Pakistan Army Set To Get ‘Full Control’ Of $60-Billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)

The Pakistan Parliament is likely to vote on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority Bill 2020, which has been passed by the parliamentary committee, in the second week of December. The legislation would empower the Pakistan Army as it would gain control over the newly-created body.

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Since the expiry of the presidential order in May, the CPEC authority has been defunct and the Imran Khan-led government has been making relentless efforts for months to get the draft bill passed by the committee.

With the new law, CPEC projects would come under the jurisdiction of the CPEC Authority headed by retired army Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, instead of the Planning and Development Ministry run by a civilian bureaucracy.

With the legislation, Bajwa would replace the planning minister as co-chair of a Pakistan-China joint committee and report directly to the prime minister instead of the ministry.

Even though the presidential order has lapsed, Bajwa has continued to preside over the CPEC Authority as chairman.

Furthermore, the first condition which makes the law more controversial is that it grants legal immunity to CPEC Authority officials, making them unaccountable for the tens of billions of dollars to be spent on corridor projects and putting them outside the purview of Pakistani courts.

Secondly, the bill stipulates that if a public officeholder does not cooperate with the CPEC Authority, the chairman will have the power to order an investigation into the officeholder. Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the University of London’s SOAS South Asia Institute, told Nikkei Asia that the military wanted CPEC authority when the project started [in 2015], but the PML-N government was against it.

Bajwa’s Controversial Appointment

While the CPEC Authority chairman Bajwa’s appointment has been marred with the allegations of providing more control to the government, it has also been argued that Bajwa’s previous position as the former head of the army’s Southern Command, which covers the province of Balochistan, provides him the experience of addressing security concerns in the area.

With the spurt of attacks on the Chinese working in the area, Beijing was been worried about Balochistan.

Research has shown a higher completion rate of CPEC projects in Punjab and Sindh compared with the historically marginalized provinces such as Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Slowdown of CPEC

After Imran Khan had come to power in 2018, his government started looking into the allegations of corruption in the CPEC project under the previous government, which caused the project to slow down significantly. Another factor adding to the stalling of the project was the government’s apprehensions that the deals unfairly benefited Beijing.

However, a flurry of tweets from Bajwa and the Pakistan government indicate the change of wind where the CPEC projects are making fast progress.

What CPEC Aims to Achieve?

Part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, the aim of the $50-billion project is to shorten oil, gas, and other trade routes by thousands of kilometers by cutting overland from western China rather than going around South and Southeast Asia by ship.

A research by scholars in Islamabad and Beijing found that transport costs for an average 40-foot shipping container between Kashgar and destination ports in the Middle East and Europe would decrease once the project is completed.

In addition, Pakistan which has been reeling under unemployment, and poor economic conditions even with massive external debts, would be able to create tens of thousands of jobs.

There are 23 energy projects, seven major road and rail networks, nine SEZs, and an expanded, functional Gwadar port lie at the heart of CPEC.

As per the official website of the Pakistan Army, the Frontier Works Organization, the army’s construction, and engineering arm, “has constructed 3,797 km of roads” in the past 30 years, “besides preparing 8 completely new and up-gradating 11 airfields.”

Since FWO has contracts for building roads as part of the CPEC, the army would benefit from any mining that will happen under CPEC, experts have pointed out.