The introduction of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has torn asunder the deep-rooted fissures and fault-lines in the country’s socio-economic political order. This order, written and run by Pakistan’s military over the last 70 years, is facing the most daunting challenge today, ironically not from over 200 million poorly fed and illiterate people of the country but from within the military itself. And the reason is infighting within the institution of military on the question of whether to allow China a direct land access to port of Gwadar at the mouth of Indian ocean and take 45-60 billion dollars over the period of 12 years in the name of economic development and assistance to Pakistan in return.
On the face of it, the deal looked lucrative. Pakistan’s military dictator General Pervez Musharraf laid the foundation of this secretive deal as he understood clearly that the US assistance was soon going to dry up not because the US interests in the region was waning but because Washington was fed up with double games of Musharraf and his generals and it was looking at other options in the region – building a Kabul-Delhi front being one of them. After Musharraf’s departure, Nawaz Sharif backed by his powerful brother Shahbaz Sharif who controlled Pakistan’s biggest province Punjab, consolidated this plan further and the stage seemed set for a final push to seal the deal for China.
It would have been an easy ride for the military who takes all strategic, political, economic and social decisions in Pakistan, but the opposition from within the military started to grow swiftly and decisively. China’s track record in previous deals with Pakistan where pretty much nothing flowed out to Pakistan except rhetoric even in times of crisis barring Pakistan’s missile program where china used its good offices with North Korea for Pakistan. While on the other hand the US assistance stands well over $25 billion for military alone leaving aside the economic assistance and the clout it uses for Pakistan for multi-lateral loans. Over the years this created a solid constituency in Pakistan’s policy establishment who knew that the CPEC deal with China might prove one-time transaction from where it could be difficult to wriggle out from.
The cases in point were China’s deals with Sri Lanka and its jostling for influence in Maldieves where sovereignty was threatened in exchange for building a port here and a tourist islands there. Malaysia too, under Mahatir, quickly realized the trap it was going into and pulled out at last minute. For Pakistan, the money would be going to military as always as one-time payment spread over few years and then they would have lost sovereignty over Balochistan, Gawadar port and maybe their tribal areas adjacent to Afghanistan and along with it the strategic geographic place in South Asia.
After the controversial elections in July 2018, Pakistan’s most popular national icon enters the picture. Finally succeeding in military-controlled polls after spending 22 years in political wilderness, the vibes vis-à-vis CPEC started to defuse after almost immediately he assumed power. His commerce minister has already indicated that CPEC projects could be reviewed and his railway minister has spoken to trim down a major project portfolio of about eight billion dollars. As expected, even these statements prompted a sharp Chinese reaction. Publicly they made it clear that the projects that are in building phase are not subject to review and they amount to around $18-22 billion.