We have all heard of the “Silk Route”, a historic network of trade routes that connected Europe, Asia and Africa, and facilitated a dynamic exchange of ideas and culture between the people across these continents. When China’s President Xi Jinping proposed his landmark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in line with China’s strategic push to play a greater role in global affairs, it appeared that a “New Silk Route” was being developed. However, a closer look at the BRI’s crucial component, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) raises major concerns over the feasibility and intentions of this project.

A $50 billion enterprise, the CPEC consists of extensive investments in developing Pakistan’s telecommunications, transport and energy infrastructure. The corridor is projected to extend about 3,000 km, beginning at Kashgar in China’s restive Xinjiang province, home to the oppressed Uyghur Muslim community. The Karakoram Highway that connects Kashgar to the insurgency-riven Gilgit-Baltistan province, part of the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir between India and Pakistan, forces itself through the perilous Karakoram Mountain Range. It is a narrow road that will struggle to handle even moderate traffic. The corridor will then snake its way through Pakistan to end at Gwadar in Balochistan province, the heartland of human rights violation. The native inhabitant of the lands through which the CPEC muscles its way have incessantly protested the development of this project, owing to which they have been forced out of their homes, silenced or “disappeared”.

Furthermore, given China’s intention of linking the Arabian Sea route with Central Asia, roads will have to be built connecting Gwadar with Kabul through Peshawar or Kandahar province, both of which are under constant attacks by the Afghan Taliban. In other words, CPEC lies in areas wracked by terrorism and separatist movements raising serious security concerns. To make matters worse, neither the weather nor the geology of the terrain is in China’s favour. Even an optimist would shy away from predicting a tangible future for CPEC. 

A panel discussion was organised at the Royal Asiatic Society in London to realistically examine the feasibility of CPEC and provide a safe space for oppressed stakeholders of the project to voice their concerns. Leading experts including Dr Troy Sternberg, Junaid Qureshi, Dr Filippo Boni, Dr Shabir Choudhary and Burzine Waghmar, questioned Pakistan’s legal credibility in sanctioning the project in the disputed territory of Gilgit Baltistan and dubbed the CPEC as China’s imperialist agenda. They called for greater transparency and highlighted the futility of the project, given the insurmountable physical limitations of the landscape. Concerns were raised that exploitation of water and natural resources in the region would result in ecological imbalance and adverse changes in climate, which cannot justify CPEC’s projected monetary benefits. It was also argued that the asymmetrical deliberately cynical relationship between Beijing and Islamabad, failed to safeguard the interests of local manufacturers, industries and supply-chains in Pakistan. Arif Ajakia, Pakistani human rights activist, called CPEC the “China-Punjab” Economic Corridor and raised concerns over the exploitation of people from other provinces of Pakistan. Furthermore, Pakistan’s apathy towards the tyrannised Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Province, where even fasting during Ramzan is prohibited, was questioned. A champion of the Uyghur Muslim community, Rahima Mahmut recounted the inhumane treatment of Uyghurs and said that China’s intention in developing CPEC was purely self-serving.

The $50bn question is what purpose does the CPEC serve, if not as an actual avenue for trade and commerce? Reports suggest that Gwadar, which is under a 40-year lease to China, may be a part of China’s String of Pearls—serving as yet another Chinese naval outpost, threatening India’s energy and economic security. India and other regional players have expressed their concerns over the unilateral design and operations of this initiative. With the perfect recipe to aggravate the complexities of the Indian subcontinent and expand China’s strategic interests of increasing its illegitimate land share in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, is CPEC really an economic game-changer or a guise for wielding soft power? Lastly, it is worth remembering that CPEC is an investment, not an aid to Pakistan. Will this initiative strengthen the Pakistani economy or burdened it with unserviceable debt and internal turmoil?

Dr Sweta Raghavan, Founder and Director Scientists & Co., was Chair of the panel discussion on CPEC: Diplomatic Debt-Trap or Economic Game-Changer for South Asia? held at the Royal Asiatic Society and organised by EFSAS.

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