ISLAMABAD - American hostility towards the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has now come into the open. Indirect criticism such as by Defence Secretary Mattis that CPEC would pass through “disputed territory” was replaced by a frontal assault last month by Secretary of State Pompeo stating, in the context of Pakistan possibly seeking an IMF bailout, that “there is no rationale for IMF tax dollars to bail out Chinese bond holders or China itself.
Even more direct was the letter of August 3rd signed by 16 US senators to the Secretaries of State and Treasury which claims that Pakistan will seek an IMF bailout to pay off “debt obligations caused by CPEC”, which not only “illustrates the dangers of China’s debt trap diplomacy but also poses a “national security threat to the United States”. The letter goes on to elaborate this “threat” as China’s alleged control of Gwadar Port that could be “converted into a naval base” to enable the Chinese Navy to “maintain a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean”. It concludes by alleging that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which CPEC is an integral part, is designed to create “an economic world order ultimately dominated by China”.
These American pronouncements, widely supported by the American media, clearly demonstrate a coordinated assault on CPEC , which has become a flash point in the evolving strategic competition between the US and China. Not surprisingly, India, as America’s strategic partner and keen aspirant to becoming a counter-weight to China, has fully supported the American approach, alleging that CPEC will pass through Indian territory “occupied” by Pakistan. These developments pose serious challenges for Pakistan, both from the economic perspective and broadly at the strategic level.
For Pakistan, CPEC has been correctly described as a “game changer” as it will jumpstart a flagging economy with infusion of more than $65 billion. It will improve and expand the country’s infrastructure, bring in much-needed FDI from China and other countries, create greater employment opportunities, increase productivity and enlarge exports. Therefore, CPEC would ensure integrated and sustained development in Pakistan with connectivity to the entire South and Central Asian region, leading to economic and social development throughout the country, bringing millions of our people out of poverty while enhancing Pakistan’s geo-strategic significance globally.
Admittedly there is a need to remove the obstacles to implementing such a huge project, including increase in the debt burden over the short to medium term, as well as keeping the process transparent in various agreements, the overall long-term gain is bound to be positive for Pakistan. Therefore, we need to avoid falling into the American trap, which is raising doubts, even within Pakistan. As we have experienced from the debt trap created by American aid and IMF bailouts, for which there are few tangible gains, their real objective is to ensure that Pakistan consistently remains in the circle of poverty, and, therefore, dependent on them.
The strategic dimension of the Indo-US opposition to CPEC is even more ominous. With the rise of China as a strategic competitor, a declining US, instead of acknowledging the emerging multi-polar world, is trying desperately to cling on to its erstwhile position of being the sole ‘superpower’. To contain China, the US, “Pivot to Asia”, has strengthened existing alliances with Japan, Australia and South Korea while developing strategic alliances with new partners India and Vietnam, which have their own differences with China. In particular they have developed the “Quadrilateral Alliance” involving the US, Japan, Australia and India, to control the Indian and Pacific Oceans, through the newly- termed US “Indo-Pacific Command”. The ostensible purpose is to ensure freedom of navigation in this region.
But the real objective is to contain China — especially by holding hostage its vital shipping links on which 80 per cent of Chinese trade depends. The US has also instigated the littoral states of the South China Sea to abandon their bilateral negotiations with China to settle territorial differences, while promoting itself as the final arbiter in these disputes. These efforts are backed up by American naval and air operations in the South China Sea.
The pushback by China to protect its strategic interests is totally justified. But its military build-up is still a fraction of the US, whose defence budget is larger than the next 10 countries put together. If the Chinese are seeking naval bases to protect their shipping in the region, the US has over seven known bases in the “Indo-Pacific” apart from the naval facilities of the “Quad” countries. Whereas China seeks a negotiated solution to territorial claims in the South China Sea, as demonstrated by its agreement on a code of conduct with Asean countries, the US is pushing for military confrontation in the region. It is also in this context that China is developing the BRI as an alternative to the sea lanes threatened by the US in order to outreach to Asia, Africa and Europe. Therefore, it is in order to “contain” China that the US is opposing BRI and CPEC .
In this strategic confrontation, Pakistan has come to play a pivotal role. CPEC will be a virtual lifeline for China in the future while the US and India will exert multiple means of pressure to prevent its realisation. At stake is not only Pakistan’s strategic partnership with China but its own economic development that can ensure our genuine sovereignty. The government and people of Pakistan must recognise this reality and not fall prey to American machinations to sow mistrust between Pakistan and China to derail CPEC . Those deficiencies that exist in CPEC need to be corrected but the overall project must continue to be implemented. Together with China, Pakistan needs to defeat this assault on CPEC .
*BY: Zamir Akram, originally Published in The Express Tribune.*