July marked the decade of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) since its launch in 2013. It is hardly surprising to see how CPEC has sparked a decade of debate and discussion in domestic and international circles. A two-day international conference on CPEC, held in Islamabad, provides an opportunity to reevaluate the project’s achievements, hindrances, and prospects. A ten-year track record of CPEC reveals that despite the impending glitches, the project successfully registered modest strides on multiple fronts, such as attracting foreign direct investment, boosting infrastructure, meeting energy demand, and facilitating industrial cooperation. However, the project also encountered significant roadblocks that decelerated its overall progress.
Pakistan’s Great Leap Forward?
Hailed as the ultimate ‘game-changer’ for Pakistan, CPEC, a flagship of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was launched in 2013 between China and Pakistan, bringing in $62 billion worth of Chinese investments. This remarkable juncture marked the accomplishment of Pakistan’s long-term goal of reorienting its national priorities from geo-politics to geo-economics. Before this, the country had been eyeing to turn its economic destiny around by offering to become the hub of regional connectivity.
For Pakistan, CPEC presents a great leap forward, enabling it to catch up with its relatively developed, industrialized counterparts such as India and Bangladesh. It offers the country a new hope to turn the tides of globalization in its favor and achieve its long-lost goal of economic development.
CPEC, essentially an economic corridor, presents a catalytic opportunity for Pakistan to stimulate economic regionalization and realize the dream of long-term economic development. To achieve this, it envisions upgrading the country’s transport infrastructure facilities, quenching its energy needs, operationalizing the Gawadar port, materializing industrial and economic development through the special economic zones, and uplifting its impoverished socio-economic profile. Initially, the project turned out to be a boon for the investment-starved country as it injected direct Chinese investments totaling US$25.4 billion. To deal with the nation’s mounting energy crisis, CPEC’s electric power projects added over 6000 megawatts to the national grid, extending the transmission network to 1000 miles. Up to this point, 13 energy generation facilities have been completed, totaling 8,020 MW of installed capacity, of which 5,000 MW is based on indigenous fuels. Furthermore, the completion of the 884 MW Suki-Kinari Hydro Power Project is anticipated by July 2024. Other projects under development include the 300MW Gwadar Coal Power project, the 1,124MW Kohala Hydro Power project, and the 700.7MW Azad Pattan Hydro Power project.
Regarding infrastructure-related advancements, CPEC significantly increased intra-regional connectivity by implementing robust infrastructure. Six massive projects totaling 510 km were completed during the early harvest phase, including the Havelian-Thakot stretch of the KKH, the Multan-Sukkur (M-5) Motorway, and the Hakla-D.I.Khan Motorway, the Eastbay Motorway, and the Orange Line Metro Train. Digital connectivity was achieved from Khunjerab to Rawalpindi through an optical fiber coverage of 820km. Connectivity-related initiatives also positively affected market connectivity and upward social mobility by catering directly to 65 percent of the country’s population. The socio-economic ripple effects have generated multiple employment opportunities. According to a recent assessment by Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning, Development, and Reform, the CPEC has the potential to generate 1.2 million direct and indirect jobs under the approved projects.
Furthermore, the most strategically important aspect of the CPEC is the Gawadar port. The port offers an alternative transportation route for China and efficiently solves the Malacca dilemma. Similarly, for Pakistan, Gawadar is deemed the engine of its economic growth, capable of harnessing the fortunes of Dubai.
In this regard, the Gawadar’s development remains a paramount concern for both countries. CPEC has allowed for Gawadar’s successful modernization. The completion of Basima-Khuzdar (N-30) will further enhance the commercial viability of the port. The Gwadar Free Zone, Phase-I (60 acres of land) is complete and successfully populated. Development work on Phase II (2221 acres of land) is underway. In a similar vein, the socioeconomic landscape of Gwadar has been transformed by addressing its electricity predicament and the water availability issue. Only four Special Economic Zones (SEZs) out of nine are advancing regarding industrial cooperation. Allama Iqbal Industrial City construction is moving forward. Bostan SEZ Phase 1 is being constructed on 200 acres. Industry relocation is on the charts and progressing gradually.
The CPEC project suffered conspicuous setbacks stemming from rising insecurity and political uncertainty. The security concerns surrounding the CPEC escalated with an upsurge of terror attacks targeting Chinese personnel and CPEC-related infrastructure. Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) continues to target Chinese workers and CPEC sites, thereby jeopardizing the security of the project. This is evident from the string of attacks, which include an attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi in 2018, an attack on Chinese tourists at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar in 2019, and a suicide terror attack targeting the Confucius Institute at the Karachi University in 2022. The latest failed attack on Chinese engineers in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan also shows how the BLA continues to target the Chinese and their CPEC mission.
On the other hand, the change in political guard in Pakistan has also contributed to slowing down the pace of the project. This was partially the result of Khan’s erratic approach towards the CPEC-related development projects and latent skepticism about the previous government’s role in favoring China at the expense of Pakistan. Though the Chinese side has rubbished this aspect, evidence suggests redirection at the policy level contributed to the slowdown.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
The project continues to move forward despite the looming obstacles. To reinforce enthusiasm on both sides, a delegation led by Special Representative of Chinese President Xi Jinping, He Lifeng, made a reassuring visit to Pakistan and called for closer collaboration between China and Pakistan. He underscored CPEC’s transformative potential for turning Pakistan’s economic development around and the crucial role of Special Economic Zones in this regard. He also insisted on broadening bilateral relations between the two iron-brothers. The visit signals a chin-up moment for Pakistan as China reassured Pakistan that the bilateral relations between the two countries are seldom at the helm of evolving geopolitics. Instead, the relationship is poised to grow stronger with time and tide, as does the progress on the CPEC front.
The writer is an Islamabad-based expert in International Relations and an MPhil graduate of SPIR, QuaideAzam University. She specializes in Foreign Policy Analysis, Regional Politics, International Political Economy, and Human security. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @sidd_asmaa.