Monday, November 30th, 2020
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Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, while inaugurating part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative stated that "this is perhaps the most important initiative of our generation... China Pakistan Economic Corridor today for Pakistan is this reality; the Gwadar port, the Gwadar free zone, the Eastway expressway and other projects in Gwadar. It is the motorways and the highways that are linking Gwadar to Khunjerab that are linking Peshawar to Karachi. It is the modernization of our railway system. It is the establishment of our power projects and it is the special economic zones that will generate employment that will create exports for Pakistan and that will give prosperity to the people of Pakistan."

This unambiguously overwhelming support for CPEC projects that envisages over 50 billion dollar investment inflows into Pakistan alone, announced during President Xi Jinping's visit to Pakistan in 2015, is the outcome of the Chinese President's vision to re-establish a modern equivalent of the Silk Road through creating a network of roads, railways, pipelines and utility grids linking China to as far away as Europe, the Far East and the Middle East; and more importantly to lead and create a platform for economic cooperation, policy co-ordination, trade and financing collaboration and social and cultural cooperation - a role that was hitherto played by the United States but which appears to have been trampled in the wake of President Trump's 'America First' agenda.

The CPEC is a small component of President Xi's worldview and consists of a set of projects that reflect the long standing solid ties between the peoples of China and Pakistan. To attribute these projects to one specific administration, notably the Sharif administration, makes a mockery of the decades' long ties between the peoples of our two countries that have withstood the test of time. It is also relevant to note that the PPP-led coalition government did engage in several discussions with their Chinese counterparts before President Xi was willing to sign the Memoranda of Understanding - a process that takes time to reach fruition.

But perhaps the most disturbing element of CPEC to-date is the persistent failure of the PML-administration to share details of the projects. It remains unclear which projects are going to be supported in the first phase specifically with respect to road networks, it is unclear at what terms and conditions financing is being made available (and this is all the more worrisome as foreign direct investment from China continues to decline and is at a pace of no more than around one billion dollars per annum at which rate it would take around half a century for CPEC to be completed), it is also unclear whether Chinese labour is being used or local labour as reports indicate that Chinese unskilled labour is engaged in the construction of roads; and, equally disturbingly, it is unclear whether the envisaged economic zones would have a five-year tax-free holiday which would of course benefit the Chinese entrepreneurs who are expected to use Gwadar port as a means to export to the rest of the world. And there are serious concerns about the energy projects under the CPEC as the consensus is that environment degradation has not been taken into account - a factor that is raising the costs of healthcare in this country manifold.

The government claims that it has shared details of CPEC projects with parliamentarians, a claim that is vociferously denied by members of the opposition. Frequent requests for information are stonewalled by the relevant Minister Ahsan Iqbal who has been unable to satisfy members of the opposition as well as the media as to exactly what terms and conditions have been agreed and whether any would benefit this country more than the Chinese. To overcome these concerns, transparency is the only way forward but unfortunately, the current administration has allowed transparency to be compromised time and again in all sectors which, in turn, has simply fuelled accusations of corruption.

It is time to come clean for the economic health of the CPEC projects as well as the country and one would hope that Shahid Khaqan Abbasi leads the way in this regard.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2018

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