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Geostrategic perspective on CPEC

In the last week of May, 2019, the Chinese Vice President, Wang Qishan made a historical visit to Pakistan. The visit was marked with momentous events such as the commemoration of 68 years of “Iron Brother” diplomacy between the two countries and the highest award, Nishan-e-Pakistan for a foreign leader presented by the President of Pakistan to Mr. Wang Qishan. The Vice President came to gauge the progress of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects while addressing the complexity of geostrategic dimensions of the Belt and Road Project. The creation of special economic zones and expansion of CPEC into agriculture sector was yet another development. But the most critical part of this visit was its strategic timing and regional position in Asia, especially the US-Iran tensions and what it means for Pakistan and China. In all its convoluted peripherals, China could come out as the ultimate victor with the advent of CPEC in the wake of a US-Iran War.

Imtiaz Rafi

The expansion of CPEC projects and their progress was the key element of Mr. Wang Qishan’s visit. He made his visit with a highly powered contingent of Chinese diplomats and officials. By this time, both Pakistan and Chinese governments are conscious of the on-ground facts. CPEC is the stepping stone for One Belt Road Project. The route by land is the most economic, viable and void of interference by enemy and opposing states. Gwadar is fast pacing up to the requirements of both states. The concerns of the newly-elected government under PTI have also been highlighted and remedial measures were actively discussed and perused during meetings held between the Prime Minister Imran Khan and Mr. Wang Qishan. It must be kept in perspective that the position of Vice President in China, is the one of the final authorities when it comes to foreign relations and geo-strategic ties. Unlike many countries, China enjoys absolute delegation of powers and authorities from top to bottom of the Central Political Party. The significance of this trip cannot be overemphasized at this point in time.

Among other MoUs, there were agreements signed by the two sides, according to the PM Office, included the framework agreement on agricultural cooperation, the memorandum on the requirements of foot and mouth disease-free zone; the letter of exchange of disaster relief goods, China-Pakistan economic agreement and the agreement between the China Machinery Engineering Corporation and the Balochistan government and Lasbela University on modern agriculture with comprehensive development in Lasbela. Also, different projects were inaugurated, including 660KV transmission line project from Matiari to Lahore, Rashakai Special Economic Zone Project, Huawei Technical Support Centre and Confucius Institute at University of Punjab. Security matters also remained the central agenda on the visit.

Two words can adequately describe the geo-political scenario among the world powers and Asia at the moment, they are, “competition” and “conflict”. Amid talks of cooperation, there were also issues raised by the Chinese diplomats on security. Earlier in May, terrorists attempted to storm a five star hotel in Gwadar, which was dealt professionally by the armed forces and precious lives were safeguarded. In similar attempts, CPEC projects and Chinese personnel appointed in key areas have come under violent assaults. Terrorism, in these times, is not simply an edifice of violent social movement but a tool in the hands of enemy states. Time and again, insurgents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have been found to have ties to Indian Intelligence Agencies and the conspirators have been tackled with mechanical efficiency. The Pakistan Army has proved itself to be a battle hardened and professionally sound organization that can provide a bulwark against all explicit and implicit threats. CPEC is a prospect that is major concern for countries like India and the United States combined.

 

Mr. Qishan’s visit was a signal to all such adversaries that such covert tactics to malign and to threaten the viability of CPEC and One Belt and Road Project through loss of precious lives will not deter the heads of States to reconsider. With such zeal, the Pakistan Army vividly announced that another regular division of the Army and a specialized military force of 15,000 member squads are also in the works to enhance the security of CPEC projects and the commitment of the people of Pakistan to push on with the One Belt and Road Project. It appears that on every challenge and minor setback, Pakistan and China are determined to repel any chance of decline in mutual co-operation. After the domestic security perspective of CPEC, the visit of Vice President also alluded to a larger game which is in motion, one, which could potentially initiate the “Chinese Century”, with Pakistan as its frontline nation.

CPEC and One Belt and Road have entered into a new era in 2019. The United States has opened its economic framework to two separate frontlines. Donald Trump has altered the philosophy of “strategic engagement” with China to “aggressive competition”. In his recent reforms, he actively got Chinese goods blacklisted with tariff barriers to promote American exports and discouraging Chinese imports. This shift in hostile economics has put China on the alert, with an active counter-strategy. This move has brought China and Russia ever closer and both countries are on the lookout to weaken American hegemony in Asia by any means. As of 2019, the Chinese economy continues to expand while Washington seems to be dipping into debt with every quarter. Now, with such a cutting edge competition, the United States, on the advice of a few senators of Donald Trump, has decided on open another front against Iran.

Facts on the ground are that a military conflict between Iran and the US would be catastrophic, considering that Iran and its developed army is almost three times the size of Iraq. The US economy has still not recovered from the disaster of 2003 in Iraq and a losing battle in Afghanistan. A war with Iran would be a golden geo-strategic opportunity for China. If a war breaks out between Iran and the US, China would assist Iran against such aggression and the land route of CPEC and One Belt and Road would come in most “handy”. As mentioned earlier, land routes are exponentially more secure than marine or air passages. In the wake of a war, China and Pakistan would open trade routes for flow of essential goods such as fuel, technical assistance and food for Iran, thereby making the war more expensive for US and its allies. It would be a death-trap for the weakening US economy.

Pakistan would play the role of a contributor and a valuable ally for both China and Iran against a classic Western aggressor. With this in mind, the visit of Iranian delegation to Pakistan and subsequent visit of Mr. Wang Qishan can be put into its geostrategic perspective. CPEC is not just a prospect between two countries; it is now, a tool of geo-strategic importance. It has come of age.

Pakistan must gear up and show combat readiness for whatever lies ahead. China and Pakistan are on the right track. Both governments seem determined to let no stone unturned in achieving success for CPEC. Five years and CPEC is already a major point in the geo-strategic arena in the region and in the world. As time goes by, it can only go up from here.

(The writer is Chairman of Jinnah Rafi Foundation)

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