How to balance CPEC
By Amir Hussain
CPEC has generated much euphoria of prosperity in Pakistan. Legions of CPEC experts have dominated talk shows. Many of them know that it is the best sellable proposition as well as the opportunity to gain fame and fortune without much pain.
Some of these self-proclaimed experts are now running policy and development think-tanks to advise government functionaries and policymakers on development and security matters of national significance. CPEC is billed as a critical national development agenda for Pakistan. Its importance is perhaps even more so for Pakistan than what it is for China. This is not just a popular impression about CPEC. It also entails an element of truth, given the burgeoning optimism of the national policy narrative surrounding the game-changing initiative and the proactive security measures being taken to protect CPEC projects.
As a nation, we have never been united on national development projects. But the ‘CPEC magic’ seems to have worked at least in building a national narrative of prosperity and change. We are a strange people with enduring perseverance to support exotic causes such as the Afghan jihad, the Western war on terror, the Iranian revolution, the Saudi invasion of Yemen and, more recently, China’s Westward expansion. Our collective amnesia of the agonies and scars that were inflicted upon us by our so-called friends in the West and the Middle East is what defines our national character as a client state.
Pakistan has been a melting pot of diverse international interests from the cold war to the neo-Great Game for which the people of Pakistan were dragged into a state of permanent national security at the cost of democracy, peace and economic development.
Our unabated support for China’s endeavours to broaden its economic arc under the One Belt One Road initiative is not founded on the logic of reciprocity in international relations. Instead, it is based more on a short-term perspective of economic gains. China has pledged to initiate larger development programmes in West Asia than its CPEC investments in Pakistan, including a $65 billion investment cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia and long-term trade deals with Iran and Israel.
Despite lucrative development prospects, these countries of West Asia have not jumped onto the bandwagon of China-backed prosperity like we have. They have been cautious enough to articulate a clear and rational narrative of their national interest that will allow them to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with growing China.
Contrary to our commonly-held political viewpoint, these countries have not pledged any support at the cost of their national interest to safeguard China’s Westward expansion. Instead, they have set the terms – which are punctuated by their national development priorities. Furthermore, these countries have been able to articulate a policy narrative that advocates investment in national competitive sectors and areas of comparative advantage.
In the case of Pakistan, government and other direct beneficiaries of CPEC have been trying to impose a unilateral perspective of CPEC that does not elicit an informed debate on key national priorities. Investment in hydel projects, agri-businesses and technology advancement in industries of comparative edge – such as manufacturing sports good, pharmaceuticals, leather and textile – has not been included in the national development priorities.
Pakistan’s ruling elite have shown considerable generosity. They have gone beyond the rationalism of the national interest in the case of Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United State and now China. The proponents of power realism – from Machiavelli to Hennery Kissinger – would not have thought of this aberration to their theory of power politics when a nation insists on internalising another’s country’s pain.
In the case of Afghanistan, the Pakistani state failed to capitalise on its generosity towards making a loyal friend in its backyard and also failed miserably in redefining its national interest vis-a-vis Afghanistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan – which has historically been ruled by tribal warlords – proved to be less tribal in managing its international relations than Pakistan by making rational diplomatic choices rather than being ensnared by an ambiguous spirit of brotherhood.
While the preoccupation with brotherhood continues to inform our Afghan policy, Afghanistan has found a more rational and less tribal brother in India and has distanced itself from Pakistan to the utter disappointment of the proponents of the much-avowed theory of strategic depth. Our strategic assets have turned against us and have started to haunt us. Our porous Pak-Afghan border has turned into a battleground.
Our reaction to recent border clashes with Afghanistan along the Chaman border appears to be conventional, momentary and tribal. While it is true that India will strive to contain Pakistani influence in Afghanistan to access the resource-rich Central Asia, it is time for Pakistan to come up with a realistic and rational diplomatic framework informed more by regional politics than a narrowly-defined national security narrative.
Pakistan is surrounded by defected brothers like Afghanistan and Iran who preferred to join hands with a rising India rather than become subservient to the obscure ideological appeal of Pakistan. While going beyond the medieval philosophy of brotherhood, these countries have been able to forge alliances both with India and China as sovereign states without losing the support of one for the other.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s security apparatus is overstretched to defend all its borders with Iran, Afghanistan, India and now the north-eastern border to secure CPEC with traditional generosity.
Pakistan will make more foes than friends in the region if it does not improve its diplomatic ties with its neighbouring countries – including Afghanistan, Iran and India – before committing generously and unilaterally to the CPEC cause. CPEC is indeed an important economic prospect for Pakistan. But it should not be seen in isolation, given the volatile political situation of the region and converging international interests to contain China.
Pakistan has suffered heavily in the proxy war of Soviet containment in Afghanistan and it should not become another battleground in the international arena to contain China’s influence. Pakistan needs to rethink its political strategy of regional engagement without losing on the benefits of CPEC. This new thinking should come from political and democratic forces to help broaden the scope of the economic, political and security calculus to help reduce the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan.
It is also vital for Pakistan to restrain itself and safeguard its national interest by defusing the staggering risks to its existence through rapprochement with India, Afghanistan and Iran and by redefining its relationship with regimes in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are sceptical of CPEC as they view it as a threat to their business interests in the region, especially with the development of Gwadar as a trade hub. Afghanistan, Iran and India have already expressed their disdain with Pakistan’s political euphoria over CPEC and have been working on alternative trade routes to Middle East.
The art of statecraft is complex and evolves in tandem with the historical progression of the political society, for which institutions of the political dispensation must be allowed to flourish. It is about the people, their collective aspirations and the mode of governance that promotes the citizenship of right-holders and duty-bearers. It is about a social contract between the state and its citizens and, in our modern sense, it is about democracy. The national interest is not only about geography. It is more about people who can make their rulers accountable to the people in setting the national development agenda.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
Orignally published in The News on May 10, 2017