Economic Geology of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)

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Like other parts of High Asia, the region of Gilgit-Baltisan has played a pivotal role as a crossroad between Central and South Asia for centuries. Unlike common view of the region being historically isolated because of geographical inaccessibility, modern scholarship proves that the region remained a major conduit for movements across the great massifs of the Himalaya, Hindukush, Karakorum and Pamir. Indeed, it is not geography but political developments since nineteenth century that turned different regions of High Asia into cul-de-sac. Hermann Kruzmann, Chair of Human Geography and Director of the Centre for Development Studies (ZELF) at Freie Universität Berlin, is of the view that for centuries these mountains have generally been perceived as barriers to communication, however they also facilitate communication, especially when they serve as crossroads.

Archaeological and historical evidences lend credence to the thesis that the mountainous communities of High Asia were mobile and communicated with neighbouring regions despite geographic obstacles. The region spanning from Khunjerab Pass on China border to Indus Kohistan in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa is full of epigraphs and petroglyphs that all almost 2000 years old. The ancient petroglyphs records show people from different walks of life, like religious pilgrims, soldiers, hunters, shamans and travellers, traversing the treacherous terrain in the mountains. Since majority of these petroglyphs depicts figures of pilgrims, Buddha, motifs and stupas, it can be deduced that among other things, religion was one of the most wanted commodities on the old Silk Road.

The historical interaction and exchange in High Asia continued despite changes in routes of the Silk Road at the level of principalities because of political events engulfing Central Asia. With the start of the Great Game in the nineteenth century, the roof of world turned into a turf for espionage and power game between the three empires – Russian, Chinese and British. This has necessitated the then powers to map the passes and valleys to carve out new passages and routes for their strategic goals.

What is mostly ignored in the research about colonial period is how indigenous sports were employed by the British to achieve geo-strategic objectives deep in the mountainous valleys and principalities in High Asia against Russian and Chinese empires. Among different games, polo was the most favourite one among colonial officers from military and administration. In the colonial period, the indigenous polo of Gilgit-Baltistan got new boost through sponsorship for the game in the shape of construction of new polo grounds in villages of different valleys of the region, and induction of players in Gilgit Scouts for the game only. In addition, new teams were formed and annual polo matches were held that attracted local rulers and large number of people. This tradition still continues in Gilgit-Baltistan as all military, paramilitary and other governmental organisations have their own polo teams.

The covert purpose of establishing such an infrastructure and organisation of polo in every part of Gilgit-Baltistan was to create a standby force and system for logistics in place that could provide uninterrupted supply to army in the inaccessible mountains of High Asia in case of military conflict. Hence, we see expansion of new mule tracks and proliferation of polo grounds in every nook and corner of Gilgit-Baltistan. It helped addition of new arteries to the old Silk Road in the area.

The summer of 1931 was important because the region witnessed first motorised vehicle arriving in Gilgit Agency from Kashmir by crossing 14,000 feet high Burzil Pass. It was a major breakthrough as it expanded the infrastructure of movement from mule track to road. In the first half of the twentieth century different regions of High Asia, including Gilgit-Baltistan, experienced closing of all historical routes that connected mountainous communities because of new demarcations in post Soviet and Chinese revolutions period. With independence of India all old and new routes including Gilgit-Kashmir road got disrupted. As a result, Gilgit-Baltistan literally became isolated from all the neighbouring regions of central and South Asia. Realising the gravity of situation, Pakistani government built Kaghan Route via Babusar on urgent basis at the altitude of 13,691 feet. It was necessitated more by the state’s attempt to merge peripheries in the centre than economic reasons. But the construction of the Karakorum Highway (KKH) in 1964-1978 has started a new era of expansion of horizons. Although, KKH was primarily build for geo-strategic reasons, it has brought about major changes in society, lifestyle, mind-set, economy and trade in the region. With the KKH, the jeepable road has expanded into truckable highway.

Now after 35 years of KKH, Gilgit-Baltistan has re-emerged on the radar screen of national, regional and international politics with China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is a complex project. To understand its complexity in a nuanced way it is indispensible to view CPEC by situating it within the holistic framework of One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. OBOR initiative is comprised of two components: “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. It is estimated that OBOR project will cost $6 trillion.

Unlike traffic Infrastructure in the past, OBOR will be gigantic in its scale for it will cover more than 100 countries and transform them by introducing mega infrastructures for trade and transport within short period. Along with economy, it could change the very geology of the earth. The Great Wall was mega structure of old inward looking China to protect itself from invaders, but OBOR is mega infrastructure of outward looking confident China of modern times. According to Professor Tang Mengsheng, Director Centre for Pakistan Studies at Peking University, China, OBOR and its component CPEC is necessitated by the increasing tensions of security in Northeast and Chinese mistrust of South Asian countries due to territorial disputes. “Facing such situation”, he writes “China has started to explore the possibility and feasibility of “Western Development Strategy”, namely strengthening the political and economic relations with South Asian, Middle East and African countries in the West of China…”

Within overall Western Development Strategy of China, OBOR will enact a crucial role. China considers Pakistan as an important bridge in the realization of this strategy through CPEC. It is because of the central importance of CPEC in OBOR initiative Mr. Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, explained the importance of CPEC in these melodic metaphors: “If ‘ One Belt, One Road’ is like a symphony involving and benefiting every country, then construction of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is the sweet melody of the symphony’s first movement”. The central position of CPEC in OBOR is evident from the fact that Gwadar city is the point where the economic Belt and Road meet. Therefore, CPEC ought to be viewed within the bigger whole of OBOR. Unfortunately, the maritime road is missing in Pakistani policy and decision makers’ planning.

The project of CPEC does not appear in historical vacuum, rather it has emerged from the womb of historical continuum. Building upon the historical connections of China with the Pakistani part of High Asia, China in collaboration with Pakistan built the Karakorum Highway (KKH), which in its turn paved the way for CPEC. Despite historical continuity, CPEC is different in terms of magnitude, coverage and purpose. KKH was primarily driven by geo-strategic and political agenda, whereas CPEC project is a manifestation of shift in Chinese policy from geo-economic and economic geology.

One Belt One Road signifies increased connectivity, investment opportunities, collaboration of industries in finance, agriculture, tourism, educational sector, human resource, health care, cultural exchange thus spurring economic growth in the associated countries. Given the diversity of political systems, interests, geographies and economic models in the countries coming under the ambit of OBOR, existence of a holistic and coherent policy is need of the time. Formulating policy is essentially a political issue. It will be Herculean task to bring diverse states on single page, but it can become reality because the main factor that propels OBOR is economic not ideological. Through OBOR and CPEC, China wants to increase its connectivity to international markets and energy sources. Now the major thrust of China is to export its goods and manpower not to export communist ideology. A common economic policy for whole OBOR or even certain geographical parts will prepare ground for economic unification of OBOR region. Common economic interest can gel disparate entities in one unified whole. The second element of OBOR is currency. It may be possible to introduce regional currency like EURO in OBOR region.

Given the intricate nature of OBOR, the planning and thinking about CPEC needs to be geared towards harmonising discordant parts within a holistic framework that will take into consideration contextual realities in Pakistan. To remove bottlenecks and obstacles in smooth implementation of CPEC in Pakistan, the government of Pakistan ought to introduce major structural changes in political, economical and administrative domains. It will help Pakistan to remove contradictions in the current structure of governance, which is incongruous with the requirements of CPEC.

The existing political setup and administrative processes in Pakistan are not conducive to CPEC. That is why China and Pakistan are still working out ways to counter CPEC bottlenecks even after its announcement in 2013. To chalk out implementation and financing mechanism and processes, Pakistan needs to view CPEC at local, national, regional and continental level. Since CPEC is the flagship project of OBOR, it is, therefore, necessary to understand the fact that unlike KKH that connected two states, OBOR is about continental integration. There is a likelihood of CPEC may expand beyond China and Pakistan. There is a news item appeared in The News (April 9, 2018) that states, “CPEC is being extended to Afghanistan”. This shows flexibility to CPEC to accommodate emerging needs.

At national level the major issues and irritants for implementation of CPEC stem from inequality in power sharing among the federating units of Pakistan. For example, Balochistan being the largest province in terms of area, but smallest in population has always remained at the receiving end. Similarly, Gilgit-Baltistan is not a constitutional part of Pakistan. Its ambiguous status and flawed policies of Pakistan provide accuse for non-CPEC actors to meddle in the country’s affairs by making CPEC controversial. India has repeatedly been making claims over the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan because it is disputed territory, and thereby dubbing CPEC initiative as illegal. Instead of removing ambiguity about the region, the rulers of Pakistan keep Gilgit-Baltistan in constitutional limbo. The status quo of the region may pose new challenges for Pakistan in future on the diplomatic front.

The tried and tested formula of Pakistani rulers to tackle the internal dissensions about CPEC is to ignore the peripheral voices first, and giving concessions when it faces vehement opposition latter. But this kind of quick fixes cannot address the issues and challenges related to CPEC that demand meticulous planning, nuanced understanding and empathetic handling of local issues. Only by taking into consideration social and political dimensions from every angle, the plan of CPEC can become comprehensive and representative of local aspirations for prosperity.

Since CPEC is about geo-economic and economic geology, there is need to view economic opportunities from geographic point of view. To envisage CPEC as a new paradigm of economy, the policy and decision makers of Pakistan have to take an imaginative leap. That would be possible if they extricate their thinking from the confines of provincial and administrative boundaries, and economic paradigm of pre-globalisation period. CPEC is to be viewed as a phenomenon that will blur different administrative boundaries according to its needs and requirements, and thus give birth to common economic interests with new social configurations. Hence, economic zones have to be established not on the basis of provinces but on geography.

For example, social and economical dynamics of the coastal belt in Pakistan are different from the hinterland. To make CPEC more feasible, the coastal areas of Balochistan and Sindh can make one economic zone. The point where northern tip of Sindh, North-eastern Balochistan and Southern Punjab converge can make an economic ring by forming central economic zone in Pakistan.

Similarly, the mountainous regions of Gilgit-Baltistan, and Chitral, Kohistan and mountainous areas of Swat in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa can be clubbed together under one economic zone.

Similarly, the mountainous regions of Gilgit-Baltistan, and Chitral, Kohistan and mountainous areas of Swat in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa can be clubbed together under one economic zone. Such arrangement will enable the government to address issues pertaining to culture, identity, economy and environment because the classification would be based on geographical anthropology not political/nationalist ideology. In the long run, the commonality of economic interest will give birth to new solidarities and associations, and help reducing politicisation of economic issues on narrow ethnic basis.

In order to address local grievances, all the provinces, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan should be made part of the CPEC planning at the centre, but its implementation can be devolved at local level. For the geographically based Special Economic Zone, a different mechanism of governance and institutional structure may be devised so that it can cater to the needs of zones efficiently and timely. The speed and efficiency cannot be achieved with existing bureaucratic structure marred by red-tapism.

Among different regions of Pakistan, only Gilgit-Baltistan borders with China, and it has long historical and cultural connections. Before coming under the suzerainty of the British, the principality of Hunza had tributary relations with China. The region can benefit from rich historical and cultural relationship with China by forging new synergies and taking initiatives on cultural and economic fronts. China has turned the Kashgar into modern metropolis within two decades. Gilgit-Baltistan can gain from the experience of development in XinjiangUighur Autonomous Region of China. Gilgit-Baltistan is faced with challenges emerging from its burgeoning towns and cities. Chinese expertise in urban planning in Xinjiang can be helpful to resolve urban issues. Because of potential for mutual learning and joint initiatives under the umbrella of CPEC, it can be envisaged that Gilgit-Baltistan will become hybrid case of development by combining Chinese and Pakistani parts of CPEC in its plan. If such a possibility emerges, then the government of Gilgit-Baltistan needs to chalk out a plan that would address issues pertaining to cross border mode of CPEC.

So far economic dimension has dominated discussion regarding CPEC at the expense of its knowledge dimension. The proposed corridor will not solely be economic, but it will also serves as knowledge corridor. Until recently, no research and knowledge about CPEC was available. Due to lack of any academic sources on CPEC, the knowledge vacuum is filled by conspiracy theories. To stop this trend from further escalating into anti-CPEC narrative, measures have to be taken to fill the information, knowledge and coordination gap among multiple stakeholders of CPEC.

               Currently, China is attracting thousands of students for different courses and higher studies by providing scholarship in Chinese educational institutions. It will help China to create a cadre of professionals who will have better understanding of Chinese mind, processes and knowledge. This is highly laudable initiative. Nonetheless, there is another important aspect of Chinese success model in generating skilled and expert human resource. That is Chinese school system. The success of Chinese universities cannot be attributed to higher education alone. Behind this success, it is Chinese school system that feed students with quality qualification to Chinese universities. In Pakistan we have multiple schooling system, which has increased class divide within society. Due to this students with quality education enjoy good economy status and power, whereas students of poor background remain trapped in social and economic poverty. Being an egalitarian education system, Chinese schooling model can provide Pakistan with a viable model of education that will help in bridging the yawning gap between education for haves and haves-not.

During last three years some universities and think tanks in Pakistan have established centres and special wings to study CPEC. However, the available studies need to expand the horizon of framework of research to encompass human and social dimensions. Purely quantitative and economical approach provides skewed view of intricate interface between simple social set ups with complex systems. The in-depth studies into psychological, cultural, gender, cognitive and social dimensions of CPEC will provide us insights of dialectics of progress in the age of gigantic infrastructure. Now the situation is that there is more talk related to CPEC than understanding. At the moment the physical pace of CPEC is taking giant leaps with no trail of knowledge behind. If the knowledge vacuum is left open than it can become good abode for demons within to foster.

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