While the ‘P’ in CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) has been satirically termed to represent ‘Punjab’ rather than ‘Pakistan’, the second ‘C’ has increasingly started to signify ‘controversy’ rather than ‘corridor’.
The controversy has emerged due to disagreement between the civil and military leadership on Pakistan’s overall national security policy and on the authority and role of the special security division, which has been tasked with protecting Chinese personnel working on the CPEC projects throughout the country.
The controversy is also due to policy changes that the project and the countries involved in it are directly and indirectly calling for. Some of these policy changes are imminent and are likely to have a profound impact on Pakistan and the region.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with his business-oriented approach, seems to have finally realized that Pakistan cannot fully reap the benefits of CPEC if eastern and western sides of the border remain tense and various terror outfits continue to operate in the country.
CPEC’s importance as a foreign policy tool has become apparent after India threatened to globally isolate Pakistan. Cancellation of the SAARC summit in Islamabad sent a strong message to Pakistan’s leadership on the urgent need to counter terrorism in all possible ways. This prompted Nawaz to tell the military to take action against militants or face international isolation.
But this has, as some reports have indicated, put him on a confrontation course with the army, forcing his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab’s Chief Minister, to accuse security agencies of playing a “behind-the-scenes” role in sabotaging rather than helping civilian anti-terror efforts by law enforcement agencies.
The military top brass have publicly criticized the government’s tardiness in the implementation of the National Action Plan against extremism and terrorism.
Pakistan’s sense of isolation has been compounded by China’s concerns. While Beijing has, time and again, reaffirmed its support for Pakistan, it has also hinted at a change in its policy. For instance, although Chinese authorities are putting on technical hold a proposed UN ban on Masood Azhar, the leader of the terror group Jaish-i-Mohammad, they have questioned the logic behind it and indirectly urged its longtime ally Islamabad to act against global terrorists and closely monitor cross-border movements.
China’s US$50 billion CPEC project can bring rapid development to Pakistan’s remote and distant western regions by connecting them to Gwadar port, lead to massive infrastructure development and generation of jobs. However, this will be possible only if Islamabad effectively counters terrorism.
Pakistan cannot upset China which is currently the only source of major foreign direct investment there. The days of unlimited funds from western allies to bolster Pakistan’s national defense are almost over. The nation needs a strong economy and military preparedness to meet external and internal threats in a volatile region. These factors are forcing Islamabad to consider some profound policy changes at domestic and regional levels.
Amid growing concerns of friendly countries, Pakistan must make an honest assessment of its international standing and security policies. Without that, it cannot hope to reposition itself or even use CPEC as a foreign policy tool.
Sources tell Asia Times that while Pakistan’s civil and military leadership continue to differ on the extent and timing of operations against terror networks, a sort of understanding has started to emerge with regard to reorienting Pakistan’s foreign policy. A central element of it is to put trade and economy at the center of the policy and address all regional issues through diplomacy rather than through direct and indirect military involvement.
Nawaz’s recent call for a peaceful and negotiated end of the Afghan war and his emphasis on declaring the enemies of the Afghan people, presumably the Taliban and other militant groups, as the enemies of Pakistan, assume significance in this context.
Will this anti-terror rhetoric turn into concrete action?
While a categorical answer to this question cannot be given at this stage, one official from the foreign office said on the condition of anonymity that Pakistan has reached a stage where it cannot afford to continue its support, directly or indirectly, to any (terror) group at any level. While the support for such groups runs counter to the development Pakistan is seeking through CPEC, it will also foil its efforts to cultivate better relations with regional countries to prevent isolation.