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In conversation with Dr. Rizwana Karim Abbasi on CPEC

In conversation with Dr. Rizwana Karim Abbasi on CPEC
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Hailing from Bagh, Pakistan Administered Kashmir; Dr. Rizwana Abbasi is Associate Professor at Department of Strategic and Nuclear Studies, National Defense University, Islamabad, Pakistan. She received her PhD in 2010, specializing in International Security and Nuclear Non-proliferation from University of Leicester. Dr. Rizwana is author of a book entitled ‘Pakistan and New Nuclear Taboo: Regional Deterrence and International Arms Control Regime (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012).’
In an emailed interview with Omer Farooq and Shafa’at Wani, Dr. Rizwana Abbasi talks about China Pakistan Economic Corridor being a milestone towards multi polar world and Rise of Asia.

Is China through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) capable of transforming the existing world order?

Yes, the international system has undergone significant transformation in the backdrop of global distribution of power that is in flux. For example, global distribution of power is shifting to Asia and changes between actors within the region are also taking place. China’s economy is rising and its GDP has exceeded that of the United States (US) at purchasing-power parity (PPP) in recent years. A number of other Asian emerging economies are maintaining relatively stable growth rates; Asia, thus has become the global economic powerhouse of this century. Indicators suggest that global economic trends have shifted from Atlantic to Asia mainly due to Chinese increased growth rate. China’s BRI connects 64-68 countries in four continents with a total population of 406 billion (62 percent of world’s total). Indeed, China, a rising power that experiences tremendous growth rate can expect to increase its geopolitical influence in the broader region and world at large. Thus, contention is that coming multipolarity is a reality that seems to be less war prone. Indeed, US decline is predictable but US will still play an influential role from distance in the Asia-Pacific region.

What does Asian Century mean for the US?

US presence in the region is related to regional as well as global security dynamics. Asia is divided by a diversity of border disputes, security compulsions such as threat from North Korea, regional instability that could be caused by the existence of undemocratic regimes, ethnic issues, drug trafficking, security of navigation on trade lines – naval routes, and geopolitical significance of the Malacca straits determine US role in this region. More so, the South and East China Seas, potential and key unresolved issues between China and other Asian countries are also compelling factors for the US assertiveness in this region. US presence in Asia-Pacific also relates to its power projection as a super power of the world to uphold world’s unipolar order. Consequently, US is busy in accomplishing these objectives through strengthening relations with its traditional allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Beyond bilateral alliances, US is busy in enhancing its strategic position in the region through regional organizations. These competing trends suggests that both US and China are heavily reliant on maritime trade routes for their socio-economic growth and they will continue to increase their influence and assertiveness in the blue seas in order to preserve their safe transit routes. Although China cannot invade or blockade any of its neighbors due to US presence in the region and preparation of neighboring states’ military assertiveness. However, China has the ability to challenge US economic and security interests in the region. US is the maritime power and holds supremacy in the blue-seas of Asia-pacific whereas China will continue to modernize its naval platforms to mitigate security threats that obstruct its rise. These competing trends will lead to challenge regional stability.

What does CPEC mean for Pakistan? How would CPEC impact Pakistan’s economic destiny. Will Pakistan be caught up in China’s debt trap strategy or Pakistan really has the prospects to make best of the deal?

CPEC being a flagship project and the largest corridor of BRI is an important initiative towards regional connectivity, economic prosperity and uplifting stands of local communities and people. CPEC is not about Pakistan but cross regional connectivity between South Asia, Central Asia and Middle East. This project would not only improve Pakistan’s economic trajectory and improve trade volume but also connects the landlocked regions to world markets/economy. Pakistan can easily connect its trade to China, Middle East and the world market on lowest cost. At this stage it is a bilateral project, in coming years it would become a multilateral project.
CPEC investments are related to infrastructure, energy, railways, fiber-optic, agriculture, tourism as well as research and development, co-development and co-production of industrial base, connectivity of energy base and creation of knowledge corridor. At least 22 out of 43 project have been completed or close to completion stage. Nearly 15 energy projects have been completed whereas some of the fiber-optics projects will be completed by mid this year. Investment in infrastructure will mitigate regional distances that in return would foster economic connectivity and trade volume. 

What are benefits of regional connectivity to Pakistan?

Regional connectivity would foster socio-economic development and increase trade volume and economic growth rate of all the countries involved. It would bring social prosperity and uplift standard of the people. It shall give growth to knowledge based economy by opening up a knowledge and technological corridor. There is possibility of strengthening of MoU and shared research and cooperation among cross regional universities to address common threats and shared problems. Exchange of academics, shared degree programs, shared libraries and literature production and regular exchange of students would usher a new era of learning. Connectivity of these academic institutions can generate new trends of scientific discoveries, understanding of socio-economic problems thereby offering scientific solutions to the regional problems.

Has Pakistan compromised its sovereignty in the backdrop of CPEC?

Pakistan is a sovereign nation state. Pakistan’s major aim is to build regional connectivity in order to improve socio-economic development, bringing prosperity to its people and stabilizing the war prone region without compromising its sovereignty and national interests. Pakistan remained in the western camp for 6-7 decades without compromising its own sovereignty. The global political trends are shifting; states are realigning guided by their national interests. Thus Pakistan is also realigning in order to maximize its national interests.

But many believe that Pakistan compromised it’s sovereignty after 9/11 when US invaded Afghanistan. Pakistan shared intelligence with US agencies and even handed over Al Qaida associates. How do you see it?

Pakistan and US had shared understanding and common ground to deal with AlQaeda. Both the states had shared intelligence based operations. Writ of the state and government was there. All the governmental institutions had been professionally working throughout these years.
We also experienced smooth democratic transition from one government to another. Pakistani military and civil government effectively rooted terrorism out and restored peace internally
Today Pakistan has become a stable and economically progressive state. International indicators suggest that Pakistan’s economy would rise. Pakistan has realigned in the backdrop of all those sufferings. Pakistan wants to move on in order to achieve socio-economic development , defeating poverty , terrorism and conflicts
Pakistan wants to live in peace and harmony with its neighbouring countries.

If Pakistan wants peace with its neighbours then what are India’s options in it? Will India be the part of US backed alliance to counter ambitions or will it join CPEC to usher new era of economic prosperity and regional stability?

CPEC is an important driver of trade between China, Pakistan, Iran, India and Afghanistan and Central Asia. In parallel to Gwader, India is building Chahbar port. Both the ports are complementary to each other. Positive comparison between the two would be important. For Iran both Gawader and Chahbar are advantageous and profiting ports for the entire region. India is investing $500 million on Chahbar and trying to counter Gawader. But the sea traffic of the two ports relies on each other. Gawader is the largest ship dock that has the capacity to accommodate 300-400 million tons of cargo whereas capacity of Chahbar is only between 10-12-million-ton cargo. Gawader is residence of 200 million people. This is why China is developing schools, hospitals, roads and airport there. Broader aim is to connect this port to Afghanistan and Iran. In five years, it would become Asia’s largest shipping port thereby expanding capacity to handle 1300 million tons of cargos. Contention is that Gawader would usher a new era of stability an prosperity for the broader region.
Both India and China have shared interests in the China Sea, Western pacific, Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf that drives India and China into serious geopolitical competition. India in its quest of power maximization as a regional/global power believes that it can contribute effectively to the evolution of security politics in the region. Both India and US are apprehensive over the rise of China. India is engaged in a heavy hedge against China to navigate China’s growing wealth and power and to maintain Asian balance in the US favor by building deep collaboration with the US and its alliance system. Against this background, Indo-US relations have undergone a significant conversion, with resulting modernization of military forces and armament. Growing strategic closeness between India and the US has made China strategically uncomfortable. This perception, in return creates competing trends between the later two thereby intensifying security dilemma between India and Pakistan. India’s capability based planning, its unchecked defence modernization, its hard power projection in the region, violation of human rights in Kashmir and lack of political will to resume dialogue with Pakistan certainly leads to challenge the regional stability.

Will CPEC transform Indo-Pakistan political relations or change state of Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan? Has the project potential to resolve the issue of Kashmir between the two states?

Hypothetically yes, possible. Practically, no, not possibly in the near future considering Indian bullying behavior towards Pakistani, violation of human rights in Kashmir and growing significance of water in the backdrop of rising environmental and climate challenges.

What if India stops HR violations in Kashmir but continues to call it integral part and not a disputed territory? Don’t you think such a stand by India will keep Kashmir issue lingering?

Kashmir is the question of international law, India cannot call it an integral part of India without holding plebiscite. More so, Pakistan will protest globally on this legal question.

India neither wants to hold bilateral talks on the issue of Kashmir nor accepts international mediation on this territorial dispute. Therefore, UNSC directly has got to play a role. Without the involvement of UNSC, the issue of Kashmir is not resolve-able. Therefore, CPEC may not potentially contribute to resolve this complicated issue. And without the settlement of issue of Kashmir, durable peace between India and Pakistan is not achievable. But through CPEC and with the help of China, Pakistan can improve its economy and external balancing to make its voice heard internationally on the issue of Kashmir by having leverage on global institutions leading to involve the UNSC to resolve the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

What are security challenges to CPEC/Creation of security and economic network?

There are external and internal challenges associated with the CPEC that create hindrance in resilience of the project and seek to undermine the benefits attached to this mega project. One, India is trying to obstruct the CPEC in Gilgit-Baltistan, which India wrongly claims to be an integral part of its territory. Two, along with India, US is also uncomfortable of Chinese strategic access to the Arabian Sea via Gawader. This has enormously complicated political relations between US and Pakistan. India is hedging against China and US-India partnership creates mistrust between US and Pakistan. Three, porous border between Pakistani and Afghanistan also creates a security threat to this project. There are also indicators of foreign intelligence agencies engaged in espionage against the CPEC. More so, a rim of militancy stretches from Xinjiang to Gwadar. Militant groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Daesh (ISIS), Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) are actively participating to sabotage and disrupt the project. More so, Baloch ethno-nationalist separatists are the visible opponents of Chinese investments in the province.

In order to specifically counter security threats to the CPEC, the Pakistani government has established Special Chinese Security Cell. A revised comprehensive security network need to be established to make this project resilient and effective. For example, inclusive approach need to be adopted from government to the level of local communities. From physical security, narrative building and people to people contacts, Intelligence networks, economic strategies and military tools can be used to outweigh malign designs of the opponents. National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), local police, army, paramilitary forces, private security, in support with local communities have to introduce transparent and coordination mechanism to offset these threats.

What are the measures that Pakistan has taken to mitigate environment related threats?

CPEC certainly would contribute to mitigate environment related threats such as development of dams to mitigate water scarcity. Building of dams to mitigate water scarcity is a part of this project in the back drop of climate change. Agriculture is one of the targeted areas towards poverty mitigation. Poverty eradication by creating jobs and infrastructure, placing renewed emphasis on renewable energy projects such as Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park in Punjab and windmills in Sindh. Both government would share skills, knowledge and technologies in order to promote renewable energy culture in Pakistan. Energy sufficiency would mitigate heat wave related threat effects. Pakistan should play an active role on global forum in order to learn best practices being implemented by other countries on climate change related threats and mitigation plans.

Reflect on reservations expressed by some opposition parties regarding CPEC?

In the first place every mainstream Pakistani political party supported this mega project. However, gradually different parties reported sentiments against the sharing of benefits on mutual basis. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan reported that their reservations about CPEC were not being addressed amicably. The ruling government has chaired an All Parties Conference at different occasions to discuss provincial grievances and has formed a committee to hear their sentiments and address the issues. Regional parties from KPK such as Tehreek-i-Insaf, Jamat Islami, Awami National Party and Baluchistan National Party-Mengal from Baluchistan have also organized APCs to discuss the provincial concerns. I have said at many occasions, that all the political parties, civil government and military should play a participatory role with mutual consensus and coordinated efforts to make this project a success for the betterment of the people of the country.

Thank You for your valuable time.

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