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Rethinking CPEC and the role of China

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Abdul Razak Dawood, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Adviser on Commerce, Textile, Industry & Production and Investment told the Financial Times that the previous Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz ) government while signing the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) agreement with China did not safeguard Pakistan’s economic interests.

Dawood also made the point, that some of the CPEC projects could be put on hold for a year, and CPEC can be stretched up to five years. Said Dawood, “Perhaps we can stretch CPEC out over another five years or so.

Interestingly, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s  recent Pakistan visit, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi assured the former, that Pakistan would accord high priority to CPEC — which was of immense economic and strategic importance for Pakistan. Qureshi also stated, that projects would be implemented at the earliest. Even the normally outspoken Pakistan Finance Minister, Asad Umar was cautious,  and categorically said that ‘We don’t intend to handle this process like Mahathir”. Imran Khan also met with Wang Yi, and a statement from the Pakistani side read as follows:

“The Prime Minister reiterated that the Government is committed to the implementation of the CPEC,” Wang Yi on his part emphasized on the fact, that CPEC was not responsible for Pakistan’s debts. He also stated, that Beijing was willing to re-negotiate a Free Trade Agreement which according to many in Pakistan, was heavily skewed in favour of China and has faced domestic opposition

During the course of a meeting between the Planning, Development and Reforms Commission of Pakistan and the National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC) of China two interesting aspects were added to the existing agreement. The first, that third countries would be allowed to invest in the upcoming 9 Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s) of CPEC. The Chinese delegation during the meeting is supposed to have conveyed the point, that it was open to investment from countries which were friendly to both Pakistan and China to invest in the Economic Zones. Some of the potential countries discussed were; Turkey, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Second, ‘social sector’ schemes and regional development schemes were added to the existing CPEC projects. Social sector schemes include drinking water, health, education and technical training. The inclusion of these areas, was done keeping in mind the priorities of the current government.

Is a significant re-think towards CPEC possible?

There is no doubt, that Islamabad’s dependence upon China would have increased as a consequence of its current economic situation and it’s deteriorating ties with Washington DC (days before Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, landed in Islamabad, military aid to the tune of 300 Million USD was withdrawn. Yet, some re-think vis-à-vis CPEC can not be ruled out, because a number of Pakistani politicians have expressed discomfort with the lack of transparency regarding the project.

Transparency with regard to the CPEC project

When in opposition, Imran had himself spoken about the need for greater transparency and openness with regard to the project. Before the elections in July 2018, many analysts argued, that the Chinese would be far more comfortable with PPP and PML-N as opposed to Imran Khan.

PTI’s protests against the previous PML-N government, were also viewed with skepticism by the Chinese who believed, that these protests would be detrimental to the progress of the project. Khan during his meeting, in 2016, with the Chinese Envoy to Pakistan tried to address the apprehensions of the Chinese by saying he was all for the project.

One of the objections of Pakistani politicians from Non-Punjabi provinces (across parties), as well as analysts, was that the project was Punjab Centric. In November 2017, members from the Senate including the then ruling party – PML-N – had spoken about the lack of transparency of CPEC, and had also alluded to the fact that China was benefitting more.

Apart from domestic politics, the firm stance taken by Malaysian PM, Mahathir Mohammad with regard to some Chinese projects (the Malaysian PM scrapped projects worth 20 Billion USD) is also important and has forced a rethink in Pakistan . An editorial in Dawn titled, ‘Rearranging CPEC’, also cited Mahathir’s stance against Chinese projects. While it is unlikely, that Pakistan may follow suit as was stated by the Finance Minister, Asad Umar as well as Abdul Razak Dawood himself (Dawood in fact had to clarify, that his remarks with regard to CPEC had been quoted out of context)

There will be groups in Pakistan (especially members of the business community) who could nudge the current government towards tweaking the CPEC agreement further as well as resetting the Pakistan-China economic relationship to some extent. China itself can not afford to ignore Mahathir’s stance, as well as his statement about the rise of a ‘new colonialism’. The address of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Africa-China Summit, as well as Wang Yi’s statements during his Pakistan visit, are clear indicators that China is not taking Mahathir’s statements lightly. Whether Imran Khan can be a Mahathir off course is a different issue.

Lack of options and GHQ

While there may be certain personalities within the current government who are making the right noises with regard to the CPEC project, Islamabad’s economic situation has reduced its options.

Apart from this, the Pakistan army (which runs the show when it comes to complex foreign policy issues) has robust ties with Beijing, and will prevent any drastic changes to the CPEC agreement. During his meeting with Wang Yi, the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa assured the visiting Chinese Minister of full support. The Chinese had a robust relationship with former Pakistan Army Chief, Raheel Sharif as well.

A re-think on CPEC as well as Pakistan-China economic relations (highly unlikely in the short run), would benefit not just Pakistan, but could have broader ramifications, and may compel more countries to rethink their ties with China.

The Malaysian PM, Mahathir Mohammad deserves credit for highlighting the shortcoming of China’s infrastructural projects as well as it’s economic ties with certain countries. This debate is not likely to die down soon, though not every country is in a position to take a bold stand like Mahathir. Imran Khan, in private, may be supporting Mahathir’s approach towards China, but can not afford to do so publicly.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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South Asia

Is Pakistan the next Yemen?

Nageen Ashraf

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The long going Shia-Sunni conflict became more turbulent after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Shia-Sunni divide had never been more severe. And then the Arab spring of 2011 had its own repercussions on this divide. This sectarian divide is a major bone of contention between Iran and Saudi Arabia and has affected other states in the Middle-Eastern region too. Syria and Yemen are the states where Arab Spring became an “Arab disaster” and the uprisings failed to remove the authorities. Instead, the mutiny turned into a civil war which is still going on in both the states. What made these civil wars worst was the involvement of various foreign actors in the conflict. In Syria, the two major oppositions are supported by a set of different actors. The Bashar Al Assad regime, which is Shia, is backed by Iran and Russia. And the Sunni rebels are backed by Saudi Arabia and USA. The involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran is to gain sectarian dominance. Iran wants the Shia regime to stay in power; however KSA wants the Sunni rebels to gain control in Syria. Similarly, in case of Yemen, the regime is Sunni and is again backed by Saudi Arabia and USA; and the Houthi rebels who belong to the Shia branch are strongly backed by Iran. Here again, the aim is to get the dominance of the region as well as respective branches of Islam. Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of Sunni branch and Iran considers itself the leader of Shia branch and both want to increase their influence in other Islamic states.

With increasing tensions between both the Islamic branches in Pakistan, the situation seems much familiar to the states of Middle-East. The current rioting against the Shia community which overlapped with the Holy month of Muharram, where “#ShiaGenocide” trended on Twitter and rallies have been carried out on streets enchanting anti-Shia slogans, made Shia community more fierce and boisterous. A data shows that from 2001 to 2008, more than 4000 Shias have been killed on the basis of their sect. Shias have been continuously harassed, bullied, and even killed just because they belong to a different sect. This is an alarming situation because these actions are only radicalizing the Shia community and doing no good to the state. There have been dozens of cases of discrimination, public hate speeches, and biased killings of Shias which can lead to a proper divide and even uprising of Shias against the government, making it another Yemen. And Iran, being a very neighbour of Pakistan would definitely not hesitate to support the Shia community, which can make the situation worse. Even if Pakistan gets the support from Saudi Arabia (which is also very likely to intervene in the conflict to counter Iran), the risk of getting involved in a conflict with its neighbour seems a really bad idea. Pakistan’s rival, India is already looking for opportunities to make this divide deeper. Indian politician Subramanian Swamy also mentioned in his tweet a few days ago, that India must get ready to protect Shias in India, and mentioned that Pakistani Sunnis have made an agenda to massacre them. No wonders India’s ready to not miss this opportunity. We need to rethink our policies and our attitudes towards this minority; a minority which can make Pakistan the next Yemen if things are not looked upon on time.

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How China Continues To Undermine India’s interests In The Brahmaputra

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Geopolitics in India China relations is not only limited to land disputes or competition in the oceans but also river disputes such as the one associated with the Brahmaputra basin. The water dispute between the two countries traces its origin to many decades, with China intending to start projects in the Tibetan Plateau surrounding the river since 1958 when Chairman Mao giving ideas regarding the Three Gorges Dam project on Yangtse river which after many years of difficulty, was finally constructed in2006.Following the construction of this dam, the Chinese government turned its focus to the Yarlung Tsangpo river projects, likely driven by challenges of water shortage it faced.

In contemporary times, the divergence between India and China over Brahmaputra is primarily driven by construction of hydropower power projects by China as well as the lack of transparency over hydrological data by the country. As a lower riparian state, India is at a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis China, which possesses the capability constructs dams as well as change the course of the river. These possibilities have direct implications for India’s North East region, where economic opportunities are already scarce. An alteration in the course of the river that feeds large swathes of land in the region could severely impact the residents of these states. Moreover, opaque data practices by China pose additional threats to India’s North East region that is home to many flood prone areas along the Brahmaputra basin.

China at many instances, has undermined India’s interests by not sharing the hydrological data regarding its hydropower projects, where the latter has requested for it numerous times since 2002 with water sharing agreements being signed between the Water resources ministries from both sides in 2013[i] and 2018[ii] for the riparian countries to further strengthen mutual understanding regarding natural resources in the rivers, which have not yet been implemented because of geopolitical differences from both sides. The sharing of hydrological data is necessary for India for keeping a close watch on the levels of floods in vulnerable areas.

It has been observed in an IDSA report[iii] that, China basically undermines India’s reservations on various dam projects being initiated by the former in the western route of the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan. Without consulting India, it has planned to construct dams near the river. It has done so with the construction of the Zangmu dam in 2014.China has also remained non-transparent regarding construction of three dam projects- Dagu, Jiaga and Jiexu, also situated on Yarlung Tsangpo basin.

China’s Leverage In The Brahmaputra

In 2017, when the Doklam crisis took place, China didn’t share any hydrological data at that time for its own political leveraging citing reasons such as floods wiping out one of the hydrological sharing areas.

A water sharing agreement[iv] was signed between India and China in Qingdao in 2018 for the latter to share hydrological data during flood season for the Brahmaputra basin between the months of May and October. Dam construction has led to change in colours of the Siang riverwhich turned blackish grey the same year, where this portion of the river became contaminated and unsafe for consumption, therefore impacting water supplies in the region.

Always it seemed that there has been a slight positive developments in sharing hydrological data with the Indian government from the Chinese side which the latter agreed but these agreements never came into full force. A noted Indian newspaper, New Indian Express highlighted that, the three areas have agreed to share hydrological data on May 15th this year from hydrological stations- Nugesha, Yangchun and Nuxia which are located in Tibet.[v]There have been instances when China has agreed to share details about its hydrological details but for its own security and strategic interests, it has chosen to not declare any crucial details of the same.

China’s Geopolitical Strategy With The Water Flow

China through river diplomacy could put pressure on India to focus more on its national security by deterring its role in territorial claims.  It could also be seen as a passive assessing tool of checking India’s strategy which means that China will play its cards when a weaker country is unprepared and the latter losing all any territory or water body. China’s selfish geopolitical ambition to claim South Tibet where the tributary –Siang flows, is another reason behind which it is highly prioritising hydrological river projects.

This policy is being given strategic importance by the Chinese government authorities under the New Foreign Policy initiated by Xi Jinping which lays emphasis on prosperity and security being important for economic development[vi] where the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan[vii] is being used as a way by China to address its water problems giving it a good reason to divert the courses of Yarlung Tsangpo, impacting India, making it difficult to address its concerns. 

Concluding Points

The water resource strategy is a good example of explaining the silent strategy which China could use for coercing India regarding sharing of waters and territories instead of using armed conflicts. China seems to benefit through this river initiative in terms of economic development and also defence. The MoU signing is process where China is trying to buy time to increase its presence and henceforth, being the main beneficiary while putting India under a period of uncertainty.


[i]“Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India and the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers””, Ministry Of External Affairs, October 23,2013, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/22368

[ii]“India China sign Bilateral Agreements In Qingdao”, Ministry Of External Affairs , June 09,2018, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/29966/IndiaChina_Bilateral_Agreements_signed_in_Qingdao_China

[iii]Shreya Bhattacharya,” China’s Hydropower Ambitions And The Brahmaputra”, IDSA Backgrounder,, July 23,2018, pp 2-8

[iv] MEA ,2018

[v]PTI,” Amid Border Tensions With India ,China starts sharing Hydrological Data For Brahmaputra River”,New Indian Express, May 16, 2020,https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/may/16/amid-border-tensions-with-india-china-starts-sharing-hydrological-data-for-brahmaputra-river-2143909.html

[vi] Nilanjan Ghosh ,Jayanta Bandopadhyay and Sayangshu Modak , “China India Data Sharing For Early Flood Warning In The Brahmaputra: A Critique”, ORF Issue Brief,Issue 328, December 2019,p. 2

[vii]Ibid

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Pakistan’s War with COVID-19: A Victory for Now

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From rethinking health care systems to the redefining of global movement and migration, the coronavirus has undoubtedly changed the world – Pakistan being no exception. However, Pakistan, one of the highest populated countries in the world and a developing nation, somehow weathered the storm far better than most countries in the world – leaving many international experts and doctors questioning how.

A state of panic and chaos gripped Pakistan when the first two cases of the novel coronavirus were registered near the Iranian border, back in February of 2020. With flimsy healthcare infrastructure, insufficient public awareness and overcrowded urban spaces succumbing to grisly sanitation system, Pakistan was globally perceived to be a misfit for this kind of war, and also thought to be amongst the brutally hit ones. The notable trust deficit between the government and public, and the ignorance of both could make matters even worse.

The concept of social distancing, not new to the modern world, was alien to a mighty chunk of the masses. Pakistan, one of the only two countries still battling polio, was forecasted by prominent experts to fall deep into a quagmire, if timely actions were not taken. During May the cases began rising and in June, they peaked – hospitals were put on high alert and fear enveloped the populace. Pakistan’s already frail economy also struggled due to the coronavirus – specifically due to the nationwide lockdown that began in March 2020.However, soon after the country hit its peak, the plans finally started to kick off well; active cases began dropping by the end of June. Miraculously, Pakistan has accelerated its recovery rate to 96% in a matter of 6 months, which is surprising, given the current economic and demographic situation of the country.

Out of the 307,000+ active cases registered, more than 6,400 infected have fell victim to this disease so far, according to the Government of Pakistan. Pakistan’s surprising comeback from the pandemic has prompted World Health Organization (WHO) to declare Pakistan as an influential player in the fight against Covid-19.But how was Pakistan able to avert this public health crisis with a handful of resources and poor health infrastructure?

Source: Wikipedia

Graphical Analysis: The trend shows that the country witnessed the peak of the epidemic by mid-June as a result of direct or indirect violations of SOPs by the general public, especially during the Islamic month of Ramadan and Eid ul Fitr. However, the country observed a decline in daily cases by the end of June.

CLOSED CASES*(Recovered/Discharged +Deaths)298,719
Recovered/Discharged292,303 (98%)
Deaths6,416 (2%)

*As of 21st September                         Source: Worldometer

Lockdown Policy

Amidst the national outcry for straining financial capacity, Pakistan’s healthcare infrastructure stood tall like a “Jenga” tower, with the government’s sensitive decision-making on one hand against the public’s negligence. The opposition politically capitalized on the public’s doubt about the government’s capability in dealing with a catastrophe of this scale initially, given the past experiences in dealing with natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes. Under such pressure and insecurity, PM Khan came up with a different solution.

After imposing a complete lockdown in March, a popular containment strategy, Pakistan pursued partial lockdown by closing down vicinities. The ruling party in consensus with other major elements also decided to keep crucial sectors of the economy, the livelihood of millions of wagers, open for economic activity. The government’s take on the countrywide lockdown seemed like a catalyst for an economic, social and political collapse, especially for a developing country like Pakistan.

Despite so many fingers raised at the government’s approach, PM Khan staunchly defended his position by explaining how it could give birth to greater problems like unemployment and eventually push the country into mass starvation. Reports about recession and market crashes from the neighboring India further emboldened the government on its anticipated approach – the smart lockdown.

While many believe that the policy was successful in slowing the spread of the disease in the country, notable health experts believe that the lockdown policy has only saved the country from an economic crisis, and not the disease itself yet. They believe other factors, like demography, have a bigger role to play in the country’s defense so far.

Youthful Demography

The major factor to consider is the demographic structure of Pakistan. Pakistan stands in the list of the countries with the highest number of independent population (youth, adults) against its dependent population (children, old-aged). In other words, Pakistan is home to a large number of youth or working age population; the number of old-aged individuals is significantly less.

Although COVID-19 can fatally affect people of all ages, analysis of the global death figures from the virus in the developed countries in light of the data of median age from the developed countries taken from Global health observatory data (WHO), specifically Italy, UK, France, suggests that the virus has caused more deaths in countries with the average age above 40. According to the above mentioned source, average age in Pakistan is 22; which means that the number of people with stronger physiological immunity is high, and the virus eventually dies down when the transmission occurs between large communities of young people. Thus, it can be said that the youth aspect of Pakistan’s demography might have a key role to play in the apparent success so far.

The Reporting Conspiracy

Pakistan’s testing capacity has also been subject to criticism, with claims that the health system is not sufficiently testing its population on a daily basis. Despite the Prime Minister’s sole credit to the government’s micro-lockdown policy, the data reveals an evident relationship between the decline in testing and reduction in new cases. The statistics released by Our World in Data indicate that Pakistan’s daily tests per thousand people, by July 16, was 0.1. The above source also shows that figure was estimated to be 0.13 back in June, the peak-month; the figures reveal a notable decline in overall testing from June to July.

Misreporting at the district level might have understated the official figures, but the notable thing is that even if we consider the fact that the country’s general testing has declined, it has still managed to show a positive rate less than 5%, according to Al Jazeera. According to the World Health Organization, any country with a positive rate less than 5% is in control of the disease outbreak.

Vulnerability to the Virus

By June, the disease spiraled out of control and started spreading at a very rapid pace. Due to religious gatherings in the month of Ramadan despite the lockdown restrictions, and the lifting of lockdown few weeks after Eid Ul Fitr, the country witnessed a boom in new cases. If we analyze the trend in the aforementioned graph, we can see that the number of cases almost tripled in a month. However, you can also see that after hitting a peak (6,825) in new cases, the rate of new infection steadily begin to decline over the next few days.

In an interview to Al-Jazeera, a health professional in Pakistan suggests that despite the highly contagious nature, the vulnerability to getting infected by the virus varies from individual to individual; a concept known as “population heterogeneity” in epidemiology.

Polio Response Force to the Rescue

With a big question mark on the healthcare’s capacity to accommodate sufficient ventilators for patients nearing respiratory breakdown, Pakistan defied all odds by deploying its polio eradication infrastructure to grapple the virus from spreading. The infrastructure, solely built to combat polio in rural and remote areas, has borne a great deal of innovation and research over the years due to immense pressure from the global health authorities to extirpate it.

Without the presence of a digital integrated health information system on a national level, Pakistan marched forward by integrating its polio eradication system with the COVID-19 monitoring system, an effort highlighted by the World Health Organization in a press conference. Highly trained health workers who were tasked to visit every door around the country for polio vaccination, were now directed to strategize exceptional practices that could effectively monitor, trace and contain the virus.

Even though the healthcare system does not have many epidemiologists in its infantry, Pakistan’s unique strategy has been able to considerably counter the virus than the countries widely accredited for their breakthroughs in the domain of disease control. Pakistan has received much deserved worldwide recognition in its unanticipated yet effective battle against the contagion.

The War Continues…

Pakistan might have pulled a narrow victory in what is considered as the first round of the pandemic, but the threat of the second wave still lurks around the corner. Health officials are continuously ringing bells for a potential disaster and advising the government to brace for it early on. They have also requested the government to pursue a total lockdown, if the country goes through a second wave, in the coming months as historical data suggests that second waves have usually taken a higher toll on the population as compared to the predecessor waves, like that of the Spanish influenza.

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