Making the CPEC work for Pakistan

Amir Hussain

Pakistani intelligence agencies have been sending out security alerts of Indian interference along the western alignment route of the CPEC in Balochistan as well as at the gateway in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Much has been written about the volatile security situation in Balochistan and the key features of political engagement with the aggrieved Baloch population. One of the most critical parts of the policy of political engagement is to bridge the communication gap between political leadership, security agencies and local militant groups.

In a nutshell, Pakistan’s political class needs to play a proactive role rather than leaving it to a security-specific response to the rising militancy in Balochistan. It is time for the political pundits in Islamabad and security experts at the GHQ to rethink the strategy of normalisation in Balochistan because the situation now is not about law and order only; it is about the political reintegration of Balochistan.

Pakistan’s policy towards Balochistan vis-a-vis megaprojects has always been a failure – with or without the interference of RAW. This time round if we do not extend the basic principles of participatory democracy – leaving aside our egoistic security-focused approach – the CPEC may be one of those failed projects. Therefore, those who resist extending participatory democracy, promoting human rights and allowing equitable resource distribution in Balochistan – whoever they may be – should qualify as anti-state and anti-Pakistan.

In the case of Gilgit-Baltistan the challenges are of a different nature from the perspective of contemporary rules of game of international development, which India has already started to exploit. India’s Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh’s statement that “Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed territory and India identifies it as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” speaks volumes of Indian diplomatic moves to block the CPEC.

V K Singh’s statement implies that the extension of the CPEC through Gilgit-Baltistan will be resisted by India through political, economic and military means – backed by the global powers that resist Chinese westward expansion. Pakistan’s political leadership must jump in to find a political and diplomatic solution rather than leaving this critical matter to the security apparatus only. Diplomatic statements to rebut the Indian stand vis-a-vis Gilgit-Baltistan will not suffice without understanding the technicalities of the issue and without influencing the rules of the game internationally.

Diplomatic overtures expressed internationally by Indian foreign policy think-tanks are not fringe views. M K Narayanan, a former Indian national security adviser, stated bluntly that the CPEC poses a “major threat” to India, and that China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ global development strategy, of which the CPEC is a showpiece megaproject, could have “the most degrading impact” on Sino-Indian relations.

In the context of increasing international diplomatic pressure, the Pakistani political leadership should display political intrepidity, diplomatic acumen and strategic thinking to avert the impending diplomatic encirclement of Pakistan. This calls for coming up with proactive political strategies to address domestic challenges through a broad-based national consultative process rather than a reductive, unilateral and myopic approach that perpetuates the rule of repression. As far as countering international diplomatic narratives goes, Pakistan should meticulously work to develop a counter-narrative in collaboration with China, Russia and other regional powers.

The first thing to be done at the domestic level is decoupling Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir and redefining the key strategic foci of its foreign policy alluding to the facts of the separate political histories of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. This requires developing a political framework through constitutional amendments for a rapid consultation process within Gilgit-Baltistan to mainstream political representation. This may be carried out through a referendum within Gilgit-Baltistan to give them a choice on whether they would like to be a part of Kashmir or not.

I have already mentioned in one of my recent columns the reasons why this region should be decoupled from Kashmir. Here I reiterate that Gilgit-Baltistan got freedom from the Dogra raj and joined Pakistan. This is a strong enough historical fact to belie Indian claim over this region. This is the right time for Pakistan’s political leadership to show reciprocity by granting this area provincial status. Our international diplomacy must also counter the Indian diplomatic narrative of linking Gilgit-Baltistan with Kashmir.

If Pakistan does not come up with an amicable political solution to Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan in a timely manner China will find itself dangerously entangled in a conflict between India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, India is not the only geostrategic threat to the CPEC.

As Peter Lee argues: “On the other hand, you have diehard separatists in Balochistan, Xinjiang, and Tibet eager to make it fail. You’ve got a pool of resentful Islamist extremists near the route of the CPEC in Pakistan, Xinjiang, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. You have China hawks in India and the United States who would be happy to see the CPEC turn into [a] quagmire for China”.

In the context of this complex domestic and international political ecosystem, Pakistan must rethink its conventional foreign and domestic policy which is outmoded and has lost its relevance. We may find solace by associating all political and security failures with RAW and other powers but this is not a diplomatic and political answer to our problems and it has nothing concrete to offer other than absolving ourselves of the responsibility of governance.

Ironically, Pakistan does not have a dedicated foreign minister, let alone a diplomatic policy think-tank and there is no visible strategy of engaging people from the vulnerable regions of Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan in the committee of the CPEC. The current CPEC committee must be extended to include the people of these areas, in particular those who offer constructive criticism, to make the CPEC work for Pakistan and China.

The CPEC conference held in Gwadar and Gilgit recently did not provide any strategic take-away other than reiterating the mantra of dealing with some predefined enemies with an ‘iron hand’.

There is one mega project that apparently seems to unify an otherwise fragile, fragmented and incoherent political class of Pakistan. This mega project, which gained popularity as the CPEC, is a common name in this country now – albeit with varying perspectives of its imagined benefits. Some ‘political heretics’, however, question this sea change in the political thinking of a nation in such a short span of time.

The political history of this country is full of parochialism, provincial thinking and short-term political gains at the cost of most significant national projects like the Kalabagh Dam – more important than the CPEC in terms of overcoming energy and water crises in Pakistan. The new political consciousness dawned upon us vis-a-vis the CPEC, therefore, merits a deeper argument than simply spilling the cants of national unity.

The apprehensions of political heretics are valid because when we compare the benefits of national mega projects like the Kalabagh dam, Bhasha dam and mega projects initiated in Balochistan – which could not come to fruition because of political wrangling – they outnumber the prosperity associated with the CPEC. That, however, does not belittle the enormous potential of the CPEC for the economic development of Pakistan.

The argument is about digging deeper to explore the veracity of the mantra of national consensus; are we not overstating when we say the nation is united? Or that those who are critical commit the sin of being anti-Pakistan?

We cannot hide facts in this era of social media. It is even more difficult to justify a rhetoric that does not hold enough water to outpace the free flow of information

Originally posted at The News

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