Corona, CPEC and our economy


Naveed Aman Khan

WILL Corona Virus outbreak create havoc in Pakistan and hamper the ongoing progress on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects? This situation has put Pakistani authorities in a fix. Thousands of Chinese working on CPEC projects left for China last month to celebrate the New Year and might not be returning soon without proper screening. Their return can possibly cause the Corona Virus epidemic outbreak for a longer time in Pakistan as some of the Chinese might be potential carrier of latent and active Corona Virus. On the other hand if they don’t return soon, the progress on CPEC projects will be slowed. Corona Virus will have some repercussions on the CPEC projects and China will not send any of its national to Pakistan without completing two-week quarantine time. The delay in Chinese workers’ return will slow down the CPEC projects and subsequently hamper the country’s economy.

At present the number of Chinese nationals working on different CPEC projects in Pakistan is around sixteen thousand. Besides CPEC, thousands of other Chinese are residing in Pakistan for business purposes or working on some other projects. A majority of them had left for China to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their families. Their early return to Pakistan will pose a serious threat as some circles have expressed doubts that there are chances some of the Chinese workers might be carrying latent or active Corona Virus. Pakistan not only lacks the screening kits for such a large number but it has no adequate facilities for the treatment of this pandemic. Whether China will send back its workers to resume the ongoing projects or will it delay their return until they finish the mandatory two weeks of quarantine period in China.

Till 2018, China has already injected a sum of US $27 billion in Pakistan for different CPEC projects. An amount of US $19 billion was to be spent in Pakistan till June 2021 which seems impossible now. During the PML-N regime the progress on CPEC projects was not only satisfactory but many projects were completed before time. The year of 2017 was the peak time when maximum projects were being carried out under the CPEC. The total number of Chinese nationals working on CPEC projects in 2017 was 19,583. Currently around sixteen thousand Chinese are working on the CPEC projects. The number of Chinese nationals is reduced because some of the projects have been completed. A total of 2,022 companies with Chinese subscribers or shareholders are registered with the regulatory body as of December 31, 2019. Similarly, 167 Chinese companies are also registered with SECP. The total number of Chinese residing in Pakistan is far more than working on CPEC projects. January 25, 2020 was the Chinese New Year and thousands of Chinese citizens working in Pakistan left for China.

There were several projects related to Gwadar, the heart of CPEC, but unfortunately the speed of the work on these projects remained very slow. The work on East Bay Expressway 19 kilometre was started in October 2017 and the due date of completion of this project was October 2020. It is still under construction. Almost 70 per cent work on this project has been completed. The project was delayed due to technical issues as three bridges have been added. It will now be completed in April 2021. The other projects including five MGD desalination plants, 300MW Coal Fired Power Plant, Gwadar Free Zone, 30MW captive power plant were approved by the last JCC of PML-N government held in November 2017. Significant progress has been made on these projects. Very soon significant progress will be seen on Gwadar Port Break Water as well as Gwadar Port Dredging. The Pakistani side had proposed four road infrastructure projects including Mirpur-Muzaffarabad-Mansehra 200km project of road infrastructure, Gilgit-Shandoor-Chitral 359km, Nokundi-Mashakhel-Panjgur Road 290km, Keti Bandar Sea Port Development Project. The 7th JCC had given go ahead for conducting the technical feasibility study of these projects. The present government squandered its first year and did not take the CPEC projects seriously. However, the two visits of Prime Minister Imran Khan during 2019 gave a push to CPEC projects.

Early harvest projects ranging from three to five years have more or less been completed. These projects were related to energy and road infrastructure. The upcoming mega projects which will be started very soon include ML-1. This project is basically dualization and upgradation of 1872 kilometres railway track from Peshawar to Karachi. The project was supposed to be inaugurated during the previous regime, however, due to some technical hitches it was delayed. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) had offered the financing of Pakistan Railways upgradation. The previous government had proposed that both the ADB and Chinese government should finance the railway upgradation. Chinese didn’t like this idea. Both the sides have reached an agreement vis-à-vis ML-1 projects but the financing issues are still unresolved. It isn’t decided yet whether the financing of Pakistan Railways upgradation should be done in dollar or RMB. The Chinese government will now spend US $1 billion under the socio-economic programme in Pakistan in coming years. The Chinese will now carry out different programmes in least developed areas of Balochistan and the KP provinces. Corona Virus undoubtedly has badly jolted entire world including Pakistan and China. No one knows about the fate of different projects of CPEC. The London-based known expert on CPEC, Malik Muhammad Ashaq, is optimistic enough of timely control of Corona virus. He believes that for the control of Corona virus Pakistan will have to follow the example of China. The only way of survival is precautionary measures. The more we take safety measures the better it is. Control on outbreak of Corona Virus will be a great success.