Imran Khan CPEC Diplomacy: Remodelling Trade Politics - I
by James M Dorsey on 02 Nov 2018 2 Comments

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan lands in Beijing on November 3, the latest head of government to seek a renegotiation of commercial terms and/or focus of projects related to China’s infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative. He follows in the footsteps of his Malaysian counterpart; Mahathir Mohamad has suspended US$ 26 billion in Chinese-funded projects; while Myanmar is negotiating a significant scaling back of a Chinese-funded port project on the Bay of Bengal from one that would cost US$ 7.3 billion to a more modest development that would cost US$1.3 billion in a bid to avoid shouldering an unsustainable debt. China has also witnessed pushback and rising anti-Chinese sentiment in countries as far flung as Kazakhstan, Nepal, and Denmark.


Khan’s insistence on expanding the focus of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a US$ 45 billion plus Belt and Road crown jewel, to include agriculture, manufacturing, and job creation takes on added significance as Pakistan seeks an approximately US$ 8 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout to help it avert a financial crisis and discusses with Saudi Arabia investments of up to US$ 10 billion in investments that would be separate but associated with CPEC.


In doing so, Khan is manoeuvring multiple minefields that stretch from likely demands by the International Monetary Fund IMF and the United States for transparency on the financial nuts and bolts of CPEC projects to compliance with requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog that has threatened to blacklist Pakistan, to managing relations with Saudi Arabia at a time that the kingdom’s international standing hangs in the balance as a result of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.


Refocusing the Belt and Road


Preparing for his first visit to China as Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan insisted that the focus of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$ 45 billion plus crown jewel of the Belt and Road, shift from infrastructure to agriculture, job creation and foreign investment. “Earlier, the CPEC was only aimed at construction of motorways and highways, but now the prime minister decided that it will be used to support the agriculture sector, create more jobs and attract other foreign countries like Saudi Arabia to invest in the country,” said information minister Fawad Chaudhry, ignoring the fact that the CPEC plan already made reference to those issues.


Khan’s determination to be seen as ensuring that more benefits accrue to Pakistan from Chinese investment comes at a time that various Asian and African countries worry that Belt and Road-related investments in infrastructure risk trapping them in debt and forcing them to surrender control of critical national infrastructure, and in some cases media assets.


CWE Investment Corporation, a subsidiary of China Three Gorges is considering pulling out of a 750MW hydropower project citing high resettlement and rehabilitation costs in the wake of protests against the planned evacuation of eight Nepali villages. Fears of a debt trap started late last year when unsustainable debt forced Sri Lanka to hand China an 80% stake in Hambantota port. China has written off an undisclosed amount of Tajik debt in exchange for ceding control of some 1,158 square kilometres of disputed territory close to the Central Asian nation’s border with China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang. Zambia saw itself left with no choice but to hand over control of its international airport as well as a state power company.


Pakistan, even before Khan called for a refocusing of CPEC, was becoming more cautious about Chinese investment. Pakistani Water and Power Development Authority chairman Muzammil Hussain charged that “Chinese conditions for financing the Diamer-Bhasha Dam were not doable and against our interests.” China and Pakistan were also at odds over ownership of the $14 billion, 4,500 megawatts (MW)-hydropower project on the Indus River in the country’s problematic region of Gilgit-Baltistan near disputed Kashmir. Earlier, a State Bank of Pakistan study concluded that exports of marble to China, Pakistan’s foremost rough-hewn, freshly-excavated marble export market, and the re-export to Pakistan of Pakistani semi-processed marble was “hurting Pakistan’s marble industry to a significant extent.”


Khan’s chances of refocusing CPEC may be boosted by domestic and foreign blowback China is experiencing. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge in September of US$ 60 billion in new loans to Africa triggered a wave of grumbling in China. Censors quickly moved to delete critical posts that proliferated online after Xi announced the fresh commitments to counter assertion that the Belt and Road amounted to debt trap diplomacy.


China too is apparently becoming more cautious. Reduced Chinese investment in Pakistan accounted for a 42 percent drop in foreign direct investment in the first quarter of this fiscal year. The central bank reported that investment from China, Pakistan’s largest foreign investor had dropped in the period from July to September to US$ 439.5 million compared to US$ 765 million in the previous year. The decline fuelled concern and contributed to Pakistan’s decision to ask the IMF for support.


Tackling Key Issues


The Khan government’s desire to refocus CPEC tackles key issues raised by critics of the project that potentially could impact China’s plan to pacify its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang through a combination of economic development and brutal repression and re-education of its Turkic Muslim population. The initial plan for CPEC appeared to position Pakistan as a raw materials supplier for China, an export market for Chinese products and labour, and an experimental ground for the export of the surveillance state China is rolling out in Xinjiang.


The plan envisioned Chinese state-owned companies leasing thousands of hectares of agricultural land to set up “demonstration projects” in areas ranging from seed varieties to irrigation technology. Chinese agricultural companies would be offered “free capital and loans” from various Chinese ministries as well as the China Development Bank. It further projected the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps introducing mechanization as well as new technologies in Pakistani livestock breeding, development of hybrid varieties, and precision irrigation. Pakistan effectively would become a raw materials supplier rather than an added-value producer, a prerequisite for a sustainable textiles industry.


The plan saw the Pakistani textile sector as a supplier of materials such as yarn and coarse cloth to textile manufacturers in Xinjiang. “China can make the most of the Pakistani market in cheap raw materials to develop the textiles & garments industry and help soak up surplus labour forces in (Xinjiang’s) Kashgar,” the plan said. Chinese companies would be offered preferential treatment with regard to “land, tax, logistics and services” as well as “enterprise income tax, tariff reduction and exemption and sales tax rate” incentives. For Khan to ensure that Pakistani agriculture benefits, the very concept of Chinese investment in Pakistani agriculture would have to renegotiated.


Similarly, Khan has yet to express an opinion on the plan’s incorporation of a full system of monitoring and surveillance that would be built in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order. The system would involve deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.” The surveillance aspect of the plan that identifies Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security as the greatest risk to CPEC could, if unaddressed, transform Pakistani society in ways that go far beyond economic and infrastructure development.


(To be concluded…)

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top