The $ 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) offer extended during President Xi Jinping’s visit is a historic development opportunity for Pakistan. More than 50 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) and agreements in various sectors including energy, infrastructure, security and economic development were signed between the two countries. The corridor is a planned network of roads, railway and energy projects linking southwest Pakistan’s deepwater Gwadar Port with northwest China’s Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region. China is expected to invest $ 34 billion in energy projects and $ 12 billion in infrastructure. Some $ 15.5 billion worth of coal, wind, solar and hydroelectric projects will be completed by 2017. China and Pakistan are set to cooperate in gas, coal, and solar energy projects to provide 16,400 megawatts of electricity — roughly equivalent to Pakistan’s entire current capacity. Chinese firms would advance loans to local Pakistani firms to set up infrastructure projects on low markup rates subsidized by the Chinese government with a 15 years timeframe. Among these deals, the setting up of coal-based power plants in Thar is significant because the country’s economy cannot entirely rely on traditional means to generate electricity. And the green energy produced through solar and wind plants will help decrease negative environmental effects.
Despite the positive prospects of development for both states, security fears linger over the CPEC that involves major construction in some increasingly restive areas in Balochistan. Making the stalled Gwadar Port functional can put the country on the path of progress. Yet there are challenges that need to be addressed first. The significance of Gwadar as an alternative port linked with China (and later Central Asia) warrants undoubted attention. The port lies near the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, east of the Strait of Hormuz through which much of the Middle East’s crude oil passes. But linking Gwadar to the rest of Pakistan and on to the western Chinese city of Kashgar, 3,000 kilometres away, would involve major infrastructural work in Balochistan. The project is part of Beijing’s plan to expand its trade footprint across South Asia and give it easier access to the Middle East, South East Asia and Europe via Gwadar Port. But there are questions over Pakistan’s ability to absorb this investment given its chronic problems with militancy, separatism, political volatility, inefficiency and corruption. Pakistan faces a number of challenges regarding this most ambitious project. Currently, internal and external transport linkages are missing in Gwadar besides other infrastructural facilities that have so far kept away investors. Gwadar’s only usable link with the rest of the country is the Makran Coastal Highway, but this means transporting goods via Karachi, a long and inefficient detour. Unless Gwadar is linked northwards with the national highway grid, the dream of a second port may not come true. Planning in its proper sequence is required. There is a big difference between wishful thinking and planning. Unlike in the past, proper planning of the development of Gwadar will help reduce the country’s dependence on Karachi Port that handles the international trade of Pakistan and has become overcrowded and a bottleneck. In order to tackle the challenge of unrest, the government needs to review its policies regarding Balochistan. There is a general resentment among the Baloch people due to their alienation from the mainstream government policies and decisions. The Baloch people should be made a part of and stakeholders in the economic corridor. The government should adopt a rational approach instead of relying only on military operations to curb the nationalist insurgency, and that too without addressing basic Baloch concerns. The history of insurgencies in Balochistan shows the difficulty of solving the problem through the use of force alone. A nuanced approach needs to be adopted to resolve Balochistan’s long running issues politically. On the other hand, the extremist religious separatist movement in the Chinese province Xinjiang needs a different treatment because such movements (as we have learnt to our cost in Pakistan) are not amenable to reason. China needs to apply wisdom to tackle these extremists by isolating them from the people and winning hearts and minds in the restive province. China has already started work on this long road to peace and development by extending generous largesse to Pakistan. It is now up to Pakistan to make the best of this golden opportunity.