Paved with Intentions: The China-Pak Corridor

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China_Pakistan Karakoram Highway, KhunjerabPass

China-Pakistan Karakoram Highway, KhunjerabPass

Issue 9  Essay

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On katchi abadis
Perween Rehman’s work
Electrifying development

Forty-six billion dollars —That is how much China has planned to invest in Pakistan. The majority of this money, a gigantic $33 billion, will go into energy projects, and the remaining will be spent on transportation and communication infrastructures.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is being heralded as a game-changer, in part due to the sheer scale and the type of investment. No longer will the state depend primarily upon aid or loans, as it has been in the past. Instead, the CPEC will generate tangible economic growth through Chinese investment in its infrastructure. This is supposed to address the immediate hurdles to Pakistan’s national development and growth: an intractable energy crisis, lack of infrastructure, and insecurity.


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The term “game-changer,” which has served as a soliloquy in the upbeat conclusions of over a dozen op-eds, is meant to appease any apprehensions one may have surrounding the question of national development and, more importantly, the CPEC. Mainstream political parties deploy the term to imply an underlying nationalist consensus: unequivocal support for China, the good imperialist (as compared to the United States, the bad imperialist), is necessary for Pakistan to become ‘modern’ and ‘developed’ and, more importantly, to ensure its role as a subservient power in regional and global affairs.

Repositioning Pakistan and China

Implications of the sub-prime mortgage crisis that began in the United States in 2008 set off a rippling chain of events globally. Less than a year after the crisis became evident, China’s growth began to stagnate. As a response, the Chinese government began increasing liquidity in the form of credit in the corporate sector and in the economy more broadly. With large surpluses and the slowing of export-orientated manufacturing, potential for unrest and unemployment was palpable. David Harvey characterizes China’s plan to start spending on infrastructure projects, such as highways, airports and other city-based development, as a “full-blooded Keynesian” response.

Rather than heeding advice of the US to liberalize and introduce financial reforms in their markets, China is creating alternatives. One strategy being implemented involves reinvesting surplus capital in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Chinese-inaugurated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is framed as an alternative to other global financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) – both of which have long and fraught histories with infrastructural development based on public-private partnerships.

A prevailing view presents these events as indicative of a realignment away from the Washington Consensus and toward an emerging global economic order in which China is ascendant. The policy of China is simple: keep capital in motion to reinvest sitting surplus. This situation is strikingly similar to the post World-War II climate, when the US, the main source of surplus capital at the time, invested in other countries, especially Germany and Japan.

China is looking to forge new markets and spaces in which its capital can move and multiply. In Pakistan, these circumstances are seen by some as a unique convergence of interests and ideas. Shahid Javed Burki, a long-standing ideologue for free-market economics, took particular interest in these developments, which he elucidates in a series of articles in Express Tribune articulate a vision of Pakistan as a free-trade state. Burki argues that a fundamental difference exists between Western interventions, in which capital is directed toward the government in the form of aid and loans, and Chinese involvement, in which the central government seeks to work with the private sector in making investments. Such investments are increasingly taking the form of infrastructural development. For Pakistan, according to Burki, they offer a once in a lifetime opportunity. He argues,

“If relations improve with India, Pakistan could become a four-way hub for the movement of goods and commodities. This development will reorient the direction of international trade. For decades, Pakistan had defied the ‘gravity model of trade’ by concentrating on the distant United States, as well as Japan and western Europe, as its principle trading partners. That will change and with that change, there will also come a major shift in the structure of the country’s economy.”

The global economy has been restructured in such a way that China is not only ascendant, but is also seeking to invest in infrastructure that will bolster global and regional trade. The result is the flow of oil and gas into China and the circulation of their goods throughout markets in Eurasia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This is why the CPEC is framed as an opportunity that Pakistan cannot miss.

Desperate to develop

It almost goes without saying that development is deeply intertwined with notions of what it means to be modern. Development as modernization imagines a global hierarchy in which some nations (the West) have achieve modernity and others (the Rest) are positioned at different stages of development. This model of development grew out of periods of decolonization throughout Africa and Asia, as well as during the Cold War. Pakistan’s supposed decade of development unfolded in direct consultation with economic advisers from the US. As a result, foreign loans quickly started flowing in. More significant than the actual success or failure of these initiatives is the aspiration to develop, and thus participate in global modernity.

Though development-as-modernization has been pronounced dead by many academics, its promises continue to animate political actors, policy agendas, governance reform, public health interventions and social movements. One sees these aspirations in the nostalgia and sense of hope that colors most accounts of Pakistan’s position following independence. Pakistan was an emerging economy representing a model and providing expertise to other developing countries allied with America, such as South Korea and Singapore. We are now faced with the reality that South Korea and Singapore have achieved that sought after modernity, while Pakistan fumbles clumsily from one development scheme to another.

The popular narrative portrays the energy crisis as a primary hurdle to Pakistan’s development. Setting aside the fact that this crisis itself grows out of the privatization of the energy sector in the early 1990s, energy-related projects make up the majority of the funds found in the CPEC. Little to no concern has been voiced about the impact that these project will have on the environment and communities in this area.

The remaining funds will be invested in transportation and communication infrastructure. Roads, railways, pipelines and even fiber optic cables will operate to facilitate the movement of oil and gas from the Middle East to China via the link between Gwadar and Kashgar. The only critical debate on the CPEC so far is regarding the benefits for KPK and Balochistan, whether the majority of the route will pass through these provinces and whether they will get their fair share. An All Parties Conference settled the route question and have assented to the CPEC in its entirety.

It is obvious that this trade corridor arises out of China’s aspirations that are global in reach. The critical question is not whether this is Chinese imperialism or how is it distinct from the American kind, but how Pakistan’s own national development has been consciously linked with empire. The relationship between development and security will move to the fore only when this line of questioning starts to be asked.

Governing insecurity with development

Insecurity is viewed as a major hurdle to economic development and growth for Pakistan. From Balochistan and KPK to Karachi, the entire nation is engulfed in violence. Take the tone of a recent piece about the CPEC by Dawn’s business and economy reporter: “Foreign direct investment into large infrastructure projects in Pakistan is not feasible since no private investor is ready to acquire large stakes in this country, given its realities.” The message is simple: Pakistan, having alienated itself, should be grateful the Chinese are even willing to invest in the country’s infrastructure.

The security situation – itself a euphemism to describe active insurgency for provincial autonomy in Balochistan – is the question that hangs over these development projects. The army has promised to organize a specially trained security force of over 10,000 personnel to protect Chinese enterprises and laborers brought in to work on these projects. It is not difficult to imagine land being swallowed up as cantonments all along the trade corridor, allowing for the uninterrupted flow of oil, gas and goods.

It should also be remembered that infrastructure (railways, roads, airports and shipping) that enables the movement of goods (also known as commerce or trade) is intimately bound up with the movement of militaries. Military forces must have access to, and often control over, the appropriate logistical infrastructure in order to move supplies, weaponry, vehicles, medicines and other items necessary for waging war while ensuring security and the peaceful movement of goods.

Concerns about security are certainly not unique to infrastructural development. Security serves as one of the justifications for evicting residents of katchi abadis (informal settlements) in Islamabad. In fact, katchi abadis have becomes sites of increased securitization, especially around the presence of foreign nationals, “aliens,” or Afghans. These spaces are portrayed as an impediment to planned and orderly urban development, and a supposed den of crime, terrorism and other threatening activities. This trend is not particular to Pakistan, as other parts of the world, such as Latin America, have experienced securitization alongside urban development.

Increased securitization is not being recognized as a critical aspect of the CPEC, development or infrastructure. Since the Peshawar attack, the army once again occupies a protected status in mainstream politics. The military’s role in the CPEC, not to mention the fact that Pakistan purchases 41 percent of China’s arms exports, are relegated to mere passing thoughts deserving no more than a cautionary mention.

Opposing development

The kind of development proposed by the CPEC, and regularly adopted by the Pakistani state, was born out of an anti-democratic impulse to entrench state elites. This continues today through neoliberal policies handing public functions of the state over to private entities, and modelling other domains of social and political life on a narrow conception of economic rationality. The Pakistan Muslim League (N) excels in this regard, making life for the masses increasingly precarious, and pushing an aggressive development agenda that benefits particular classes.

In an odd way, the spectre of Zulifqar Ali Bhutto has been hanging over Pakistan’s development over the past 40 years. Bhutto pursued an aggressive nationalization and land reform agenda that would ultimately alienate a range of elites, including landlords, industrialists and bureaucratic-military officers – all of whom were deprived of privileges and rents. These elites became fearful and insecure as they came under attack by the change in Pakistan’s development trajectory.

Despite Bhutto’s many shortcomings, the most obvious of which involved his decisions regarding Bangladesh and Balochistan, it is Zia ul-Haq who is notorious for returning the economy to its dependence on foreign, mostly American, capital. These efforts institutionalized the framework for neoliberal development and trade liberalization. This development agenda was accompanied by a complete thwarting of opposition to the regime and its policies: a weakening of unions and the rise of contract labor, the changing climate of universities, and other oppressive strategies. These efforts cleared the ground for the rise of the current model of development. This process facilitated an ideological shift that framed it as poisonous to think about economic justice or social equality, so much so that the Pakistan People’s Party disowned the economic legacy of its founder. The insistence of dominant classes on not being alienated with the growth of the logic of neoliberalism solidified Pakistan’s inheritance of a development paradigm unconcerned with poverty, inequality and social welfare.

One need only look to anti-eviction struggles waged by residents of katchi abadis or state workers under threat of privatization to discern the possible lineaments of an alternative to this development paradigm. As members of civil society make their claims based on an array of concerns, for their livelihoods, the environment and a sense of nostalgia for a place, they are actively struggling against development in its many forms pursued throughout urban Punjab, including overpass construction, road extension and destruction of natural spaces. The tragedy that unfolded in the recent heatwave in Karachi is one example illustrating how the intertwining processes of environmental change, urban degradation and a model of development that continues to exclude people is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore in the urban landscape, particularly as rising temperatures are exacerbated by the urban heat island effect produced by green spaces being replaced by concrete structures.


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The question at hand is not whether one should oppose overpass construction and road extension or support tree-planting in these contexts — of course one should. Rather, it asks how urban space and infrastructure can be transformed to make Pakistani cities more liveable for all residents. This would clearly require a different kind of political opposition.

Mainstream political parties are driven primarily by the nature of party politics when they address development. Any concerns regarding the current development paradigm remain surface level critiques. For instance, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf pointed to the cost and subsidization of the Bus Rapid Transit project as an attack on the PML(N)’s focus on infrastructure development. As an alternative, PTI argued that the funds could have been used to shore up the dismal healthcare and education sector. However, foregrounding financial concerns (the ‘money should be spent elsewhere’ narrative) obscures, once again, a genuine issue facing urban Pakistan, specifically affordable and sustainable public transportation. Moreover, the deterioration of health and education is not because of investment in infrastructure but a combination of state policies (lack of funding allocation and support) and the growth of the private sector. Ultimately, none of these critiques address the exclusionary nature of the current development paradigm.

These moments of opposition highlight an unresolved tension within this development paradigm. In the case of the CPEC, many of the main political actors are responding in a similar way: after a few weeks of routine opposition, they have quickly moved on to the more pressing concern of national interest. As a result, questions were constrained to whether the various stakeholders would get a cut of the pie, rather than regarding the broader implications of the development itself. Fear of being accused of opposing the national interest and a desperate need to find a new imperial patron for the future of Pakistan prevented this line of questioning from emerging. What was being debated was never an alternative to development, rather it was how to ensure the status quo marches on.

*                             *                              *

 Waqas H. Butt is an anthropologist interested in labor, development, and urban infrastructure in Lahore.

Sher Ali Khan is a member of the Tanqeed family and a journalist who has written for several leading publications in Pakistan.

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