A narrative built on negativity sells quicker than the one built on positive indicators and reflections. This is what is precisely happening to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as the negativity haunts the multi-billion dollar mega project since the time it had been conceived and implemented. The chatter in Islamabad about CPEC is loud and it says that CPEC is going slower than intended. Ill-founded views like CPEC being held up or stalled draws audience, as both the detractor and hopefuls of CPEC look at it from their standpoint though for their own reasons. The detractors have a biased assessment that CPEC has gone out of focus of the current government and has been pushed down the list of priorities, whereas hopefuls pin their hopes to it as a window of opportunity for the revitalisation of the economy and prosperity of the country.
Consequent to the general impression in a section of the press that the latest visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan was aimed at ‘revival of stalled CPEC projects’, someone no less than the Prime Minister himself had to reiterate that the timely completion of CPEC projects remains the top priority of his government though he also, in the same breath, admitted that there are certain ‘bottlenecks’ towards the implementations of the CPEC framework. Perhaps no clearer reassurance could have come from the Prime Minister while he was flying for his third official visit to China in a span of one year.
There is unanimity of views among most segments of society as to what CPEC has in store for us. It’s a massive opportunity that can potentially do wonders to address our core issues. CPEC offers enormously in terms of Pakistan’s economic revival through a framework that assured investment and development in the most crucial sectors such as energy, infrastructure and industrialisation. China has also been unswerving in its support, either financially or in terms of expertise, besides offering great development model to emulate. Of the key components of the CPEC framework, we are largely nearing the mark by meeting the set objectives for phase one. Energy and infrastructure were major issues that Pakistan confronted around the time when serious work on CPEC began in 2014. We are now over with the phase of energy and infrastructure and have entered into the phase of industrialisation. This significant phase has schemes of joint ventures and relocations of industries with the objective of building Pakistan’s export capacity, in turn adding to foreign exchange earnings and improving Pakistan’s financial state. Based mainly on the success of the industrialisation phase, certain experts in CPEC planning quarters expect the creation of 1.2 million jobs by 2030. This entails exciting possibilities for those who wish to invest and look for joint ventures. It offers enormous opportunities for job seekers in the host of industry related sectors.
Caught between myth and reality, CPEC was confronted with challenges from planning to implementation. There were errors of foresight during the planning stage and there are capacity and performance issues at the execution stage. Pacing up with the Chinese government that holds centralised assertive implementation mechanism remains a challenge. Expecting deliverable with feeble governance structure that we have at home is hard to justify. Admittedly, there was a huge gap between what was expected of CPEC and what has been carried out on ground.
Five years down the road, an appraisal of planning and implementation would reveal that there were challenges to demonstrate matching response to what was required of such a mega venture that could be attributed to the lack of foresight and the lack of coordination among key stakeholders like industrialists, traders, entrepreneurs, officials and political leaders. With regard to deficiency, four factors appeared prominently: incapacities of most stakeholders, absence of an appropriate regulatory authority, decentralisation at the cost of effectiveness, and lack of mechanism for mid-course correction.
As referred above, Prime Minister Imran Khan does have the political will to carry out the CPEC project as a top priority and has, on a number of occasions, reiterated to push it as far as possible. CPEC is not only an economic venture but it marks the special relationship that Pakistan and China have built over a period of time. Many analysts still cite the call from Prime Minister’s adviser on commerce, textiles, industries and investment’s for “putting everything [regarding CPEC] on hold” in order to undermine the will of the current government to carry on with the project. Moreover, the government’s occupation with other issues of serious nature such as India’s unconstitutional step to annex Jammu and Kashmir followed by hot confrontations on the Line of Control has also pushed CPEC out of every day’s gossip. There may be few instances of falling short on enthusiasm but nothing is likely to deter Pakistan from undertaking consensus economic ventures.
With a view to building momentum on CPEC, we need to carry out an honest appraisal of the project. We should carry out course correction and devise strategies to attain set objectives. For coordination and swift action, one-window CPEC authority is an apt initiative that will essentially be an implementing body whereas all the stakeholders — which may include representative of the federal government down to the residents of Gwadar — will form part of an advisory body. Most important is that we embrace ownership of CPEC. It’s a project that serves our national interest and has promise of our well-being and prosperity. It is ‘we’ who have to make it a success. CPEC is a silver lining on the grim horizon of Pakistan and we can take a huge advantage of it, if we do it right.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2019.