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One Belt, One Road

The Chinese have made it clear that they will spare no efforts or tolerate any opposition to make the CPEC a success.

As experiences go, the short time I spent in the Karakoram Highway (KKH) flight (Four Army Aviation Squadron) under the command of Major (later Major General) H U K Niazi, in the high mountains in 1970, is one that far surpassed my expectations and lives on in my memory for more reasons than one. Piloting an Aloutte-3, the BMW of the air at that time, the sheer beauty of the landscape was breathtaking. The extreme weather conditions, which do not really set in till November notwithstanding, navigating the high peaks and valleys of the Karakoram is always a hazardous venture. Every morning was a new adventure, combining infinite trust and confidence in both the machine and oneself. The new places to visit and the new faces to add to your friends, for a young man, were an exultation of enjoying freedom in a totally different dimension. Passing over the wreckage of the Russian MI-6 was a constant reminder of the inherent dangers of flying in such different terrains at high altitudes; the downside hit me only a few months ago with the tragedy at Naltar.

Working with the soldiers of the two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Divisions constructing the KKH north of Gilgit was the icing on the cake. In the early morning one could see them walking from their base camp in the hundreds, in their distinctive grey uniforms to the road heads. Blasting their way through the sides of the mountain, accidents invariably happened whilst boring into the rocks and tapping in the explosives manually. Lifting their casualties to the base hospital on helicopters was not a pleasant job. The bloodstains on my flying overall were a red badge of their courage and fortitude. The sacrifice and commitment of the thousands and thousands of nameless Chinese soldiers, who worked on the KKH, is beyond description. What are the right phrases to praise those who died attempting to make the road possible? One rarely witnesses such a display of duty and sacrifice, and it was a privilege to be in the company of such brave and selfless men.

Why were the Chinese determined to build this road from nowhere to Pakistan? Those who had seen Urumchi and Kashgar then, would not be wrong to believe that this was a futile exercise. “You Pakistanis are stupid, you think in terms of five to 10 years; we Chinese think 50 to 100 years ahead,” said my interpreter. This was repeated ad nauseam by my very good friend, Ambassador Zhang Chun Xiang, who himself served as an interpreter on the KKH in the 1970s after graduating from Beijing University. Some 28 out of his 45 years in the diplomatic service were spent in Pakistan. After serving as the Chinese consul general in Houston, Texas, he returned to become the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2005. His Urdu was more fluent than that of most of us and, if one got on his wrong side, he could curse freely in Punjabi.

Forty to 50 years later, the dynamics of geopolitics have synchronised with the economics of today’s times. From Xinjiang province, across the Karakoram and into the plains of Pakistan to Gwadar, the vision of the road is slowly but surely coming to full fruition. While the eastern alignment is the government’s preference, the army is determined to make the western alignment possible by the 870 kilometres’ venture undertaken in a crash programme by the Frontier Works Organisation.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is critically necessary, far more than any other economic initiative. A lifeline of consequence for Pakistan’s destiny, it is a game-changer that can lift our people out of poverty and the misery that goes with it. Even a perennial critic of any government must laud the present regime for ensuring that a dream is being converted into a reality. Acknowledging the single-minded determination of Mian Nawaz Sharif as the driving force, Minister for Planning Ahsan Iqbal must be given kudos, along with some of his cabinet colleagues like Sartaj Aziz for pushing the CPEC for all its worth. Despite having a great need for this road-based opening to the world, for some reason the Chinese showed no enthusiasm for pursuing the CPEC during the PPP tenure, delaying it by eight years.

To give my views about the likely security issues on what the Chinese call the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, I was invited to Beijing by the National Institute for Strategic Communication (NISC). Over those three days, I had the unique honour of explaining the security threat perception along the CPEC alignments, both the eastern and western ones, to a select audience that was clearly enthusiastic about the investment opportunities along the economic lifeline. A part of Peking University, NISC is a policy planning body that harmonises the various organs of the People’s Republic of China on a common platform for a common purpose. Mr Zhang Chongqing, the standing deputy chairman of the China Group Companies Association (CGCA), hosted the well-attended session last Friday. Including more than 200 companies, mostly public but also private, the CGCA is dedicated to enhancing their capacities for commercial business, both within China and outside. Speakers included Dr Hu Yuandong, the head of UNIDO in China, Ms Yu Dan, the secretary general of the CGCA and Ma Yang Xiaodong of the NISC.

Concluding a number of meetings on Saturday for the panel discussion on Sunday at Beijing University, my hosts were Dr Manli Cheng, the dean of the NISC and Dr Weijia Wang. Both gave extensive briefings on the CPEC. Ambassador Zhang was invited to give his personal recommendations, followed by a lucid and crisp briefing from Ms Pen Yong Chin, the director overseas operations for the China State Construction Engineering Corporation. Mr Liu Dianfeng of China Mobile Pakistan spoke with conviction about the Zong success story in Pakistan and the potential Chinese investment thereof.

China’s trade with India has increased manifold but the persisting mutual suspicions about their geopolitical relationship remain. While previously the Chinese were never vocal, the Indians opposing the CPEC tooth and nail has aroused their anger. The Chinese have made it clear that they will spare no efforts or tolerate any opposition to make the CPEC a success. By South Asian standards of decision-making, the speed with which both the CGCA and NISC decided to open up representative offices to function in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, in less than 30 days was staggering — a clear indication of the Chinese commitment. One can spout lip-service rhetoric until kingdom come but finally we are seeing the practical realisation of our dreams. Our economic destiny can be strengthened by Pakistan’s ‘gold coast’. It is indeed fortunate that it coincides with the Chinese single-minded determination of making the One Belt, One Road successful.

The writer is a defence analyst and security expert

Source: Daily Times

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