SETBACK: ‘Strategic ML-1’ railroad project signing delayed, again

ISLAMABAD: While China and Pakistan signed a number of agreements and MOUs to expand the bilateral cooperation, the key Main Line-1 (ML-1) Railroad Project could not be signed – a decision many see as a blow to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

“Recognizing that ML-1 is a project of key significance under the CPEC framework and of importance to Pakistan’s socio-economic development, the two sides agreed to build upon the leadership consensus and to advance the process of its earliest implementation,” says joint communique issued following the visit.

ML-1 aims at laying a new railroad from Peshawar to Karachi – enabling the trains run from existing 80 miles per hour to 120 miles per hour (m/h). Later, the system would be upgraded to 180 m/h which would cut travel time from Peshawar to Karachi from days to hours. Moreover, the project is key to revival of freight trains under the China, Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and this railroad could later be expanded into Afghanistan and Iran – boosting Pakistani economy enormously.

A day before leaving for Beijing, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal held an hour-long meeting with the Chinese Ambassador Mr Nong Rong and tried to convince him to push to get the ML-1 project approved.

“The Minister emphasized the importance of several CPEC projects and reiterated that the government is committed to uplift the CPEC projects particularly, ML-1 and Karachi Circular Railways (KCR) projects,” reads an official handout of the Planning Ministry issued on Monday.

“During the meeting, the Minister highlighted the significance of ML-1 and Karachi Curricular Railways KCR projects which are considered to be a ‘strategic projects’. The Minister said that all formalities have been completed in this regard including the approval of the Central Development Working Party CDWP and ML-1 will have a great economic impact on both Pakistan and China. The delay in the ML-1 will be affected our Railways track which is already in a dilapidated condition after the recent flood,” the Minister was quoted as saying, while emphasizing the importance of this strategic project.

It merits mention that under former prime minister Imran Khan, Pakistan and China were negotiating ML-I and the project could not be signed twice due to disagreement on the price of the project.

An official told Pakistan Today that Khan’s government wanted to get the project signed for US$ 6.1 billion while China wanted the amount to be US$ 8.2 billion – and the agreement could not be signed.

“Another reason was identification of the financing channels for the project. Chinese banks wanted some sovereign guarantees and negotiations in this regard could not be finalized,” the official said.

Interestingly, the federal government has now agreed to sign the ML-I for US$ 10 billion.

“The two countries plan to upgrade line from Karachi to Peshawar with funding from China; a move that comes as the world’s No. 2 economy moves to slow some of its lending due to growth concerns. It is a project of strategic importance,” says a tweet posted at federal govt’s official Twitter handle on Wednesday evening.

Still, the ML-I could not be signed despite a significant raise in the project amount.

Another project in agenda was Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) which also could not be signed, according to the joint statement issued by Chinese foreign ministry.

“They also agreed to actively advance the Karachi Circular Railway, which was an urgent requirement for Pakistan’s biggest city,” says the joint statement.

However, the joint communiqué says that the two sides signed and concluded a number of agreements and MoUs covering bilateral cooperation in areas of e-commerce, digital economy, export of agricultural product, financial cooperation, protection of cultural property, infrastructure, flood relief, post-disaster reconstruction, GDI, animal disease control, livelihood, cultural cooperation, space, geosciences as well as law enforcement and security. However, there was no detail of the signed agreements.

Per communique, the Prime Minister extended an invite to President Xi to visit Pakistan. President Xi expressed that he would visit at his earliest convenience. The two leaders pledged to work together to further deepen the bilateral ties.

“The two sides held in-depth exchange of views on the bilateral relations as well as regional situation and international political landscape. The two sides agreed on the importance of China-Pakistan All-weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership amidst the emerging global challenges. The meetings were marked by traditional warmth, mutual strategic trust and commonality of views,” says the joint statement.

“The leaders reaffirmed that close strategic ties and profound friendship between China and Pakistan was time-tested and resilient. China-Pakistan friendship is a historic choice of both peoples that serves the interests of the two countries. The Chinese side reiterated that relations with Pakistan will always be given the highest priority in its foreign policy. The Pakistani side underscored that Pakistan-China relationship is the cornerstone of its foreign policy and that the Pakistani people always support the closest friendship between the two countries,” says the statement.

Both sides reiterated their mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests. The Pakistani side expressed its commitment to the one-China Policy and support on issues of Taiwan, South China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. The Chinese side reaffirmed its support for Pakistan’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, security, and promoting its socio-economic development and prosperity.

Both sides reviewed with satisfaction the outcomes of the three sessions of the Foreign Minister’s Strategic Dialogue and agreed to hold its next meeting at the earliest possible in the first half of 2023 in Islamabad.

The two sides noted the key role of various bilateral cooperation mechanisms for deepening strategic communication and welcomed the holding of the Spokespersons Dialogue and the Consultations on Arms Control and Disarmament.

Prime Minister Sharif reaffirmed his Government’s willingness to commit to high quality development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and highlighted the salience of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under BRI, to Pakistan’s economic and social development.

“The leaders took note of the convening of the 11th CPEC Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) on 27 October 2022, which reviewed the progress of ongoing projects and agreed to continue the momentum of CPEC’s high-quality development,” it said.

“Recognizing the significance of the Gwadar port as the leading project of CPEC and an important node in cross regional connectivity, both sides expressed satisfaction on the completion of key projects and agreed to speed up progress on other related projects of the Gwadar port and free zone,” reads the statement.

“In line with the leadership’s consensus to accelerate cooperation in the areas of agriculture, mining, IT, socio-economic development under CPEC, the two sides agreed to further build on the health, industry, digital and green corridors launched earlier this year and carry out relevant cooperation,” it added.

“The Chinese side appreciates the efforts of the Pakistani government to vigorously develop renewable energy projects including solar projects which aligns with the green, low carbon and environmental development of energy sector, and encourages participation of Chinese companies in this Pakistani endeavor,” the statement reads.

The two sides also agreed to actively promote the implementation of Framework Agreement on Industrial Cooperation to support Pakistan’s industrial development.

Both sides expressed their strong determination to counter all threats and designs against CPEC and China-Pakistan friendship. Pakistan reaffirmed its commitment to the safety and security of all Chinese personnel, projects and institutions in Pakistan. The Chinese side appreciated Pakistan’s strong determination and vigorous measures in this regard.

Noting completion of a decade of CPEC’s remarkable achievements in 2023, the two sides expressed satisfaction at CPEC’s contribution to socio-economic development of the two countries.

The two sides noted that the recent meeting of CPEC Joint Working Group on International Cooperation and Coordination (ICC) had highlighted that CPEC was an open and inclusive platform. Both sides welcomed interested third parties to benefit from investment opportunities in the priority areas of CPEC cooperation such as industry, agriculture, IT, science and technology, and oil and gas.

The two sides noted the steady increase in bilateral trade volume since the operationalization of the second phase of the China-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement. Both sides resolved to further coordinate to enhance trade liberalization under the second phase of CPFTA and agreed to convene an early meeting of Committee on Trade in Goods.

The Chinese side expressed willingness to actively support the Pakistani side in expanding export to China and welcomed quality goods including food and agricultural products from Pakistan to enter the Chinese market. It was further agreed to encourage investments and partnerships in the export-oriented sectors of Pakistan which would contribute to achieving sustainable bilateral trade growth. The two sides agreed to conduct a Joint Study to further enhance bilateral economic and trade cooperation.

The two sides agreed to fully leverage overland trade and exchanges by upgrading facilities at Khunjerab border port and strengthening cooperation on epidemic containment and customs clearance in border areas. They also agreed to work together to further strengthen the implementation of the Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA), which is an important pillar of regional connectivity.

Acknowledging the massive size of China’s e-commerce market and its potential to further bolster bilateral trade, the two sides welcomed the signing of an MOU on e-commerce and jointly supported the establishment of Pakistan’s country pavilions on China’s e-commerce platforms. The two sides agreed to further strengthen cooperation on online payment systems, logistics, warehousing and customs facilitation, and enhance collaboration between start-ups and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

The two sides noted that the first meeting of the China-Pakistan Joint Working Group on Trade, Investment and E-commerce and the China-Pakistan Poverty Reduction and Social Development Forum were held this year, and exchanges and docking activities in the pharmaceutical, agricultural and shoe-making industries as well as capacity building courses on poverty reduction were organized. China is willing to continue relevant practical cooperation with Pakistan to contribute to poverty reduction and socioeconomic development in Pakistan.

The Pakistani side commended China’s remarkable achievement of lifting over 800 million people out of absolute poverty. Noting the displacement of millions of people due to the recent floods in Pakistan, the Chinese side agreed to support the Pakistani government in recovering the economy in disaster-hit areas, including through the Benazir Income Support Program.

The two sides agreed to keep in close communication to provide further facilitation for Pakistani students to come to China. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif thanked the Chinese leadership for the return of Pakistani students to Chinese education institutions.

The two sides agreed to inject new impetus into people-to-people contacts, tourism cooperation and cultural exchanges between the two countries, appreciated the role of the cultural cooperation agreement between the two governments and its executive programmes and welcomed the extension of the current executive programme to 2027.

The two sides further welcomed the decision to celebrate China-Pakistan Year of Tourism Exchanges in 2023 and the organization of a Gandhara Art Exhibition at the Palace Museum in Beijing in 2022-2023.

Noting the gradual resumption of flight operation between the two countries, the two sides agreed to further increase the frequency of direct flights including between Islamabad and Beijing in due course.

Both sides expressed satisfaction with the close cooperation, trust and communication between the armed forces of the two countries. Underscoring that stronger strategic defence and security cooperation between China and Pakistan is an important factor of peace and stability in the region, the two sides agreed to maintain high-level mil-to-mil visits and exchanges and deepen cooperation in areas of training, joint exercises and military technology.

The two sides condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and expressed opposition to the politicization of the issue of counter terrorism. China recognized Pakistan’s contributions and sacrifices in the fight against terrorism. The two sides agreed to further enhance counter terrorism cooperation to promote international peace and security.

The two sides reiterated that a peaceful and prosperous South Asia is in the common interest of all parties. They emphasized the importance of resolving all outstanding disputes through sincere dialogue. The Pakistani side briefed the Chinese side on the situation in Jammu & Kashmir. The Chinese side reiterated that the Kashmir issue was a dispute left from history that should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.

On Afghanistan, the two sides agreed that a peaceful, prosperous, interconnected and stable Afghanistan is fundamental to regional prosperity and progress. They expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the three Foreign Ministers’ meetings of the six neighbouring countries of Afghanistan and looked forward to the next meeting to be held in Uzbekistan.

The two sides underscored the need for the international community to provide continued assistance and support to Afghanistan including through unfreezing of Afghanistan’s overseas financial assets. The two sides agreed to continue their humanitarian and economic assistance for the Afghan people and enhance development cooperation in Afghanistan, including through CPEC’s extension to Afghanistan.

Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and agreed to jointly promote multilateralism, free trade and win-win cooperation. They expressed satisfaction with their close cooperation at multilateral fora and are resolved to further deepen strategic communication, coordination and consultation.

The Pakistani side expressed support for the Global Development Initiative (GDI) put forward by the Chinese side. The two sides identified development as a key driver in ensuring the prosperity of nations. In this context they agreed to further enhance cooperation within the GDI framework for realization of SDGs. China expressed appreciation to Pakistan for participating in the Group of Friends of GDI as one of the pioneering members, and identified Pakistan as a priority partner under the GDI.

The Pakistani side expressed support for the Global Security Initiative (GSI) put forward by the Chinese side as it aligned with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. The two sides agreed to promote international cooperation in this regard. The two sides supported consensus-based reform of the UN to respond to the interests and concerns of all Member States.

The two sides underlined to further strengthen coordination and collaboration within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and jointly push for deeper SCO cooperation across the political, security, business, connectivity and people-to-people fields, so as to better serve the common interests of regional countries, and make greater contributions to safeguarding regional peace and stability, promoting prosperity and development, and improving global governance.

The two sides reiterated their commitment to advancing and protecting human rights for all in accordance with applicable international obligations and national circumstances. They stressed that bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the area of human rights should be guided by the principles of the UN Charter including respect for political independence, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of States.

The two sides recognized climate change as an existential threat and undertook to make concrete and concerted efforts to mitigate and adapt to the adverse impact of climate change. The two sides reaffirmed their commitment to the UNFCCC as well as to the goals, principles and provisions of its Paris Agreement, in particular the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR).

The two sides recognized that the recent floods in Pakistan were closely linked to the adverse impact of climatic change for which developing countries bear little responsibility but are subject to a disproportionate impact. The two sides called on developed countries to fulfill their commitments, take the lead in emissions reduction to ensure the development rights and space for developing countries, and provide adequate climate financing to developing countries.

Appreciating Pakistan’s initiative to combat human-induced climate change and China’s initiative to promote green cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, the two sides agreed to step up cooperation in such areas as ecosystem restoration and water resource management.

Mian Abrar
Mian Abrar
The writer heads Pakistan Today's Islamabad Bureau. He has a special focus on counter-terrorism and inter-state relations in Asia, Asia Pacific and South East Asia regions. He tweets as @mian_abrar and also can be reached at [email protected]

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