lake be­fore the Karako­rum moun­tain range next to the China-Pak­istan Friend­ship High­way, near Tashkur­gan in China’s western Xin­jiang province.—AFP

SRI­NA­GAR: Vil­lagers carry the body of Akeel Ahmed Bhat, a teenage boy, dur­ing his fu­neral pro­ces­sion in Haal vil­lage, about 47 kilo­me­ters south of Sri­na­gar, Indian con­trolled Kash­mir.—AP

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