By Wajahat Qazi
China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)- a $54 billion economic corridor in Pakistan- will connect Pakistan’s Gwadar port with Xinjiang in China. The humungous project will alter the nature of Pakistan’s political economy and lay the basis for a more robust and deep relationship between Pakistan and China. In some ways and senses, CPEC, if it pans out according to the architects of the project, will be akin to the functionalist paradigm that became the premise for European integration after the Second Great War. While sovereignty will not be pooled as it was when the European project was conceived and no super state will emerge along the lines of the European Union but , to a large extent, the economies of Pakistan and China will be closely enmeshed. The CPEC then is an intensely political project. The question is, given the nature of CPEC, what will be the implications on the South Asian region, in particular and the broader region, at large?
The answer is: it depends.
The impact of CPEC is contingent on how it pans out. That is, if there are no glitches in both the conception and execution of the project, and other things being equal, then CPEC can be a paradigm shattering project; it will potentially rejigg and redefine the politics of the region and will therefore have extra regional implications and consequences. The roll out of CPEC- essentially in the nature of geo-economics, that is, a combination of geopolitics and economics- comes at a time of great turbulence and fluidity in international politics and regional relations. If we were to describe contemporary international relations in terms of system polarity, the international system could be held to be “loosely bipolar”- with the United States( albeit in relative decline) and China jostling and jockeying for power and influence across the world. In this “loose” bipolar schema, Russia , to employ a judo metaphor, is punching above its weight. That is, it is throwing its weight around in a way which belies its real power position and obscures its weakness. The real players then are China and the United States. While China is flexing its muscles in its “near abroad” – with perhaps South China Sea as the fulcrum of this strategy-and expanding its influence across the world through prudent aid, investment strategies, the United States’ direction under Trump is not clear. But what may be stated with some degree of certainty is that despite Trump’s isolationist and mercantilist instincts, there will not be a broader and wider retrenchment of American power across the world. The country will, in all likelihood, seek to maintain its primacy , in perhaps different avatars.
American primacy would entail hedging or containing China and precluding its rise- namby- pamby and sentimental talk of co-operation between the two notwithstanding. China can perhaps be best contained from the United States perspective by instrumentalizing India. Therefore, augmenting India’s capacities and capabilities to counter or even isolate China could be the preferred American strategy. Here the Indian Ocean region (IOR) would assume salience along with a deepened defense and trading relationship with India. For India, a more vigorous relationship with the United States , even though perhaps not in the nature of a formal alliance, would allow the country to “stand up” to China and undercut and undermine Pakistan. India could then cannibalize its putative regional hegemony for and towards its global aspirations. The linearity embedded and entailed in this assessment is , however, undercut by the CPEC.
The CPEC, if its pans out, revolutionizes the political economy of Pakistan and augments its capacities and capabilities. The country then no longer is in need of aid monies from the United States; the rate of return from CPEC investments would serve as a “multiplier effect” and the benefits will redound to Pakistan’s economy, both sectorally and intersectorally. Pakistan will embark on an economic modernization program which the country can cannibalize for military modernization. The leverage that the United States has on Pakistan will dissipate; the spillover can be felt in Afghanistan, where Pakistan will get a freer hand with the country able to say “No” to the United States. Pakistan, a “late globalizer” will get ensconced in the flows of global commerce and trade but this globalization of Pakistan would “made in China” and have a clear cut Chinese ingress. This will be overlain by strategic connections between sea ports. Mix all these factors together and what we have is a robust regional politico- economic and security complex which appears to be directed against an Indo US axis. In essence then, the CPEC is , to repeat, paradigm shattering with the potential to throw regional and even global equations into a tizzy.
The question now is: what will be the CPEC’s implications on Kashmir? Will it mellow Pakistan’s historical and contemporary stance on Kashmir? Or will it render the country more intense in terms of its claim on Kashmir? This question cannot be answered with precision. But an economically stronger Pakistan with China enmeshed in the country’s economy and thereby high Chinese stakes in it, could make Pakistan a player in a bipolar world along the lines of a “hub and spokes” model with China at its center. CPEC will enable Pakistan thwart threats of international isolation- a goal that India clamors for- and will make the country a strong regional player. This would very well have ramifications on Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir. However, at this stage, the form and shape of this stance cannot be foretold precisely. What, however, can be stated with precision is that a new “Great Game”- albeit unlike the traditional variant -is about to begin in South Asia and beyond. CPEC will be at the center of this “Great Game”.
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