The new Silk Road and Pakistan | By Sultan M Hali


The new Silk Road and Pakistan


CHINA’S approach to the New Silk Road is multi pronged and multi-dimensional and is the combination of a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and a sea-based 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

On one hand, it enables China’s energy consuming industrial base to acquire inputs from a wide variety of sources, on the other it facilitates the energy rich Central Asian States to replenish energy supplies not only to China but to energy-starved consumers in Europe, Africa and Asia.

In the bargain, China is ensuring that the new financial institutions it has created will provide fiscal support to the developing nations to lay down the requisite infrastructure for meeting the demands of the consumers.

China has deployed funds totalling around US$100 billion: US$40 billion to the Central Asia-focused Silk Road Fund, US$50 billion to a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and US$10 billion to the BRICS-led New Development Bank.

These initiatives are fraught with the risk of hitting a “return wall” by pouring huge investment into low-return projects in high-risk countries but China’s economic planners are willing to take this risk because they too have risen like a phoenix from the ashes of deprivation and despondency thus appreciating the essence of a helping hand and want to take their less fortunate neighbours along to benefit from their largesse and climb out of the well of poverty.

The advent of New Silk Road projects will act as a catalyst towards generating regional cooperation; building political flexibility; enhancing economic growth; offering trade diversifications; and investing in transportation, mining and energy sectors.

Central Asian Republics, bounded by the closed economy of the erstwhile Soviet Union and limited by their geographical location, offering inadequate connectivity, are now being presented as an epoch making opportunity to play their destined roles in the world economy.

Traditionally it was envisaged that the media had shrunk the world to a global village now it is the Silk Road Concept which is bringing nations, races, continents and people closer in a tight-knit community sharing their resources of production, services, energy, information and understanding.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, euphemistically known as CPEC, is a flagship project of the New Silk Road.

The CPEC is a comprehensive 15-year development project between Pakistan and China spanning 2015-2030 that entails the linking of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang through highways, railways, oil and gas pipelines, and an optical fibre link.

In terms of what the New Silk Road means for Pakistan suffice to say that it has provided a unique opportunity for the uplift of Pakistan, especially its backward region like Balochistan.

Unfortunately, the detractors of China have misguided some Balochs with the fake narrative that the mega project would make no difference to their state of deprivation.

Terror mongers like the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State have been active in recruiting, training and arming insurgents to attack the Chinese engineers as well as Pakistan’s law enforcing agencies.

Pakistan has created a special security force for ensuring the safety of the personnel and the project and has not only managed to turn the tide of terrorism but the New Silk Road project has started paying dividends, with the locals benefitting immensely with the installation of numerous development projects, schools, vocational training centres, health facilities and water purification projects.

The early harvest as well as the second phase projects have reached fruition.

During the challenges faced due to COVID-19, not a single project either slowed down or was delayed, which is remarkable.

Simultaneously, China launched ‘The Health Silk Road’, to run parallel to the multiple overland Silk Road corridors and the Maritime Silk Road.

In a graphic demonstration of soft power, offering Covid-19-related equipment and medical help including COVAX to more than 100 nations.

In consonance with the terror attacks, propaganda campaigns have been launched to discredit the New Silk Road.

China is being likened to the British East India Company, which had come to India in the 18th Century as traders and managed to conquer the whole sub-continent.

Rumours are being spread that China is indulging in debt-trap diplomacy to saddle borrowing nations with enormous debt so as to increase its leverage over it.

The fact is that as far as Pakistan is concerned, most of the Chinese firms that are participating in the mega project have entered as investors.

What little financial borrowing has taken place, is at very low interest and spread over a long period of repayment schedule to become any burden.

Over the past decade, Islamabad has moved to not only fill the infrastructure gaps within its boundaries but also strengthen its ties with preferred northern partners and finally realize its potential. The US too has reservations towards the New Silk Road.

According to the ‘String of Pearls’ Theory, coined in 2005 by the US consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton: “China will try to expand its naval presence by building civilian maritime infrastructure along the Indian Ocean periphery.” The big power game has placed Pakistan in a unique position.

It can potentially balance the major power rivalries and promote trade cooperation in the region as it enjoys good relations with both the West and China.

Historically, there is precedence, when a similar initiative taken by General Yahya Khan’s regime in 1970 had also brought the two great powers on the diplomatic table and in current scenario; a trade-oriented diplomacy by Pakistan can help reduce the complexities of this rivalry.

—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.