Delayed funding casts doubts on CPEC projects

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The noose of financial burden is getting tighter for Pakistan every passing day, as China has not yet cleared funding for three major highway projects on the western alignment under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Implementation of these highways has hit a roadblock in the last two years after China put the financing on hold over the charges of blatant corruption. However, according to Pakistani Ministry of Communications, the lack of clarity on proposed financing and the delays in actual funding have led to cost escalation in the road projects. These highway projects include the 210 km Dera Ismail Khan – Zhob road which is expected to cost PK Rs 81 billion, 110 km Khuzdar – Basima Road costing PK Rs. 20 billion and 136 km Raikot to Thakot portion of Karakoram Highway costing PK Rs 9 billion. The Senate Standing Committee on Communications of Pakistan last year expressed serious concerns over the delays without any progress in implementation. China had said in December 2017 that the new guidelines for financing would be issued. However, nothing has been done in this regard so far leading to unending delays.
Interestingly, none of the western alignment highways featured in the 2018 Chinese funding of $1.8 billion even though the 8th Joint Cooperation Committee of the CPEC accorded the project highest priority. Although the highway projects were approved more than two years ago, construction work could not be started due to lack of funds from both the Chinese and Pakistani sides. This has affected construction of other projects including the Kuchlak – Zhob road. According to internal documents of Pakistan’s Planning Ministry, officials were of the view that without upgrading the Dera Ismail Khan – Zhob section first, there was no rationale for the dualisation of Kuchlak – Zhob section. The CPEC is a part of China’s ambitious as well as financially mysterious Belt and Road Initiative. It is the flagship project of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s multi billion initiative. It passes through Pakistan Administered Kashmir and links China’s restive Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s equally restive Balochistan province. The project faces hurdles for land acquisition in every province of Pakistan.
Pakistan has failed to make any headway in acquiring land for the Dera Ismail Khan – Zhob road project which runs through Balochistan and Kyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. In these provinces, people are opposing the CPEC fiercely as they believe it would just empty their resources but would offer nothing substantial in return. Pakistani media has reported that most of the CPEC related projects have been stalled due to prevailing financial crunch confronting the government and non cooperation of the bureaucracy due to fear of the National Accountability Bureau, the anti-corruption watchdog. The three major highways scheme suspended by China’s decision constitute together worth just over $1 billion (PKRs. 109 billion) involving more than 450 km of new road. The economists are sceptical about China’s funding in view of Chinese internal factors like economic slow down, increasing unemployment, raising over capacity in plants, impact of human rights violations in Xinjiang, trade tariff issues with USA etc., Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan spent considerable time on CPEC with Chinese President and PM during his meeting in October 2019 is reflective of the serious nature of problems involved in implementation.
Amid mounting pressure from China over long delays in completion of key projects in CPEC, Pakistan Army has taken control of the newly established nodal CPEC Authority(CPECA). Lt Gen(Retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa was nominated in October last, as head of CPECA. This points to the appeasement of army by Imran Khan and enormous problems being faced in implementation of the Chinese projects in Pakistan. It also highlights the odds in meeting the conditions imposed by the IMF on Pakistan for $6 billion bailout and reviving CPEC projects at the same time. PM Imran Khan’s appeal to USA for extending help in taking out of IMF grey list only reconfirms the gravity and magnitude of CPEC implementation hurdles. Jan Muhammad Buledi, former spokesman of Balochistan government said in September last year that projects on construction of an airport and thermal power stations came to a grinding halt.
Pakistan economy has to grapple with mounting debt over the last couple of years, a nearly bankrupt government and a severe balance of payments crisis. Now, the key hindrance to CPEC is Pakistan’s inability to accept more Chinese debt. In April 2019 Muhammad Amir Rana, Director, Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies mentioned that CPEC until recently projected as a game changer, has lost its attraction in policy discourse. This only reminds us the international community warning on debt trap policy of China under the garb of BRI. The time has come for Pakistan to make tradeoffs between implementing the IMF imposed structural reforms and carrying on with the CPEC.

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