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CPEC – A Historic Model of Regional Connectivity

By: Shahzeb Khan
The construction of CPEC should be availed as an opportunity for Pakistanis to reflect at the big picture regarding where our nation stands in the world, taking into account its political, social, environmental and geographic dimensions. Pakistan, a vast region in Asia bounded by mountains, was created to be a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent. But Bangladesh broke away in 1971, so it is now just a country for Muslims in the dry, dusty, western corner of the subcontinent, sustained mostly by the monsoon rains and the Indus Basin, the ecological backbone of the country. Despite the loss, Pakistan is now the world’s sixth most populous nation, with more than 200 million people, and is the most powerful Muslim country. It is a semi-industrialized regional power.

A nation cannot exist in a vacuum. In order to prosper, it needs to link up with the wider world and its neighborhood is the best place to start. But in this regard, Pakistan is in a very difficult situation. Its main neighbor is India, geographically speaking the easiest country for Pakistanis to move to and fro, but perpetual Indo-Pak hostility limits commercial linkage and makes crossing the border fraught with political hazards that include indefinite jail time for unsuspecting stray travelers. This has been the situation for seventy years. Second-longest border is with Afghanistan, a nation ravaged by war, its economy and infrastructure in a shambles and militancy reigning supreme. This has been the situation for forty years. Another significant border is with Iran, which is dealing with multilateral economic sanctions because of its hostile relations with the US. It has constantly been under both US and UN sanctions, badly affecting its economy and access to world trade which makes it not an ideal business environment. This has been the situation almost for the last four decades.

China {which is also an adversary of India} shares a comparatively small border with Pakistan. China- Pakistan relationships are extremely cordial. China is also a superpower, the world’s second richest country and the most populous nation-state.

Yet, when it comes to Pak-China relations, even here, a problem of a completely different sort stands in the way. The brief border of five hundred and twenty three kilometer is right in the middle of the Karakorum Mountain Range. To get from China to Pakistan means crossing wide stretches of extremely rugged terrain and enormous mountains where there is little human life. Pakistan and China struggled for decades to open up a land route by building the Karakorum Highway, the world’s most scenic highway known as the eighth wonder of the world, which crosses into China through the Khunjrab Pass at an altitude of 15,397 feet.

Pakistan is not landlocked, of course. A nation with a coast can connect with the entire world by way of the ocean, provided it has maritime capacity. Most of Pakistan is far away from the ocean and would be better served by linking with the surrounding land. A glance at Pakistan’s map makes it clear that the nation is superbly suited for trade flowing across the soil of Asia in addition to maritime trade.

It is in this context that Pakistan and China have embarked on the CPEC venture. The CPEC project is working to reconstruct and improve the historic Karakoram route to allow commerce to more easily move between Pakistan’s northern areas and adjacent areas of China and Central Asia. It is also opening up the whole length of Pakistan for free flow of commerce by expanding and improving Pakistan’s transport networks and infrastructure. Finally, it is building up Pakistan’s seafaring capacity with the expansion of the port city of Gwadar. Under CPEC, commerce will move north and south across Pakistan between China and the Arabian Sea. Pakistan will thus be integrated with the world economy by way of the ocean and the north. Previously, commerce in the area was integrated with lands to the east and west, a defining feature of the region throughout history.

It is this unique fact about CPEC which makes it so remarkable a project in human history. When faced with insurmountable political conflict and internecine border hostility on other fronts, the peoples of Pakistan and China countered the problem by launching an epic struggle to overcome the challenges of mother-nature and ended up with the remarkable achievement called the Karakorum Highway. This unique success is the essence of CPEC. Nobody for the last several decades has been able to resolve the Kashmir issue and calm the violence ragingin Afghanistan. But the builders of the Karakoram Highway struggled heroically to tame the great mountains of the north and succeeded in accomplishing one of the world’s most superb feats that is now the seed of CPEC. This is a whole new ballgame. Though at its genesis lies the bilateral effort of Pakistan and China, it cannot but grow into a model of regional connectivity that will attract many more nations in the near future.

The economic integration between China and Pakistan may bring opportunities for achieving peace in Afghanistan, better relations with India, a resolution of the Kashmir issue and a brighter role for Iran. The prosperity and connectivity generated by CPEC is likely to also bring to an end the violence and tension within the Chinese Uyghurs region as well as within Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Prosperity and hope of a better future cement people together in a bond, ending the separatism originally instigated by endemic deprivation. CPEC will bring Pakistan and the region it occupies countless opportunities. We only have to avail them properly and choose wisely from the options in front of us.

Meantime, CPEC presents an interesting case study of how two nations, faced with political challenges around them, turned to overcoming the challenge. Mother Nature presented and opened a new corridor of regional connectivity that made political conflicts around them a moot point.