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Belt and Road

China moves for more control over Belt and Road in Pakistan

Demand for joint parliamentary oversight indicates Beijing's frustration on projects

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Beijing in April 2019. Experts say Beijing is increasingly unwilling to pour money into the Belt and Road projects in Pakistan without exercising greater control. (Source photos by Getty Images) 

KARACHI -- China is taking its Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative into its own hands in Pakistan, proposing a joint parliamentary oversight committee to tighten control over the speed and quality of projects.

Li Zhanshu, the chairman of the National People's Congress of China, proposed the formation of the joint committee for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, in a virtual meeting held with Asad Qaiser, the speaker of Pakistan's National Assembly, toward the end of January. Both heads of parliament directed their secretaries to form the joint parliamentary oversight committee.

This decision has been made at a time when concerns are rising about the slowdown of work on CPEC, the $50 billion Pakistan component of the Belt and Road Initiative. In the last week of January, Pakistan's Cabinet Committee on CPEC directed ministries to improve the pace of work on CPEC projects.

The decision to form the joint parliamentary oversight committee was made in haste, and even the representative from Gwadar, the port city that is the center stage of CPEC, was not consulted.

"I represent Gwadar in Pakistan's National Assembly, and I was not taken into confidence before making the announcement of the formation of Pak-China joint parliamentary committee on CPEC," Aslam Bhootani told Nikkei Asia.

Experts believe this latest development reflects the frustration of Beijing with the slow pace of CPEC projects. They are of the view that China wants to get more closely involved with individual CPEC projects both due to some recent challenges with respect to the security of some parts of CPEC, such as Gwadar Port, and the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 on Pakistan.

Michael Kugleman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, believes Beijing was happy with the former government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and has not attained the same level of comfort with the Imran Khan government vis-a-vis CPEC. "It makes sense that China would want to have more direct involvement in CPEC policy [via a joint parliamentary body] so that it doesn't have to be as dependent on Pakistani officials," he told Nikkei.

Another perspective about this latest policy decision of Beijing is the financial problems of Pakistan. Experts believe that this move is an attempt by China to gain an upper hand in CPEC, given Islamabad's precarious fiscal situation.

"Beijing is increasingly unwilling to pour money in what seems like a bottomless pit without exercising greater control," said Mohan Malik, a visiting fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. He added that Beijing's demand for joint parliamentary oversight and day-to-day monitoring of CPEC, therefore, is a logical progression of recent steps taken to strengthen Beijing's hold over the initiative's flagship megaproject in Pakistan.

Still, experts are skeptical about the success of this joint parliamentary oversight committee.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a South Asia analyst based in Washington, told Nikkei that this move will increase anxiety among sections of the local population that have been expressing concerns over CPEC projects. "Getting things done quickly will benefit China in the short term but it will alienate the local populations in the long run," he said.

Kugelman said the impact of this move on CPEC's progress can be better gauged once Pakistan has overcome the pandemic and its economy has stabilized. "A number of new plans [relating to CPEC] have been floated, but until Islamabad has the bandwidth to follow up on them, I doubt it will be able to muster the requisite policy space to do so," he added.

This new development has once again triggered debate on whether CPEC is on the right track and Pakistan is getting a good deal out of it.

Malik said Beijing has apparently adopted a deliberate go-slow policy on the financing of several CPEC projects so as to increase its direct control over CPEC. "Caught between a rock and a hard place, Islamabad has no option but to give in to keep the projects going," he added.

However, there is consensus among experts that irrespective of Islamabad's needs and apprehension in local communities, China wants to make CPEC work at all costs.

Akbar explained that the Chinese have already come so far in CPEC that they will make sure it survives and moves forward even if Pakistan stumbles due to political or economic challenges. "Beijing wants CPEC projects completed because for China, CPEC [as the flagship project of Belt and Road] is mostly about its prestige and rise as a global power."

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