CPEC under review

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Brakes have been pulled on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project (CPEC) for a while now. However, Prime Minister Imran Khan has assured that review of CPEC projects is underway. Despite knowledge of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being in the public domain for several years, and widely discussed in the media, many will have little idea of the negotiations between China and the government. The upgrading of the national railway system is a core component of CPEC and it has been announced that CPEC investment in railway projects has been slashed to $6.2 billion and there is likely to be close scrutiny of other infrastructure and power projects which were initiated by the previous government. The underlying issue is not so much the necessity or viability of the projects all of which are worthy in varying degrees, but the cost of servicing the debt that has been taken out to do the work that makes the project reality.

On top of this is a growing unease about the lack of transparency associated with CPEC. Wider concerns are being expressed that Pakistan is falling into a debt trap driven by the Chinese, who are seen by some as reinventing colonialism for the 21st century — an analysis that may not be far from a literal truth when Chinese economic activity is viewed via an arc that stretches from central African states and up into the Asian heartlands as well as across the nations of the subcontinent. There is no doubt that CPEC should continue, and certainly grow with time. China is arguably Pakistan’s most important neighbour and has been a consistent friend through the decades. But as we move forward, it is important that Pakistan’s own interests, and political traditions, be kept front and centre.

The fact that Pakistan needs CPEC and CPEC needs Pakistan is not in any doubt, but the project was born in the opacity and lack of openness that typifies so much of our governance, where vast decisions are made without benefit of consultation or public scrutiny. In that context, there has to be a cautious welcome to the application of the handbrake, but this is only going to yield maximum benefit if there is parallel transparency and thus far that is not in evidence. Time for some CPEC housekeeping, preferably under floodlights. Pakistan needs to get better deals from China if possible and the local need to benefit from the projects, not just Chinese.

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