Mysteries surrounding CPEC

Monopolies must be avoided

I received a call with an invitation to join a round table conference (RTC) titled “New stage of high quality CPEC development” in a local hotel in Lahore. The phrase was attractive so I decided to join and comprehend the new stage for CPEC.

I had quite a few questions for the speakers, especially the chief guest, the Consul General of China at Lahore. But I chose to hold my queries because as the discussion unfolded, I found the CPEC surrounded in numerous mysteries even after ten years of the inception of the project. The very first speaker was a provincial caretaker minister for health, for him CPEC could deliver the best of health services, he urged both countries to benefit from each other’s expertise.

He gave some examples of specialized health facilities in both countries having potential for the counterparts to get benefit out of those healthcare providers. He also emphasized on the need for faculty exchange programmes so that they could learn from the experience of each other. There is absolutely no harm in establishing such exchange programs rather it is a natural outcome of any program of this scale between two nations. However, the fundamental purpose of CPEC is to strengthen the economic dimensions of the country. Despite having a health portfolio, I was expecting the speaker to give insight from the vision of the sitting government to get maximum benefit from the mega economic project. He then left immediately after his speech with the excuse of an important official engagement, which also suggests how important the CPEC is for the existing power corridor.

Mr. Li Chen, the CEO of Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT), thoroughly explained the achievements of his organization in terms of serving passengers which currently remain around 200,000 per day. When he was explaining the details of the number of jobs created by the project (around 7000) and number of indigenous industries (around 50) developed to supply spare parts to the Orange Line Metro Train, it seemed that he was defending his position through these figures due to extensive pressure about the sustainability of the project.

On one hand there is continuous debate on the subsidy extended to the OLMT by the government, on the other there is lack of consideration by the government for viable solutions to reduce the gap between the income and the expenditure of the project. Despite environmental attractiveness and convenience for millions of commuters, the fact remains that the long-term success of any project depends on sustainable operations. One of the important concerns remains that still the OLMT operates at less than its capacity. The second apprehension is about the rationalization of the fare and the third is about the commercialization of stations. These are certain opportunities to reduce the gap to ensure more revenue from existing infrastructure.

A chief executive officer of a renowned private organization was also among the speakers. His enthusiasm about the potential of CPEC was amazing; however, he underscored that if Chinese authorities desired to witness swift progress of the project they needed to liaise directly with the vibrant private sector of Pakistan instead of operating under a military umbrella, which instantly distances successful private operations from coordinating with the Chinese counterparts.

It was quite a frank comment inviting decision makers to ponder upon the apprehensions of the private sector. Concerns such as these clearly indicate the trust deficit which exists among different stakeholders of the society. Initially there was hue and cry from political fronts about different routes of the Corridor. But now observing anxieties from the private sector players indicates a strong need for the inclusion of all segments of the society to make CPEC a real success. It is a proven fact that only government-to-government engagements cannot guarantee success to any collaboration without people-to-people engagements while private sector businesses are the key for grassroot alliances in bilateral initiatives.

Therefore, both China and Pakistan need to develop a framework to facilitate private sectors of both countries to join hands fearlessly for potential ventures determined by the market forces of demand and supply. I think, this will bring a huge improvement in collective ownership of people of both countries for projects envisioned through different initiatives under the bigger umbrella of CPEC as we are observing in the field of education through different scholarships and exchange programs across Pakistan and China where several educational institutions are taking initiatives at their own to develop ties with their counterparts in either country.

Because when there is active engagement of masses in any economic or development project that extends benefits of the expansion to the common man and in return inculcates ownership of the project among people thus ensures convenient implementation of plans. On the other hand, continuous shelter of the state develops doubts about actual benefits of the project thus distances people from the policies and execution of the project. Therefore, it will be a better option to take CPEC in the public domain to eliminate current mysteries surrounding the project.

The next speaker was a retired senior officer from the Pakistan Navy with expertise in maritime affairs. He nicely explained backward and forward integration for successful sea port operations. According to him, building a port is half of the job done; for a sustainable port it is important to have a safe and reliable network of roads and efficient railway infrastructure to facilitate transportation of goods to the sea port.

Then smart automation of a port without human intervention is the key for the success of any port nowadays. The next challenge for port authorities remains maritime facilities and safety of cargo operations. It is a cycle of efficient and effective integrated operation from the land to the sea which ensures the success of any seaport. Therefore, we still have to go quite a long way to make Gwadar a successful seaport.

The last speaker was the Consul General of China in Lahore, the chief guest of the event. He shared highlights of “The Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation” with representation from more than 150 countries of the world. He then started explaining his approach as a representative of the government and people of China. He summarized his duties as having a two-pronged strategy; first, strengthening friendship between two countries and second, protection of rights of people of China.

He assured his commitment to maintain and fortify already ever strong bonding between China and Pakistan as all-weather friends. He particularly emphasized to ensure that funds channelized through CPEC are utilized optimally to achieve strategic objectives of the project.

Diverse discussion in the RTC clearly indicate gap among priorities and focus at governmental and public level domains on both sides. There are clear apprehensions of Chinese side to trust their counterparts in Pakistan without military support or state guarantees which limits the potential of CPEC and hinders swift progress of the project.

Because when there is active engagement of masses in any economic or development project that extends benefits of the expansion to the common man and in return inculcates ownership of the project among people thus ensures convenient implementation of plans. On the other hand, continuous shelter of the state develops doubts about actual benefits of the project thus distances people from the policies and execution of the project. Therefore, it will be a better option to take CPEC in the public domain to eliminate current mysteries surrounding the project.

Dr Abdus Sattar Abbasi
Dr Abdus Sattar Abbasi
The writer is Associate Professor of Management Sciences and head, Center of Islamic Finance, COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus

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