CPEC: A difficult dilemma awaits

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Muhammad Usman

THE US rolled the ball against BRI much earlier; a dream enterprise by China, entailing an outlay of over $ One Trillion and stretching over to three continents while taking more than 68 countries in its fold. Now it has specifically homed on CPEC which is its flagship plank. Its glimpses were seen when US diplomat, Allice Wells visited Pakistan, a few days back. She urged Pakistanis to ask tough questions on CPEC. Ostensibly for altruistic reasons but in reality aimed at Pakistan to listen the US attentively before it turns to typical arm twisting. Her contention was repetition of what she said during a conversation in Nov 2019. Probably it was the reason that prompted Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan to dismiss it outrightly as a repetition of old slander. In her conversation, she questioned CPEC in terms of exorbitant cost which it incurs, debt it heaps on Pakistan, transparency which it does not reflect and mean jobs which people of Pakistan could only get. She charged China of promoting own brand of development whose cream it skims off. She also took pains to remind Pakistan the need to know that China is providing loans, not the grants as US does.

Some critics have termed remarks of Allice Wells in Pakistan about CPEC, an unusually specific diplomacy by US. With this, one could apprehend that how much the difficult dilemma which Pakistan has to face with narrow margin of decision. On one hand, there is a time tested friend “China” and CPEC itself which is considered necessary largely to jumpstart logjam Pakistan’s economy. On other hand, it is the US which holds bundle of sticks to harm Pakistan and also the enormous leverage to ditch China in its global economic aspirations. The gravity and urgency of situation at hand would surely test Pakistan to the last reservoir of its diplomatic astuteness and resourcefulness. The CPEC could turn out to be a boon or bane. This depends upon us, how we make our choices and extract the yield.

On the global chessboard, great game is on. Main contest is between US and China. With CPEC, inevitably Pakistan is also in. The US wants to deny China access to Arabian Sea through CPEC which eventually opens the gateway to large part of the world. Though power of US is waning, yet it still possesses enough power politically, militarily, economically, ideologically, culturally and technologically to challenge China effectively. More importantly, it still has the will left to maintain its supremacy unilaterally despite domestic constrains. Except economically, China lags behind considerably on other planes to present itself a counterweight to the US. In absence of this, China may be unable to curry support/favour even from countries on ambit of BRI. These countries need to have sufficient incentives/insurance from China to jump into the fray or stand with it in face of wrath or displeasure of the US.

At present, even Chinese’s economic engagements with other countries are more questioned than admired. This does not auger well for a complex and gigantic initiative as of BRI. Concomitantly, Chinese leadership needs to introspect in depth on related aspects if they want to trade worldwide through BRI because in world, trade is by flag only, not based on benevolent intentions. Since ancient times, this is the practice. The trade caravans of stronger tribes had safer passage to the destinations whereas caravans of weaker tribes used to be robbed en route. Time may change but humans do not change and so as reasons of international rivalry and fundamentals of might. The onus of this realization is more on China because BRI is its baby. It may have to travel a long distance over a long haul to match the might and influence of US globally. For this, China may have to phase its enterprise to gain time in order to acquire commensurate power/influence.

Main contention of US is on connectivity through road projects which are integral part of Chinese initiative as also denoted by its nomenclature – Belt Road Initiative. Given power equation between US and China, this part needs second look or at least its operation as planned. On these grounds, in context of CPEC, Pakistan should impress upon China to undertake the reappraisal in interests of mutual pursuits. Frankness is essence of friendship which both share abundantly. Specifically this may imply slowing down road projects but work on economic projects need to be stepped up. This would help Pakistan to regain its economic equilibrium. Most likely, in this scenario, US would also tend to be well inclined towards Pakistan because CPEC involves two countries which figure prominently in its strategic calculations, not necessarily for same reasons but for diverse reasons. US could not afford excessive Chinese influence in Pakistan in comparison to its own. US also needs Pakistan for its interests in Afghanistan. Under present fiscal woes, Pakistan is constrained greatly particularly, if US applies threats of FATF, IMF, retiring of debt, slump in remittances from Gulf countries and war-like conditions on both borders. Pakistan needs to buy time. Pakistan also had time and money in the past courtesy its strategic location but rulers squandered both leisurely for petty personal gains. The Providence looks to be generous on us but we should not take it granted. We need to spend acquired time/money with max effectiveness for the sake of the country. The clock is ticking fast.