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For better or worse, CPEC holds an interesting future
By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal
Last week, Pak-India Business Council (PIBC) Chairman Noor Muhammad Kasuri averred that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has provided Pakistan and India an opportunity to get rid of their `bitter past' and start afresh. About the same time, a civil society group in Kashmir organized a seminar on Kashmir to discuss the likely impact of the 54 billion dollars ambitious project on the political and economic scene of Kashmir. There is a general feeling that the CPEC could be a major game changer with respect to India-Pakistan relations and Kashmir but much will depend on how it delivers on the ground and how the key players would respond to its projected impact. That the CPEC has further added another layer of complexity to the Kashmir tangle is undeniable. That it could lead to a final resolution is a possibility but not a certainty.

The CPEC is a mega network of roads, rail links, power plants and other infrastructure connecting Xinjiang province (a territory of Jammu and Kashmir under Chinese control) to Pakistan's southern port of Gwadar. It is expected to boost up trade and meet the energy demands of the regions being linked up to this corridor. In November last year, China started operating the Gwadar Port which is now connected with Xinjiang region. Chinese trucks loaded with goods manufactured in China are brought to Gwadar Port for export to the Middle East and other destinations. The route passes through Gilgit Baltistan area of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, now under Pakistan control, and is likely to change the destiny of this particular area in ways that cannot be very easily predicted. While the optimists are hopeful of economic development in the region, the skeptics are fearful that the gains may be overshadowed by China's military ambitions in the region, which will be a natural accompaniment of its economic ambitions. It is impossible to say with certainty whether economic development, which often does not percolate down equitably, can have the potential of entirely diluting the political question of the status of Gilgit Baltistan, which is one of the areas that least figures in the Kashmir discourse, even though it remains the most baffling piece of the puzzle.

There is little known about political aspirations of this land that was sliced off from rest of Pakistan administered Kashmir into a separate entity without a clear constitutional status but integrated into Pakistan under the Karachi agreement of 1949. In run up to the CPEC, Pakistan recently agreed to declare Gilgit-Baltistan as a province of the country. India, on the other hand, has declared Gilgit-Baltistan as an integral part of the country that needs to be reclaimed from Pakistan and bases its opposition to CPEC on the same grounds. Xinjiang is also part of the erstwhile princely state that is under Chinese control and a part of territory in Karakoram belt has been leased out to China by Pakistan. In the larger Kashmiri imagination, Gilgit-Baltistan, by virtue of being part of the erstwhile princely state under the Dogra rulers at the time of partition of the sub-continent is an intrinsic part of Jammu and Kashmir, though without an acknowledgement of either its contrasting aspirations or knowledge of the concerns of its people. With the CPEC, the strategic worth of the region has increased and it has become a focal point of both political and economic control and adds a new dimension to the Kashmir question.

CPEC's potential to forge better relations within South Asian neighbours and carry them into an era of political and economic stability is a possibility but it is no song and dance sequence. Many assumptions and speculations are based on over-simplifications and exaggerations. One assumption is that the fate of Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan is likely to improve its economic prospects and that this economic stability would attract India. Both these are challengeable in varying degrees. Business models are not based on benevolence but sheer greed but they tend to often benefit sections of people who can reap the harvest of development that comes with such models, employment opportunities and business deals. But it does not always translate into equitable share of benefits. What percentage of people in Gilgit-Baltistan or rest of Pakistan would benefit from such opportunities remains a matter of speculation? The generalized manner of exaggerating the benefits of the projects skirts the possibility of the many conflicts that such an ambitious economic model could generate between business and development interests of Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan on one hand; and more importantly between Pakistan and China. Anxieties in Pakistan are already growing over the reports of Pakistan making it a cake-walk for China with tax reductions on the rail and road projects and Pakistan being left with the liability of maintaining and managing the infrastructure and the security. The possible political complex angles that can prop up with economic ambitions helping China, which already holds a part of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, to serve its hidden political goal as well; or of the possibility of terror groups operating from Pakistan acting as road blocks and adding to the woes of Pakistan. Thirdly, the environmental impact of the CPEC is also not being discussed so far.

Another important dimension that could shape the future of CPEC and its potential is that of global politics. China is the major economic competitor of USA. Its new and unpredictable president Donald Trump has made no secrets of his contempt for China. It remains to be seen how USA would respond to a situation where China begins to have a monopoly over the markets of not just South Asia but makes a severe dent into American markets in the Middle East via Gwadar port. Another key interest to watch is Russia which is becoming a power to reckon with in the global politics. The response of the global powers to the CPEC, through multiple possible ways of diplomacy, deceit, wars and proxy wars, in all probability may further queer the path of South Asian journey to economic stability.

Whether India would be attracted or bullied into joining in will depend on the impact of CPEC in Pakistan or China's desperation to capture the Indian market through the shortest possible route via Kashmir. India's response ultimately would shape the future of South Asia - would it be a journey of animosity or one of regional co-operation? It is unlikely that India would remain aloof; it would ultimately be involved in some capacity. Though given the global balance of powers, India's increasing tilt towards USA and an unpredictable Hindutva government in power, one cannot be sure how India would eventually play its cards.

Though CPEC's gains, in view of all these complex dimensions, may be a bit exaggerated, the project would, nonetheless, play an important role in economic rejuvenation in the region, one that offers no one any luxury to ignore. Presumably, if India joins in, Kashmir would become an important link. Since success of economic models depends on minimum peace and stability, India, Pakistan and China will share a mutual interest to resolve Kashmir, at least minimally so. The peoples of Jammu and Kashmir need to get their act together to push for a key role in such a resolution and bargain for the best possible deal. However, if India fails to utilise the opportunity, the consequences could be disastrous and unimaginable. It would be interesting to watch as CPEC, despite its many limitations, paves way for a major political tectonic shift in global politics. Which way would it take South Asia? Fingers crossed!

News Updated at : Sunday, March 19, 2017
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