Who calls the shots?
In 2019, the government of Imran Khan approved a ordinance to establish the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPECA) for timely execution of large-ticket CPEC projects. It was widely speculated that CPECA was established to please China, which expressed dismay at the slow progress on the CPEC front and wanted the army to participate directly. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s close aide, Lt. General Asim Saleem Bajwa (retired) became the first chairman of the authority.
Since its inception, CPECA has faced disclosure from legislators in Pakistan as it has undermined the role of the civilian government and served as a “parallel authority”.
But things got even more bleak when the prescription stopped in May this year.
According to reports in Pakistani media, Bajwa continued to preside over CPEC much more than May despite not having a legal sanction to do so. This raised eyebrows in the country, with several opposition leaders questioning the legal status and functioning of the authority after the end of the statute of limitations. Concerns have been raised particularly as Bajwa was involved in a major corruption scandal earlier this year and had to step down as Prime Minister Khan’s special adviser.
In recent months, the Pakistani government has been working on a bill aimed at restoring the controversial CPEC authority. In November, a parliamentary committee finally emptied the CPEC 2020 Authority Project in the National Assembly. The proposed law will be put to a final vote in the second week of December.
But the devil is in the details.
The bill will not only pave the way for the official return of the CPEC authority, but will give the Pakistani army much greater control over CPEC. According to a report on Nikkei Asia, the proposed law will allow Bajwa to replace the planning minister as co-chair of a Pakistan-China joint committee and remove the role of the planning ministry as an administrative division and the authority.
“A new post of chief of staff is also proposed in the bill and the post of CEO is proposed to be abolished. Currently, the CEO is chief executive of the bureaucracy. The two posts of executive directors are proposed to be abolished,” the report said.
Most importantly, Bajwa would report directly to Prime Minister Imran Khan instead of the planning ministry. Observers believe this would give the army extensive influence over key projects, as Khan is considered close to the military, with critics often giving him nicknames such as “elected prime minister” or “puppet ruler”.
The report said the law aims to grant legal immunity to CPECA officials, which will make them inexplicable about tens of billions of dollars spent for the projects and put them outside the region of Pakistani courts.
The law further stipulates that the president of CPECA will be able to order an investigation against any employee who refuses to cooperate with the agency.
What’s in it for China?
Military control over the CPEC project benefits China more than one, according to various experts.
Sources from the Pakistani planning ministry told the Asia Times that China wants that Pakistani army be directly involved in CPEC – part of its ambitious Zone and Road Initiative – to accelerate the speed of projects.
Ensuring a healthy pace of BRI projects in Pakistan is key to China’s ambitions, as it aims to expand its influence in the South Asian region, even if it costs to financially drain the partner nations.
A report by the Center for Global Development has shown that Pakistan is among the eight countries most at risk of falling into debt due to China’s BRI projects.
The report said nations like Pakistan are looking at rising debts to GDP ratios beyond 50 percent, with at least 40 percent of external debt owed to China after BRI lending ends.
Over the next 14 days, Maldives Treasury will have to pay more than $ 15 million to Chinese banks. These banks so far have not given … https://t.co/Y7MhzayICA
– Mohamed Nasheed (@MohamedNasheed) 1607677308000
Moreover, greater involvement of the army will also serve to address China’s security concerns against Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Several Chinese contractors and engineers working in the Balochistan and Sindh regions have been kidnapped and killed in recent years. Thus, Bajwa’s previous position as the head of the army’s southern command, which covers Baloch province, will alleviate some of these concerns.
“Bajwa has undoubtedly been chosen out of a belief that he could specifically address security concerns. Beijing is concerned about terrorism in Balochistan, where separatists have intensified attacks on Chinese targets in recent years,” commentator Arif Rafiq wrote in a Foreign Policy article. .
The CPEC project, which connects China’s western city of Kashgar to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, is also crossing the Pakistani Gilgit-Baltistan. The region is the gateway to the CPEC infrastructure plan.
“With Gilgit-Baltistan under its control, the role of the Pakistani army is even more crucial, as the region remains disputed for decades, but at the same time it is important for China and Pakistan to rule this area for the construction of CPEC,” an analyst said on condition of anonymity. told IANS news agency.
Without Gilgit-Baltistan, the Chinese will have limited access to Gwadar.
According to media reports, Pakistan has decided to elevate Gilgit Baltistan to a full-fledged province under pressure from the Chinese government. Activists say the move was aimed at addressing China’s concern about the region’s disputed status. India has completely condemned this movement, calling it Pakistan’s offer to camouflage its illegal occupation of the region.