Pakistan army muscles in on Belt and Road project

Pakistan’s powerful military and civilian parliament are wrestling for control of China’s $62bn Belt and Road Initiative in the country.

Supporters of the army, which maintains close ties with Beijing, have exploited dysfunction in prime minister Imran Khan’s government to push legislation that would give it greater control over China’s infrastructure programme.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority bill proposes carving out a new position to be held by a military officer to “accelerate the pace” of construction.

Under the proposed law, the government would cede further ground to the military, which took over control of CPEC last year through a presidential ordinance that bypassed parliament.

It would also give the CPEC Authority — whose strategic decision-making committee is co-chaired by China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Beijing’s top planning agency — greater financial autonomy from Islamabad.

“It’s basically building a new institution that is parallel to the government. We are in a phase of hybrid martial law,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who studies Pakistan’s military.

“The military is taking decisions without any accountability,” she said. “It has become very dangerous. It’s a matter of long-term commitment of national resources.”

The development highlights the growing influence of the Pakistan military after Mr Khan struggled to mount a swift response to the coronavirus pandemic and rescue the faltering economy.

Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s former planning minister and opposition MP, said that the proposed CPEC Authority was “superfluous” and weakened the civilian government while ceding even more responsibility to the military.

“The incompetence of the [Khan] government is destroying our civil administration and putting an additional burden on the military,” said Mr Iqbal.

“We will certainly put forward our reservations. We are not in favour of having the CPEC Authority,” he said. “CPEC is the domain of the civil government, if it can’t do that then what good is it for?”

Proponents of the BRI programme argue that CPEC will give Pakistan the infrastructure boost needed to kickstart its economy at a time when Islamabad is struggling to attract international investors.

The US, however, has criticised CPEC as a debt trap that will leave Islamabad in thrall to Beijing.

While the new CPEC Authority would still report directly to Mr Khan, it would have wide-ranging autonomy to implement its infrastructure programme without civilian government oversight, critics said.

The CPEC Authority “shall be responsible for conceiving, implementing, expanding, enforcing, controlling, regulating, co-ordinating, monitoring, evaluating and carrying out all activities” related to the corridor, according to a draft document of the legislation seen by the Financial Times.

A senior government official in the planning ministry, who did not wish to be named, told the FT that a new draft of the legislation would be circulated for cabinet approval before being presented to parliament. The official said criticism that the military was encroaching on the civilian government was “absolute bs” and because the scope of CPEC had “significantly widened” there was a need for “an institution focused on just this and nothing else.”

Officials at the CPEC Authority did not respond to requests for comment.

The proposed legislation comes shortly after Islamabad approved the most expensive CPEC project yet, a railway upgrade worth $6.8bn to be largely financed by China.

The government has also approved in the past two months two hydropower projects worth $3.9bn to be built in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and again financed by Beijing.

For China, CPEC is the keystone of the BRI, a sweeping development plan to build infrastructure, expand trade networks and deepen partnerships across Eurasia and Africa.

CPEC gives China access to the Gwadar port in the south of Pakistan, which is close to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route for oil-producing nations.

Analysts said Beijing preferred to partner the Pakistan military to guarantee projects were completed, bypassing the democratically elected federal and state governments.

“CPEC is at the intersection of the new [cold] war between China and the US,” said Kamal Munir, a Cambridge university professor who has advised Islamabad on industrial policy. “This is part of leaning closer to China.”

Since Mr Khan took office in 2018, the military has stepped in to take over some of the administration’s most pressing issues, including the response to the coronavirus pandemic and locust swarms threatening food security.

The Pakistan military controls vast swaths of the country’s economy through military-linked corporations, such as the Fauji Foundation, one of the country’s largest conglomerates with interests ranging from cement to cereals.

Three army-run companies — the Frontier Works Organization, the National Logistics Cell and the Special Communications Organization — have won lucrative CPEC contracts.

“CPEC is the military’s baby,” said Adnan Naseemullah, an international relations lecturer at King’s College London. “It’s a strategic project.”

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