It is heartening to see that the new Imran Khan government in Pakistan is beginning to apply its mind to the threatened loss of sovereignty and prospect of a debt trap that China’s ambitious Belt and Road (BRI) initiative could land Islamabad into. That the new government is planning to renegotiate the agreements reached under BRI which seek to connect Asia and Europe along the ancient silk road as they “unfairly benefit Chinese companies” is a measure of fresh thinking.
The projects concerned are part of the multi-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) plan launched in 2015, which is a planned network of roads, railways and energy projects linking China’s resource-rich Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with Pakistan’s strategic Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea.
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Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was elected on a platform of anti-corruption and transparency, in the past had criticised jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the lack of transparency and corruption in the CPEC projects. Nawaz had indeed kept the terms of the agreements with China under wraps and was negotiating deals with Beijing in a hush-hush way.
Abdul Razak Dawood, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Advisor on Commerce was quoted as saying by the UK-based Financial Times that Chinese companies received tax and other breaks, and have an undue advantage in Pakistan which is disadvantaging local companies.
According to Dawood, Imran Khan has established a nine-member committee to evaluate the CPEC projects which will “think through CPEC - all of the benefits and the liabilities”.
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The Financial Times quoted Dawood as saying that everything related to the CPEC must be put on hold for a year so we that Pakistan could get its act together.
This new, bold thinking in Pakistan has irked China no end because they were and still are looking upon the CPEC as a milking cow to neo-colonialise Pakistan through direct influence on the Pakistan Government making it do its bidding and piling up heavy debt on it.
Governments in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have expressed reservations over the onerous terms of Chinese BRI lending and investment.
Malaysia’s new government headed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad has cancelled three China-backed pipeline projects on grounds of wariness over a building-up debt trap. Mahathir has always been a no-nonsense man who has kept Malaysian interests uppermost in his mind. The Chinese too are wary of him because of his past record of keeping the American business interests in check in his earlier avatars as prime minister.
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In Pakistan, however, profiteering is a paramount motivation and Imran Khan’s is a government which is beholden to the Army for its support. The Army indeed is not above acquiescing in deals that may short-change the country for sectional gains.
So strong and deep is the insidious Chinese stranglehold over administration in Pakistan that it would be interesting to see how Imran counters the Chinese intent to ensure that CPEC is not just not jeopardised but its pace is increased.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who dashed to Islamabad in the wake of the report that Pakistan was contemplating putting everything related to the CPEC on hold for a year to get its act together indulged in misplaced bravado that the Imran-appointed committee’s review was meant to enhance exchanges with China “to accelerate the CPEC and to deliver more outcomes to the Pakistani people instead of putting off the project.”
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Howsoever pretentious the Chinese may be, they are well aware that questions are being asked increasingly in Pakistan among people at large as to whether it is really worthwhile to surrender Islamabad’s sovereignty at the altar of short-term economic gains under the CPEC.
Imran Khan, indeed, has a huge challenge on his hands in steering an independent and transparent course without taking pressure from China. If there is a time for knitting in safeguards into the deal with China, it is now or else it would be too late. All eyes are indeed on the inexperienced but seemingly well-intentioned Imran Khan.