CPEC: Transparency is key to success

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There is no denying that the OBOR summit was an important event for Pakistan, whose participation was crucial by virtue of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and high-level representation was also necessary. There were important memorandums of understanding which were signed. But at the same time, some strategic analysts and experts have cautioned about the transparency in the CPEC-related projects in Pakistan. In recent days, we have seen a number of statements alleging open corruption in the CPEC-related projects in Pakistan and that is a matter of concern as without transparency the CPEC would not be able to make difference for our country. Now coming up to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative could end up creating a new world order. In his speech at the summit, Chinese President Xi Jingping presented an internationalist agenda of free trade and specifically rejected the protectionism that is exemplified by Trump. For China, OBOR is an economic investment. Much of the money that China will give to member countries will end up back in Chinese hands as it develops infrastructure and benefits from increased trade. But equally important is the political dimension. OBOR comprises six land corridors and one sea route, which will link China to Russia, Turkey, Singapore, India, Pakistan and the Mediterranean Sea. The economic fortunes of these countries – and all the other countries the trade routes will pass through – will increasingly be linked to China. That gives it a political power in the region. It was telling though, and perhaps indicative of the future, that India chose to boycott the summit. India objects to the inclusion of Azad Kashmir in projects related to CPEC, insisting that the territory is part of India. China, to its credit, has refused to be cowed down by Indian threats. Pakistan has understandably concentrated on the CPEC portion of OBOR. There are certainly many immediate benefits to Pakistan from the massive increase in Chinese investment, particularly in the creation of jobs and the development of infrastructure. Many other advantages will be accrued at a later date, such as the increased capacity for the production of electricity. CPEC is expected to put the country at the centre of China’s global trade network. Potential benefits include the development of major highways, ports as well as new power plants, which could push Pakistan towards a new spur of economic development. It could not only make Pakistan an attractive destination for investment, but also spur locally led business ventures. Reportedly, $35 billion has been marked for private investments in the country’s power sector while $11 billion has been marked for low-cost loans to upgrade the road and rail infrastructure. Overall investments in the country under the project are set to range from anywhere between $52 billion and $60 billion. The cash flow would provide a significant boost to the Pakistani economy. But there are also worries that the bill presented to Pakistan at the end will be beyond our means. Being the junior power in a relationship is rarely a good idea. The lack of transparency over the scale, scope and financial dimensions of CPEC has started giving rise to speculation. These are all relevant questions that must be answered for CPEC’s impact on Pakistan’s future to be reasonably predicted. How much debt Pakistan will owe China by the time the project is completed is something that must be shared. The Chinese president himself addressed concerns about sovereignty by promising that China will not interfere in our domestic affairs. In the wake of the latest OBOR summit development, more than ever, transparency in the CPEC project has become crucially important. As a report in section of the press showed, the economic corridor goes far beyond highways and power plants, and its scope needs to be understood by everyone and its implications extensively debated in public. The denials issued by the planning minister via his Twitter account, calling the newspaper report “factually incorrect”, and one that is aimed to create fear, make little sense. The general sentiment in the country is pro-CPEC; and every Pakistani supports the project. But that does not mean the government has carte blanche to negotiate the terms of this massive enterprise entirely in secret. The people have a right to know what exactly is being negotiated; this is especially crucial given the scale of the joint enterprise. The government is now claiming that an “abridged version” of the Long-Term Plan has been shared with key stakeholders, including industry and the provincial governments, and that their feedback has been incorporated. But why has only an “abridged version” been shared? The larger issue here remains one of greater transparency in the execution of CPEC. If there are reservations on the part of China to widen the debate on the project, then it becomes the government’s job to explain to their Chinese counterparts that our political traditions demand greater transparency. All economic documents that contain plans for the medium term are public documents in this country. This includes the five-year plans and the IMF agreements. The CPEC Long-Term Plan cannot be an exception, especially since it goes further than any past economic plan in terms of its impact on the economy. There are no reasons to fear CPEC, nor should there be an automatic aversion to greater Chinese entry into our economy. But any anxieties on that count can only be alleviated through greater disclosure of the terms on which the project is being negotiated. Keeping matters secret, then issuing indignant denials that will clearly not survive scrutiny, only fans anxiety. The government should immediately prepare to reveal the full extent of the understandings it has entered into with the government of China, including placing whatever document that has been signed as the lead agreement on CPEC before parliament. The nation and its political parties and think tank is entitled to ask how many of the agreements and MoUs that were signed during the OBOR summit and it should be shared with the public or parliament. All other economic documents that have a far-reaching impact on the economy are made public, so the CPEC documents also needs to be presented in Parliament so that it is made possible that the CPEC-related projects are carried out with utmost transparency so that the project turns to be a real game changer for Pakistan.

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