CPEC – Building Bridges in a Troubled Region


No sooner had the Karakoram Highway, which connects the northern stretches of Pakistan with China’s westernmost autonomous region through the high-altitude Khunjerab Pass, opened for business in 1979, it ushered in its wake numerous possibilities and opportunities. Hasan Abdal, which constitutes the starting point of this highway, was already connected to the North South road and rail network from Peshawar to Karachi. Most of the developments that followed, like the motorway branches emanating from Lahore for instance, all took place along the already developed areas of the River Indus and its tributaries. This made good commercial and political sense at the time as all major centres of population as well as those associated with agricultural and industrial productivity were concentrated there.

Realisation was bound to sink in, and did, that genuine progress was not possible till the huge western swathe of territory encompassing the least developed, least populous and yet the largest and most resource rich regions of Pakistan were not incorporated in the country’s developmental strategy. Our hands-off policy in Baluchistan, aided in large part by a deference to provincial concerns about the likely influx of outsiders, had after all given rise to a spate of insurgencies as well as ethnic and sectarian related attacks.

Pakistan’s 1000 km long coastline, 77% of which lies in the western province of Baluchistan, is still sparsely populated and grossly underdeveloped. The main occupation of the major population centres of Ormara, Pasni, Gwadar and Jiwani still happens to be fishery-related, and now though better connected with the hinterland, coastal communities west of Karachi were indeed for a very long time simply isolated fishing outposts. The Pakistan Navy, with its fleet of visiting ships and the network of coastal stations that it had set up since the early nineteen seventies, constituted its most robust link with the more developed parts of the country.

Far more important, the rapport and goodwill that was established at the human level has served the region well for the preceding four decades. The absence of health care facilities in the entire Makran region jolted the Navy into organising free medical camps at the major coastal population centres; these were all so well attended that it seems that the entire town used to turn out. In concert with the naval base at Ormara, a fully-equipped naval hospital dispensing free medical treatment to all the locals, together with schools and even a Cadet College, were also established.

The biggest hindrance to development in Baluchistan in general and the coastal area in particular was a lack of connectivity. The provincial capital of Quetta adjoining the border town of Chaman was the only city connected to Karachi via a colonial era rail track. As a founder member state of the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) from 1964 till its dissolution in 1979, Pakistan managed to construct the RCD highway from Karachi to Chaman. A branch road was supposed to link it to Iran and through the Iranian road network to Turkey. Though a substitute regional organisation, the Economic Cooperation Organisation(ECO) featuring Afghanistan and six of the adjoining Central Asian States as new members, was set up in 1985, not much headway has been made in terms of connectivity because of the turmoil Afghanistan has constantly been embroiled in.

The construction of the coastal highway from Karachi to Gwadar in the early part of this century, which has cut the journey time from two days to a matter of hours, has furnished the greatest fillip to the development of the region’s human resources. It was at around the same time that China was persuaded to undertake construction of the first phase of the port of Gwadar. Since its completion by end 2005, this new port has not proved to be commercially profitable thus far, especially when compared to the likes of Sohar and Ras Forkhan lying just across the Gulf of Oman. Gwadar Port’s greatest achievement at present lies in opening up a vast tract of the country that had hitherto been impervious to development. It’s future fortunes are tied to three prerequisites: regional connectivity, substantial foreign investment and CPECs fruition.

CPEC can indeed be a game changer if Pakistan plays its cards right, if it succeeds in its efforts to defuse regional tensions, if it can keep its internal security demons in check and if it can get the regional players interested. CPEC is an integral part of the broader One Belt One Road Chinese initiative, while Gwadar is the interface that links it with the equally vibrant 21st century Maritime Silk Route.

It has long been recognised that Pakistan’s march to progress was being hampered by a severe energy shortfall. One of CPECs primary objectives is to make energy shortages a thing of the past, with as much as $45 billion of Chinese investment being devoted towards this end. Coal terminals have been set up to meet the insatiable need for new coal-based power plants, while LNG terminals along with the associated paraphernalia of regasification units and gas pipelines have also been planned. Relatively cheaper hydropower is also expected to be a part of the complex energy mix. The missing links of the motorway are also expected to fall into place by next year to ensure seamless travel from Karachi to Peshawar. The principal line of the railway network, which till recently was a picture of neglect, is being upgraded all the way from Karachi to Peshawar, rejuvenating thereby the cheapest and most convenient mode of inland transportation.

As far as the economic dimension of the corridor is concerned, around 27 economic zones have been planned throughout the length and breadth of the country with the relatively underdeveloped parts of the country getting the lion’s share. From Pakistan’s perspective, Gwadar happens to be the jewel in the CPECs crown. With its own industrial and logistics zone, Gwadar provides a smooth land-sea interface. As far as China is concerned, the short to medium term trade needs of its vast western regions can easily be met through Pakistan’s existing road and rail network up to the the twin eastern ports of Karachi and Bin Qasim. Gwadar is thus the wave of the future, when large quantities of goods would be transportable through the Khunjerab Pass.

CPECs biggest contribution by far lies in opening up the vast underdeveloped western regions of Pakistan and China. Its impact will really become visible once all its strands from energy to production centres to transportation to information highways, all are knitted together to form a unified whole.

Let me however re-emphasise that despite its nomenclature, CPEC is not meant to be a bilateral arrangement. It is a part and parcel of the broader One Belt One Road and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives. The cornerstone of its economic, social and political success is thus regional connectivity, which will not only usher in an era of shared prosperity but also enable the participating countries to tap onto each other’s transportation network.

In this scheme of things, involvement of Afghanistan and Iran in particular are pivotal to CPECs success. Factors like robust bilateral relations, internal stability and security imperatives are so intricately dovetailed into a shared vision of regional prosperity that one can’t be certain as to which is supposed to come first. It is in our common interest to see that peace and stability reigns in the area. Just as Afghanistan is Pakistan’s gateway to the Central Asian States, Pakistan in turn is Afghanistan’s gateway to India. Though the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement of 2010 allows Pakistan two way access to all countries bordering Afghanistan, yet this could not be capitalised upon due to various reasons. Both India and Pakistan have recently been inducted as full-fledged members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which may hopefully furnish the necessary impetus to spur connectivity between South Asia and China-Russia through Afghanistan and the Central Asian States.

One of the advantages the port of Gwadar enjoys over Karachi is that it is better poised to meet Afghanistan’s transit trade needs. But for this to happen, a rail track between Gwadar and the border city of Chaman is a prerequisite. Afghanistan has not been much of a railway-friendly country so far, but the extension of this rail line through Kandahar to Kabul and even beyond to Mazar Sharif would certainly make sound commercially sense. A further extension from Mazar Sharif to Termez, which lies at the confluence of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and our dream of regional connectivity would be that much nearer to realisation.

No regional connectivity mechanism would be complete without the participation of Iran. Despite the geographical proximity of Gwadar and Chabahar, or perhaps because of it, the two ports are more naturally inclined towards complementarity rather than mutually exclusive competitiveness. A link-up between the expected rail network originating from Gwadar to the Iranian one emanating from Chabahar would provide easy connectivity to Iraq, Syria, Turkey and even beyond to Europe. This would also generate a more convenient route to the western regions of Afghanistan. Iran in turn would be facilitated through easier access to China via CPEC.

Connectivity can help build bridges in a troubled region. But in the complex neighbourhood that we live in, building bridges is perhaps a prerequisite to anything else materialising. We have to rise beyond the narrow nationalistic confines of today to be able to forge the common destiny of tomorrow. It goes without saying that in the highly globalised context of the present, no country can expect to survive and thrive in a state of isolation.

A quote from a celebrated 17th century English poet is perhaps in order:

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a part of the continent,

A part of the main.


Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind;

And therefore never send to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

The only question we need to ask ourselves is whether the bell tolls for ushering in a brave new world, as Aldous Huxley put it, or it sounds the death knell for the collective aspirations of the billions of people inhabiting this part of the world.


Note: This article was published in the March 2018 edition of the monthly ‘Global Age’ magazine.


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