The New Phase of CPEC


Muhammad Abbas Hassan

CHINESE President Xi Jinping, in 2013, announced his visionary plan for infrastructure development and investments in 152 countries and named it Belt and Road initiative (BRI). This multi trillion dollar project is an attempt to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future. The BRI has six main economic corridors which are named as; (1) the New Eurasian Land Bridge; (2) the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor; (3) the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; (4) the Bangladesh-China- Myanmar Corridor; (5) the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor; (6) the China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor. Out of the six corridors only China Pakistan Economic Corridor is a bilateral project.

CPEC consists of three phases; Short Term (2015-2020), Medium Term (2021-2025) and Long Term (2026-2030). The early harvest projects were primarily focused on the essential infrastructure that was a prerequisite for an industrial revival in the country. So when all the energy projects, roads and Gwadar port were being built, it was compared to the parallel of a debt trap. As the details were not easily available, the notion picked up pace and the projects started to suffer from all the bad publicity. This poor branding raised questions even in the minds of the people who were aware about the importance of this project. This criticism is still persistent and the international actors are all out to tarnish the image of CPEC whereas, in reality the situation is totally opposite.

However, in reality the time to reap the real benefits of CPEC has just started. The backbone of CPEC is the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) which will be built across the country to facilitate industrialization and large scale manufacturing. The investors will be given special preferential privileges under the SEZ Act of 2016. This would not only create jobs for the local population but would also boast the exports of Pakistan. On 3rd January 2020, the ground breaking of first SEZ called Allama Iqbal Industrial City took place in Faisalabad. Faisalabad is an industrial city known for its contribution in the textile sector of Pakistan. The SEZ is already connected to electricity, water and gas infrastructure and the existing expertise in the region makes its initiation a wise decision. It is also a powerful signal to the industrial sector of Pakistan.

It is also expected that the ground breaking of Rashakai in the KP and Dhabeji in Sindh will also take place in the second quarter of this year. According to a senior official working in the CPEC Centre of Excellence, the much talked about SEZ in Rashakai has already attracted over 1000 applications for industrial plots. The remaining six EEZs are Bostan Industrial Zone, ICT Model Industrial Zone, Islamabad, Development of Industrial Park on Pakistan Steel Mills Land at Port Qasim near Karachi, Special Economic Zone at Mirpur, AJK, Mohmand Marble City and Moqpondass SEZ Gilgit-Baltistan. As these zones are located all across Pakistan at places that are carefully selected, they will not only cater to the people but would also add value to the image of CPEC.

With Pakistani economy gradually standing on its feet and global indicators turning in favour of Pakistan, the next phase of CPEC brings in a ray of hope for the country. The much needed trade deficit in the country can only be eradicated if there is large scale manufacturing in the country. It is not possible if there is political turmoil in the country. With clarity coming to the political theatre after the consensus on amendment in Army Act, it can be said that the country is finally on the right path. If Pakistan can now bank on this stability and attract foreign investment in the SEZs, not only the economy would grow but also the goodwill of the country would increase. Increased foreign investment in the country also means an increase of foreigners visiting Pakistan and this opens up doors for the local tourism and hospitality industry.

However, the actions of adversaries should always be kept in mind. In 2019, Pakistan successfully thwarted the Indian efforts of an escalation both on the diplomatic but also on the armed front. Similar activities from India under the influence of America can be seen in the future. Americans would also leave no chance to criticize the CPEC. The recent statements by Alice Wells the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs are a clear reflection of the American mindset. Moreover, the geopolitical tension can also hamper the progress on CPEC. The killing of General Qasim Soleimani could have easily engulfed the region into a violent conflict. As tension is slowly being diffused, it is important for Pakistan to maintain its neutrality and work for regional peace. A collective national narrative on CPEC is the need of the hour to make the next phase a success. This would not only benefit Pakistan but would set the tone for the success of Belt and Road Initiative of China.