In China, the debate on a corridor with Pakistan hots up

China's 'Global Times' ran an article that underscored the importance of the CPEC but also highlighted the costs of keeping the corridor secure.

September 13, 2016 04:53 pm | Updated September 22, 2016 07:04 pm IST - Beijing

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for photos before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Parker Song, Pool)

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for photos before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Parker Song, Pool)

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is generating a vigorous internal debate, pitting those who advocate a lighter reliance on the project against others who view the undertaking as a cornerstone of security of the New Silk Road-Beijing’s ambitious connectivity plan.

The State-run Global Times on Tuesday ran an article that underscores the symbolic importance of the CPEC. But, simultaneously, it also highlighted the burgeoning costs of keeping the corridor secure. “It is unlikely that China will change its supportive attitude on the CPEC in the short term, but the increasing cost of security is becoming a big problem in efficiently pushing forward the project,” it observed.

The write-up highlighted the complexity of securing the Gwadar to Kashgar economic corridor. “The economic corridor, linking Kashgar in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Gwadar Port in southwest Pakistan, passes through some turbulent regions, Kashmir included. It is unlikely to be plain sailing for China and Pakistan in their attempts to push forward the CPEC due to challenges such as a complex regional environment, and people in the two countries should be prepared for potential setbacks.”

The Pakistani media also underscored the difficulties that are being encountered in ensuring the CPEC’s unhindered take-off. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper is reporting that the Chinese side has suggested that Islamabad should formally rope in the army to ensure smooth execution of the project. It added that the Chinese wanted the establishment of a separate ministry or authority that would focus exclusively on the CPEC, to escape entanglement in inter-ministerial red tape.

The daily said that Sun Weidong, Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, had called on Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif on June 7. An official statement released after the meeting stated: “Matters of mutual interest, including regional security and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, came under discussion.”

In an interview with The Hindu , Hu Shisheng, Director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, corroborated that China was now deeply enmeshed in Pakistan’s internal dynamics to shore up the CPEC project. “I think now the corridor could be the major pillar of the Sino-Pakistan relations. Nearly all our bilateral resources are more focused on guaranteeing the success of CPEC. So this will include all the areas. (We are) also dealing with the relationship between the Central government and local provinces. Also relations among provinces.”

He added: “The intensity of the relationship has increased dramatically. Even the anti-terror cooperation has transformed into a new level. So of course as a scholar I am also concerned whether it would be finally regarded as an involvement in the internal affairs (of Pakistan).”

The Global Times article pointed out that Beijing should consider shifting its focus from the CPEC to a deeper engagement with Southeast Asia. “The CPEC has long been seen as a flagship project in China's Belt and Road initiative, but the initiative's strategic focus may need to shift gradually toward Southeast Asia, where there is a wide infrastructure funding gap but a relatively stable regional environment that will enable China to efficiently push forward ventures under the Belt and Road initiative.”

These observations coincided with the 13th China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit that was held over the weekend in Nanning, where the construction of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road was the core theme. In an interview with China Central Television (CCTV) Victor Gao, a well-known commentator, explained that engagement with Southeast Asia fell well within the China’s comfort zone. He stressed that “in all the ASEAN countries, there are large Chinese communities who have been there for generations,” and they could help catalyse a booming China-ASEAN partnership.

But scholars such as Dr. Hu, view the CPEC as a project that can result in the emergence of a stable Pakistan. In turn, that would yield a major geostrategic prize, as it could disrupt the spread of extremism in the region, through which China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road will pass.

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