Who sets the tone?
In 2019, the Imran Khan government passed an ordinance establishing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPECA) to conduct large-ticket CPEC projects in a timely manner. It has been widely speculated that the CPECA was created to please China, which had expressed dismay at the slow progress on the CPEC front and wanted the army to intervene directly. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s close adviser, Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa (retired), became the agency’s first chairman.
Since its inception, the CPECA had been exposed to anti-aircraft guns by lawmakers in Pakistan for undermining the role of civil government and acting as a “parallel authority”.
But when the regulation expired in May of this year, things got darker.
According to reports from Pakistani media, Bajwa presided over the CPEC well beyond May, although he had no legal sanctions for it. This raised eyebrows within the country and several opposition leaders questioned the legal status and functioning of the agency after the regulation expired. Particular concerns arose as Bajwa was embroiled in a major corruption scandal earlier this year and was forced to step down as special advisor to Prime Minister Khan.
Tighten the control
In recent months, the Pakistani government has been working on a bill to reinstate the controversial CPEC authority. In November, a parliamentary committee finally approved the 2020 law of the CPEC authority in the National Assembly. The proposed law will be put to a final vote in the second week of December.
But the devil is in the details.
Not only will the law pave the way for the official return of the CPEC agency, but it will also give the Pakistani Army far greater control over the CPEC. According to a report on Nikkei Asia, the proposed law will allow Bajwa to replace the planning minister as co-chair of a joint committee between Pakistan and China and eliminate the planning ministry’s role as an administrative department and agency.
“The bill also proposes a new position of chief of staff and it is proposed to delete the position of CEO. Currently, the CEO is a senior executive in the bureaucracy. The two positions of executive director are to be eliminated,” the report said.
Most importantly, instead of the Ministry of Planning, Bajwa reports directly to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Observers believe that this would give the army extensive leverage on key projects, as Khan is viewed as military-related. Critics often give him monikers such as “selected prime ministers” or “puppet rulers”.
The report said the law aims to grant CPECA officials legal immunity, which leaves them unaccountable for the tens of billions of dollars spent on the projects and outside the purview of Pakistani courts.
The law also provides that the CPECA chair will have the power to order an investigation into any officer who refuses to cooperate with the agency.
What’s in it for China?
According to various experts, military control over the CPEC project benefits China in several ways.
Sources in the Pakistani Ministry of Planning had told the Asia Times that China wanted it Pakistani Army to be directly involved in the CPEC – part of their ambitious Belt and Road initiative – to accelerate the pace of the projects.
Ensuring a healthy pace of BRI projects in Pakistan is of crucial importance to the Chinese ambitions as the company wants to expand its influence in the South Asian region, even if this costs the financial relief of the partner countries.
A report by the Center for Global Development indicated that Pakistan was among the eight countries most at risk of debt as a result of China’s BRI projects.
The report said nations like Pakistan are aiming for rising debt ratios above 50 percent, with at least 40 percent of external debt owed to China after BRI lending completes.
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In addition, greater army involvement will also serve to address China’s security concerns about Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Several Chinese contractors and engineers have been kidnapped and killed in the Balochistan and Sindh regions in recent years. Bajwa’s previous position as the former chief of the army’s southern command covering Balochistan Province will allay some of these concerns.
“Bajwa was undoubtedly chosen on the basis of a belief that it could specifically address security concerns. Beijing is concerned about terrorism in Balochistan, where separatists have stepped up attacks on Chinese targets in recent years,” commentator Arif Rafiq wrote in an article on foreign policy .
The CPEC project, which connects China’s western city of Kashgar with the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, also runs through the Pakistani-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. The region is the gateway to the CPEC infrastructure plan.
“With Gilgit-Baltistan under his jurisdiction, the role of the Pakistani Army is even more important as the region has been controversial for decades. At the same time, it is important that both China and Pakistan have control of this area for the US to build CPEC “, said an analyst on condition of anonymity to the news agency IANS.
Without Gilgit-Baltistan, the Chinese have limited access to Gwadar.
According to media reports, Pakistan has decided to make Gilgit Baltistan a full-fledged province under pressure from the Chinese government. Activists claim the move is aimed at addressing China’s concerns about the region’s controversial status. India downright condemned this move, calling it Pakistan’s attempt to camouflage its illegal occupation of the region.