CPEC: Questions Persist

By Anjum Altaf

Is there a fruitful line of inquiry regarding the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)? That depends on the questions with which one initiates the inquiry.

Would CPEC be a game-changer for Pakistan? This drawing-room question is particularly useless to begin with. With so much uncertainty and so many variables beyond human control no one except a clairvoyant can predict with any confidence. It is just as pointless, if not actually silly, to take sides. Enough hard information is not available for one side to convince the other on the basis of analysis – believers will continue to believe and doubters will continue to doubt for reasons having little to do with the intricacies of the initiative.

The following questions pertaining to details of the deal are more useful: Under what conditions are the various components of the initiative being negotiated? What are the financial obligations and terms of repayment? What tax concessions are being offered? What are the revenue and capital cost projections of the various components? Who will bear the operating and maintenance costs?

Citizens responsible for the debt liabilities have a right to ask for this information and expect it to be provided. What are the reasons for the secrecy? What is there to hide? The numbers that are filtering out in dribs and drabs on guaranteed rates of return are not very reassuring. The very fact that information is not being fully shared is a major cause for doubt – people are naturally apprehensive in the absence of transparency.

It is good that the government has set up a CPEC website (http://cpec.gov.pk/) but at this time it is only a list of projects with costs and timelines. The terms of financing and revenue projections are missing. In addition, the website suffers from information overload. For example, it includes the Karachi Circular Railway, Peshawar Mass Transit, Quetta Mass Transit, and the Lahore Orange Train.

These are all plausible projects with individual justifications and may all involve Chinese funding but what do they have to do with the corridor? It seems suspiciously the case that various stakeholders are being bought off by including their pet projects under the CPEC umbrella.

The case with the power projects listed on the website is similar. Each might be justified but why is a wind farm in Bhambore lumped under the CPEC? Wouldn’t it make more sense to treat them as independent projects with separate feasibility studies as is the norm. The indiscriminate lumping together of everything happening in the country is another red flag regarding the coherence of the initiative.

It would help to strip out the core corridor investments and share details of their financing and cost-benefit projections. It is reasonable to expect that barring unforeseen events, a functioning corridor would be beneficial for China. But what would be in it for Pakistan except collecting a toll on the transit trade? How much toll collection is being projected? What would Pakistan be exporting via the corridor given its grossly uncompetitive economy? Why would industrial estates succeed along the isolated corridor when they have failed in major locations like Peshawar and Quetta? How many permanent jobs are expected to be created?

These are legitimate questions deserving answers in order to build consensus and take citizens into confidence. It is not enough for the government to say ‘trust us’ because governments in Pakistan have done nothing to earn that trust. Neither international agencies nor Pakistani citizens believe the various governments have been upfront with facts. Such behavior is not unique to Pakistan – after all, Bush and Blair lied to their citizens to invade Iraq.

In the absence of honest answers, those without vested interest in deal-making can only point to historical precedents and past evidence. Take, for example, one of the most significant trade corridors of recent times, the Suez Canal. Was it a game-changer for the people of Egypt? Or take the game-changers for Pakistan promised in the past – Thar Coal, Saindak, Reko-diq, all, incidentally, with Chinese involvement. What happened? They certainly changed the game for those involved in the multiple transactions but is there anything to show for the people of Pakistan or even the locals of the project sites?

The attempt to turn such questioning into issues of patriotism or of maligning our best friends strengthens the impression that all is not above board. These are the standard tactics of those who wish to divert discussion from facts and stifle inquiry with intimidation. Under normal circumstances citizens would be within their rights to examine the track record of Chinese investments in other countries like Sri Lanka (Google Hambantota) or prior deals with Pakistan like the railway locomotives. In all such cases the Chinese are not to blame – ‘buyer beware’ is rule of the market. The concern is with those negotiating the deals on our behalf and the question remains the same: Do you trust them? If so, on what basis?

Given the lack of transparency and the historical evidence, the following outcomes appear likely: For better or for worse, the CPEC momentum is unstoppable; It will be beneficial for the Chinese economy; It will generate toll revenues for Pakistan which may be more or less than operating costs depending upon contractual terms, much as for the Lahore-Islamabad motorway; Without inclusiveness, economic gains might be outweighed by political stresses; It will definitely change the fortunes of a few thousand individuals in Pakistan; It is unlikely to be a game-changer for the Pakistani people much as the Suez Canal was not one for Egyptians.

On the other hand, this could be the mother of all miracles. Let us bow our heads and pray while the untethered camel wanders into Kashgar.

This opinion was published in The News on March 19, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. See also, CPEC: Lessons from History.

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