CPEC- A Timeline of Changing Positions of the Government
Over the last few months a huge debate generated on social, print & electronic media over the alleged changes to the original route of Pak-China Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, it got more intense during the recent visit of Chinese President where Pakistan & China signed a $ 45.6 billion MoU for Chinese investment in CPEC. Almost all political parties started their protests against PML-N government both inside and outside parliament over the changes in the original route. ANP & PPP did separate All Parties Conferences to build a consensus against any changes to the original route. There were some protests too in the two smaller provinces against the alleged changes in CPEC route. The ruling PML-N government and its ministers’ response to these criticism is ambiguous, at best. These lines will try to give a brief time line of official response to the allegations of changes in the CPEC route.
The latest response from the government came in a tweet from Mr Ahsan Iqbal on 30th April, 2015 where he gave a map, showing four routes for the CPEC. Minister tweeted ‘CPEC routes: work in progress on all (routes) simultaneously and western (route) will be operational first. IA’. However the annual PSDP document of the planning commission & the 51 MoUs signed on 20thApril, 2015 negates ‘work in progress on all routes’. All 21 projects of CPEC mentioned in PSDP 2014-15 document is of developing eastern route only. Similarly, the MoUs signed with Chinese government has no investment commitment for the western route of CPEC. A week earlier, Planning Commission uploaded a map on its official website giving ‘Economic Nodes of CPEC’ without giving any map of the route(s) of the corridor.
Probably the very first response from Government on the alleged changes in CPEC route came in June, 2014 in a meeting of Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Revenue when some opposition senators question the proposed changes in the original route,. Responding to a question, Secretary Planning & Development confirmed that “the proposal (to change the route) was on the table’ on request by Chinese Ambassador. Later, Mr Ahsan Iqbal joined the meeting and confirmed a change of plan on the corridor project. Mr Iqbal said ‘the government choose the eastern route (going through Punjab & Sindh) over the western route (going through KP & Balochistan) because it has some of the Early Harvest Projects (EHPs) which can be completed in 4-5 years’. The minister argues that “the government would move to the next phase after reaping economic benefits of the first phase and by the time the national economy would become strong enough to take on big projects”. He further asked the opposition “to find out investors for constructing this important corridor on BOT (build-operate-transfer) basis and then there will be no change in the original plan (western route).”
In another meeting on 10th October, 2014 of a Senate’s Standing Committee on Communications, members from the smaller provinces reject exclusion of backward areas of Balochistan & KP from the Pak-China Corridor Route.Chairman Senate Standing Committee, Daud Khan Achakzai, complain that their earlier recommendations were not entertained by the government. The members of the committee expressed annoyance over the absence of the minister of state for communications from the meeting.
Fast forward to the senate session on 3rd February, 2015 and Ahsan Iqbal termed the reports of route change as ‘propaganda by forces that did not want to see improvement in Pakistan-China relations’. However, in the same senate session, Mr Ahsan Iqbal told that “the government was considering using the existing infrastructure to benefit from trade with China and Central Asian States during the ‘interim period’ on China’s request”. While senators from the smaller provinces were complaining that the government changed the route to include Lahore, Multan, Sukkur & Hyderabad, the Minister call it only an ‘interim arrangement’ to use existing infrastructure.
In yet another meeting of the Senate Committee on foreign affairs on 5th February, 2015, NHA chairman told members of the committee that "Whatever we have done is with the consent of the Chinese authorities who told us that instead of waiting (for the original route), the existing road network could be used for making Gwadar port operational at the earliest." To which Senator Farhatullah Babar remarked that ‘once the the new alignment becomes operational it will, overtime, create its own vested interests and it will be impossible to revert to the initially planned alignment via D.I Khan and D.G Khan. Thus for all practical purposes the new alignment will become final and irrevocable. The senator further said that ‘the decision about the economic corridor’s alignment is fundamentally a political decision and has to be addressed at a political level; stating that it cannot be addressed by bureaucrats attending today’s meeting.’
After ANP did an APC on corridor on 18th February, 2015 to build consensus against changes in the original route, Mr Ahsan Iqbal started saying on public forums that ‘Economic corridor will have multiple routes’ and that ‘not a single inch (of the original plan) has been changed’. He alsotalked about the wrong maps been floated on the internet which to him are spreading confusion regarding corridor. Late in April, 2015, he started saying & tweeting that that the Western Route of CPEC will be completed in 2016 pointing out to the already completed work on N-85 & M-8.
It is also to be pointed out that earlier on 8th February, 2015, Planning Commission tweeted a map of the corridor from its official twitter account where only the eastern route was showed which was later deleted after strong criticism over it. Same (deleted) map is also given in annual report 2013 of Pakistan China Institute which is a non-government, non-partisan and non-political think tank. This particular think tank is headed by Mushahid Hussain Syed who is now co-chair of the newly founded think tank “Research and Development International (RANDI)”.
Despite tremendous pressure on the current government from political parties, print, electronic and social media to come clear on the CPEC route change, the response of PML-N government is ambiguous at best. Their changing positions about the route(s) of CPEC and not sharing detail information about this important project with political parties and general public cast doubts about their intentions.