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Thursday, February 15, 2024

CPEC: Conspiracy Theories of Success & Failure

Samina Tippu |

Pakistani public, media and now even Chinese stakeholders in CPEC have started celebrating as if China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has become reality and has started delivering. Nothing could be far from the truth. One needs to look at the other half of this picture and the potential strategies and options available to all those regional powers and influences that may feel threatened by the CPEC.

Once you examine this strategic chequerboard dispassionately, only then you are confronted by the seriousness of this question: Will CPEC be able to change the fortune of citizens of this country or western china or will it follow the footprints of Panama and Suez Canals – that became pawns in regional and international power games. Considering the potential sabotage activities of the powers across the fault lines: India and the US one wonders if CPEC’s majestic promise will start to fail even before its proper takeoff. There are three major reasons which may retard, impede or altogether fail this hugely ambitious undertaking.

Lack of Transparency CPEC Plans

Examine the extent and quality of information that has been made available by Pakistan’s Planning Commission, Ministry of Information and other line ministries regarding the CPEC, and one tends to believe with the cynic’s view that there was perhaps a deliberate attempt by the present government of PM Nawaz Sharif and even the Chinese counter-parts to hide the details of the plan, linked projects and investments from people, media, think tanks, universities and world at large.

In the beginning of 21st century such lack of transparency for a mega large undertaking whose first phase is described to be at least involving investments of $46 billion, involving public debts, is not only very strange but also raises all kinds of doubts, concerns, and fears. It has also generated many unwarranted controversies besides feuding inter-provincial disharmony.

This apparent lack of transparency about costing of various projects included in the CPEC has led to all kinds of suspicions of mega corruption, extent of kickbacks, commissions and hidden payments. There are also reports, circulating in Islamabad’s diplomatic and development community that Chinese companies are being compelled to sublet contracts to cronies and front-men of “who’s who” in Pakistan and built in profits are being added to the cost of projects.

Allegedly most projects are being undertaken at more than 100% profits. Forcing contractors to add “built in profits” to their biddings has been a well-established practice in Pakistan, called “padding” by the contractors and civil servants.

Read more: PML-N’s obssession with building white elephants to win elections

Gossip mills in Islamabad argue that if a serious probe into ownership patterns of private companies collaborating with state-owned Pakistani or Chinese Companies – particularly FWO and Huawei – is done then these patterns of systematic patronage and mega-corruption in the award of contracts will become visible.

Any mega project, of regional and international dimensions – riddled with such allegations, concerns and fears sooner or later gets into trouble; not because of external criticism but because of mounting internal faultiness. Transparency is always needed to ensure trust and keep all stakeholders happy. CPEC to remain trouble free in near to long term must rise above these concerns.

Is there a CPEC Master Plan

Apparently, there is no prudent or coherent CPEC Master Plan. It seems to comprise of randomly selected projects proposed by PM Nawaz Sharif, his family, close cronies and business supporters and their partner companies in China or elsewhere. Otherwise, how could one explain the justification of projects like “Orange Line” being included in CPEC? Even establishment of much-touted power plants to be run on imported coal in Central Punjab about 1000 km way from the sea port seem to prefer political mileage over the basics of economic logic.


viewing the other side of the screen, there are lot many doubts, if CPEC will be able to change the fortune of a normal man or it will also follow the footprints of Panama and Suez Canals.

Now mass transit systems in all cities are being included in the CPEC to address inter-provincial discontent. Unfortunately, while work on CPEC has begun for over a year, no one in Pakistan is interested in studying the impact on her economic sovereignty, investment cost benefit, environment, industry, employment, culture, and traditions.

Since potential hostility of west is on Pakistani minds, therefore any meaningful criticism coming from international publications, experts and institutions is as rejected as “heart-burning” or “conspiracy”. CPEC has thus become a test of insecure nationalism; most Pakistanis overtaken by unfettered patriotism fail to question those elite interests that are set to benefit from CPEC in their name. How and when will CPEC projects benefit common Pakistanis is thus not under discussion or scrutiny at all.

Public and media, driven cleverly by nationalistic zeal or national  security paradigms, fail to realize that our so-called economic wizards are probably “Economic Hitmen” as they continue to create economically unviable entities making the perpetual loss to public exchequer (Yellow Cab, Motorway, Metros and PIA Premier Service etc to name a few)

Opposite Block

It is not difficult to understand that given CPEC’s projected impact, India naturally exists at the other end of the fault lines – and India has a strategic alignment with the United States. This alignment may get deepen as new Trump administration, avowedly anti-China, decides to use all its options to contain China’s influence in South and Central Asia.

India’s Objections in Public Arena & its real options? 

India’s publicly visible objections are couched in legalistic terms like: why CPEC is passing through disputed territories like Gilgit and Baltistan. But its real options are strategies behind the public arena. The two most dangerous prongs of this threat would be,

One; use of their proxies for physical sabotage,

Two; propaganda and subversion against China & its exploitation.

Indian proxies have always existed on ground in Pakistan’s troubled province of Baluchistan. Their capacities kept on waxing and waning, given regional situations and Indian needs. However since 9/11 and changing regional scenario, Indian agencies have steadily increased the footprint and capacities through such proxies. Unfortunately for Pakistan, these proxies are well positioned all along the CPEC route. Similarly Indian agencies and United States enjoy deep penetration into Pakistani civil society, media and political circles.

Unfortunately, little can be done to counter these challenges since most of the Pakistani political leadership and Nawaz Sharif, in particular, have a soft corner for India. For example, Turkmenistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI) may be given preference to appease India.

It now appears that Army’s top brass may have finally reconciled with these facts (pro-India policy of Nawaz Sharif). Recent developments – like arrest of Hafiz Saeed to address Indian concerns – along with Army’s slow speed or ineffectiveness in pursuing “Security Leaks Case” commonly referred to as “Dawn Leaks” only affirms this widely held belief.

Read more: Pakistan and the Strategic Chessboard in 2017

Allegedly (and made more visible after the Panama Leaks in April 2016) most of the “Black wealth” of our leaders including that of ruling Sharif family is parked in the UK, or similar western financial centers. Such financial centers and their regulatory bodies are important pillars of “Washington Consensus”. So such Pakistani leaders – pawns in the hands of international system – can neither take strong positions in their national interest nor can they ever be successfully prosecuted by home country institutions. These dynamics become obvious as you look at the issues of money trail and its verifications for court purposes in the ongoing Panama case.

With regards to the cyber and media wars, both Pakistani and Chinese Intelligence have very little training and capacities to handle the fifth generation warfare launched through propaganda and subversive campaigns. Unfortunately, easy availability of disgruntled liberals, misguided sub-nationalists, religious and sectarian extremists serve as ‘ready cannon fodder’ for the job of hostile intelligence agencies. In this regard, religious extremist’s linkage with Terrorist Organizations operating under the name of East Turkistan Movement may prove fatal.

In this regard, religious extremist’s linkage with Terrorist Organizations operating under the name of East Turkistan Movement may prove fatal.

CPEC may remain a fantasy unless Pakistan finds sincere leadership, independent of Western and Indian influence. It is also feared that Pakistan will lose its political and economic sovereignty, owing to excessive foreign debt as happened with the owners of Suez Canal. However, people of faith and conviction believe that there is always a way forward in the face of any opposition. وَاللَّهُ خَيْرُ الْمَاكِرِينَ.

And God´s plan is the best.


Samina Tippu is working as sub-Editor Content at Global Village Space. She was previously working with S&P Global Market Intelligence as an analyst. She also worked on various research projects of USAID, GIZ, World bank, and WHO. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.