Wednesday, April 22, 2015
By Umer Farooq
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is nothing short of a 'fate changer', said Pakistani Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal, the man behind the historic project. The excitement appears to be mutual, as China has shown equal enthusiasm for the project throughout a two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Islamabad which culminated on Tuesday.
Over 51 agreements and MoUs were signed between the two countries worth over US$46 billion, the largest ever investment in the history of Pakistan by any country.
The major component of the CPEC includes power projects worth US$35-37 billion for energy-starved Pakistan, and massive infrastructure development throughout the country through concessional loans of US$7–8 billion, with the lowest interest rates in the international market. A chunk of the investment will be used for the development of a 3000km rail, road, and oil pipeline network stretching from Kashgar in China all the way down to Gwadar port on the Arabian sea, operated by the state-owned China Overseas Port Holding Company.
CPEC is part of an expanding network of corridors that will link China's eastern industrial zones with markets in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. This will allow China to rapidly develop its interior and western provinces which have 'missed' the Chinese economic miracle.
The CPEC also holds symbolic value because it sits at the crossroads of China's Silk Road Economic Belt andMaritime Silk Road, cutting the travel time and distance of freight, especially oil imports, by thousands of kilometers to China. Moreover, in terms of geopolitics, the CPEC fills the last slot for China to complete a web of economic networks in the region. With major investments already in place in Sri Lanka, Burma and Bangladesh, China is shredding any Indian hopes of playing hegemon.
It's a surprise, given India's strong linguistic, historical and cultural links with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, that New Delhi missed the opportunity for economic integration with South Asia, allowing China to take the advantage.
But China's economic inroads into Pakistan and its recent involvement in Afghanistan benefit the US, which has historically maintained a strong influence over Pakistan. With the US desperate to end its presence in Afghanistan, China is beginning to play a central role through its economic corridors in stabilising the region for a US withdrawal, a win-win for both China and the US.
For Pakistan, a country in a perpetual state of war since the 1980s and which has suffered near economic collapse due to the War on Terror, CPEC is an opportunity to boost it's sluggish economy.
'At a time when no country was ready to invest in Pakistan due to security concerns, China has come forward to make an enormous investment that has a potential to transform Pakistan forever', said Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal. CPEC aligns with the Vision 2025 economic plan of the Pakistani Government, which has regional connectivity as one of the seven pillars of Pakistan's future economic growth.
The symbolism of this project is that it comes as investment, not aid. The latter is generally considered wasteful by authorities in Pakistan for having no real on-the-ground impact on poverty or development. 'Most of the aid goes to the non-governmental sector, and the bulk goes back to the donor countries', stated Ahsan Iqbal in an interview with AFP.
Such an enormous project comes with severe challenges, especially in terms of how much will eventually be delivered. And given Pakistan's fragile democracy, instability, a growing insurgency in the Baluchistan region (where Gwadar port is located), and dissident voices, many will wonder if these projects will see the light of day.
For Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal, who recognises these challenges, the most important thing is to keep pace with China on the CPEC. According to him, 'CPEC is the shortest but not the only supply chain route available for China', and hence, if Pakistan is not able to implement and meet China's swift development, the CPEC will not go ahead as planned.
CPEC will face many hurdles, both domestically and from regional powers that may see it as a threat. However, with a multi-billion dollar Chinese stake in the project, and Pakistan looking at it as a lifeline for survival, optimism remains high in both countries.
But quantitative measures of grassroots sentiment between the two countries tell a different story. While Pakistanis view China in an overwhelmingly positive light — a July 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 78 percent of respondents view China favorably — It’s not clear why Chinese popular opinion of Pakistan is so out of kilter with the two countries’ official relationship. Though most Chinese doacknowledge the close ties between the countries, someview Pakistan as violent, chaotic, and poorly governed. Pakistan shares a 372-mile border with Xinjiang, the northwestern Chinese region home to 10 million Uighurs, a largely Muslim Turkic-speaking minority, a region with sporadic outbreaks of violence between Uighurs and the majority Han population. In August 2011, officials in the region of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang claimed that Uighur militants had received training in Pakistan, and Chinese officials have pressured Pakistan to expel Uighur separatists who may be operating there.
By Abdul Basit
Saudi Arabia’s demand that Pakistan joins its coalition against the Houthi uprising in Yemen has put Islamabad in a catch-22 between joining the Saudi alliance and not antagonising its neighbour Iran. Joining the Saudi coalition would have long-term political, economic and security repercussions for Pakistan.
Following a high-level Pakistani delegation to the kingdom, Pakistan’s parliament met on 6 April 2015 to debate the merits of joining the Saudi-led coalition against the uprising. The Saudis have asked Pakistan for aircrafts, naval vessels and ground troops.
Pakistan is not in a political position to say ‘no’ to the Saudis. Historically, Saudi Arabia has provided Pakistan with generous economic assistance. Millions of Pakistanis who work in the Middle East form the largest part of the global Pakistani diaspora. The foreign remittances sent home from the Middle East are a mainstay ofPakistan’s struggling economy. So, a blunt ‘no’ to the Saudi demand could put the livelihoods of these Pakistanis in danger.
At the same, Pakistan simply cannot afford to commit its troops. Surrounded by a multitude of internal and external security challenges, Pakistan’s plate is full on all sides. Joining the coalition would thus have serious long-term political, economic and security repercussions for the country.
After the successful conclusion of the US–Iran nuclear deal, the balance of power is shifting in the Middle East. Saudi airstrikes in Yemen close to the nuclear deal are no mere coincidence. The conflict is the start of a wider regional tussle in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence and hegemony. This is a conflict that Pakistan should avoid.
Getting sucked into the Iranian–Saudi power struggle could be detrimental to Pakistan’s fight against home-grown terrorism. After more than a decade of conflict, the situation in Pakistan is gradually stabilising. Moving troops to the Middle East now would be a fatal mistake.
Pakistan’s armed forces are already stretched. Forty per cent are engaged in combat positions. A third of the military and paramilitary troops are involved in counter-terrorism operation in Afghan–Pakistan border areas. And the remaining troops are deployed along the eastern Indian border or engaged in a multitude of counter-terrorism-related activities inside the country. So, Pakistan would do well to keep itself neutral and focus on more urgent domestic security matters.
Committing Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia in return for financial assistance will certainly come with a caveat allowing for Saudi-backed Salafist groups to preach their radical version of Islam in Pakistan unchecked. This will only increase the already entrenched religious radicalisation and polarisation in the country.
Joining the Saudi coalition will only antagonise Iran, with which Pakistan shares a 900-kilometre border. It could even result in another episode of Saudi–Iranian proxy war on Pakistani soil between Saudi-backed Sunni and Iran-backed Shia militant groups. After Iran, the second largest number of Shia in the world live in Pakistan. They make up around 15–20 per cent of Pakistan’s total population. Iran can use the sectarian card against Pakistan. Shia and Sunni militant groups have been involved in tit-for-tat sectarian killings in Pakistan for last three decades.
Saudi-backed Sunni groups like Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, Jamat-e-Islami and Iranian-backed Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen and the Imamia Student Organisation (ISO) are already protesting either in favour of or in opposition to Pakistan’s prospective decision to join the coalition.
To aggravate the situation, any Sunni–Shia rift in Pakistan would provide an ideal opportunity for Islamic State-affiliated militant groups to exploit the sectarian fault lines to gain a foothold and increase their influence in the society. Anti-Shia and anti-Iranian militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jandullah can also join hands with Islamic State in such a situation.
Abroad, Iran also has the ability to undermine Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. It can extend support to groups and forces hostile to Pakistan, especially the Baloch separatist groups.
Energy is another concern for Pakistan. The lifting of US sanctions on Iran as a result of the nuclear deal has opened the way for energy-starved Pakistan to fulfil its soaring energy demands by importing Iranian gas. This is the quickest and cheapest way of overcoming the chronic energy crisis. But if Pakistan joins the Saudi coalition, Iran could retaliate by penalising Pakistan to the tune of US$300 million daily for failing to construct Pakistan’s portion of the 2012 Iran–Pakistan gas pipeline.
But there is a way out. At the height of the Cold War, Pakistan acted as a bridge for Sino–American rapprochement. Pakistan facilitated then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China, which paved the way for former US president Richard Nixon’s Beijing visit in 1972.
Today, Pakistan can play the same bridging role between Saudi Arabia and Iran at a time when no other Muslim country is making any serious efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Yemen. This would allow Pakistan to improve its currently negative international reputation to that of a responsible Muslim state.
Pakistan has already started making efforts in this direction. On 3 April 2015 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Turkey seeking assistance to find a peaceful settlement to the Yemeni dispute. On 8 April 2015, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Pakistan — on the government’s invitation — to discuss the situation in Yemen. Pakistan is also making efforts to convene an emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Pakistan should have learnt its lessons from 30 years of jihadi misadventures in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir. The Iranian–Saudi conflict goes beyond sectarian and geopolitical considerations to the struggle between Persian and Arabian civilisations. Committing Pakistani troops to the never-ending Iranian–Saudi power struggle would be foolhardy at best.
By PERVEZ HOODBHOY
The Pakistani Parliament, even while stating its commitment to protect the territory of Saudi Arabia, recently adopted a resolution not to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. Many Pakistanis are worn out by the Taliban insurgency at home and oppose intervention abroad, especially to fight an enemy whose name they are hearing for the first time and risk worsening relations with its backer, Iran.
The foreign affairs minister of the United Arab Emirates, Anwar Gargash, blasted the decision as “contradictory and dangerous and unexpected,” accusing Pakistan of advancing Iran’s interests rather than those of its own Persian Gulf allies. Pakistan was choosing neutrality in an “existential confrontation,” he said, and it would pay the price.
Pakistan’s federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, responded that it was “unacceptable” for a friendly country to be “leveling threats.” But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, beholden to Saudi Arabia’s rulers for his safety after the 1999 coup that deposed him, is now under great pressure. Millions of Pakistanis work in the Persian Gulf, sending back vast remittances. Many of Pakistan’s politicians and generals have major investments in the region, and some have a deep affinity for Wahhabism. Rich Arabs in Pakistan are treated like royalty, allowed to flout hunting and environmental protection laws.
Small surprise then that some members of the Pakistani government have scurried to Riyadh to offer explanations. Or that some backpedaling has begun. Last week, the Pakistani military agreed to commit naval vessels to help enforce an arms embargo against the Houthis. This, however, will not undo the damage: The recent deterioration of Pakistan’s ties with its Arab benefactors, even if it turns out to be temporary, is unprecedented.For Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani Parliament’s surprising assertion of independence was especially worrisome because it came on the heels of the American-backed preliminary nuclear deal with Iran. The kingdom has long feared rapprochement between Iran and the United States, as well as the development of Iran’s nuclear program. The influential former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, has described Iran as a “paper tiger, but one with steel claws.” According to documents disclosed by WikiLeaks, the late King Abdullah repeatedly urged Washington to attack Iran and “cut off the head of the snake.” And now under the recent nuclear agreement, which is to be finalized by the end of June, Iran’s breakout time — the time it would need to build a nuclear weapon if it actually set out to — would be just one year.
This development undermines Saudi Arabia’s longstanding nuclear strategy. In the 1970s, partly to extend its influence, partly in the name of Muslim solidarity, it began bankrolling Pakistan’s nuclear program. In gratitude, the Pakistani government renamed the city of Lyallpur as Faisalabad, after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. When Pakistan seemed to dither after India tested five nuclear bombs in May 1998, the Saudi government pledged to give it 50,000 barrels of oil a day for free. Pakistan soon tested six of its own bombs. Later, the Saudi defense minister at the time, Prince Sultan, visited the secret nuclear and missile facilities at the Kahuta complex near Islamabad, which had been off-limits even to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, by her account.In exchange for its largesse, Saudi Arabia has received Pakistani military assistance in the form of soldiers, expertise and ballistic missiles. Pakistani pilots flew Saudi combat jets against South Yemen in the late 1960s. The Pakistan Air Force helped the Royal Saudi Air Force in its early years. Today Saudi officers train at Pakistan’s national defense colleges.
The Saudi government has taken the quid pro quo to imply certain nuclear benefits as well, including, if need be, the delivery at short notice of some of the nuclear weapons it has helped pay for. Some Pakistani warheads are said to have been earmarked for that purpose and reportedly are stocked at the Minhas air force base in Kamra, near Islamabad. (Pakistan, which has as many as 120 nuclear warheads, denies this, and to my knowledge, there is no precedent for a nuclear country transferring weapons to a non-nuclear one.)
The Saudis have also come to expect that they fall under the nuclear protection of Pakistan, much like, say, Japan is covered by the United States’s nuclear umbrella. Pakistan’s nuclear forces were developed to target India, but they can strike farther, as was recently demonstrated by the successful test launch of the Shaheen-3 missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometers.
But with Pakistan now reluctant to openly support Saudi policy in Yemen, the Saudi government is starting to worry about its reliability as a nuclear partner. And so even as it pressures Pakistan back into line, it is pursuing other nuclear options.In March, it signed an agreement with South Korea “to assess the potential” for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. It plans to build 16 nuclear-power reactors over the next 20 years, with the first reactor expected to be on line in 2022, according to the World Nuclear Association. It insists on having a full civilian fuel cycle, leaving open the possibility of reprocessing weapon-grade plutonium from nuclear waste.
Given Saudi Arabia’s continuing scientific and technical limitations, despite major investments in education, this massive project is likely to bring in an international work force. Pakistan’s nuclear expertise would be especially welcome. Having conducted nuclear activities for several decades and under difficult circumstances, its scientists know how to procure the hard-to-get items needed in a weapons program. And they are fellow Sunnis.Except that now Saudi Arabia, which is too rich to be ignored yet too weak to defend itself, has reason to fear that Pakistan, its indispensable nuclear partner, might no longer simply follow its diktats.