A number of developments in recent days have shown that the CPEC plan as revealed to the public, is far from being “factually incorrect”, is in fact being implemented as we speak. The implementation is taking place below the headlines, and many of the initiatives outlined in the plan are being advanced by burying them under other policy initiatives to give them a different name and thereby deflect attention. This mode of implementation is contrary to how those CPEC projects that the government is keen to tout are being projected as massive signature achievements. An entire website has been created simply for the purpose of purveying information about specific CPEC projects, but there are many that find no mention on that site.
Let’s take an example. One of the elements of the plan published in this newspaper that took a lot of people by surprise was its emphasis on agriculture. A careful reading of that plan document shows agriculture is, in fact, one of the biggest priorities for the Chinese government when they look at CPEC — not transit trade, not power plants. There is no mention of agriculture on the CPEC website.
But the recently announced National Food Security Policy, which went almost completely unnoticed as was undoubtedly the intention, contains a couple of paragraphs which show that the government is, in fact, moving fast to create an enabling environment to facilitate the entry of Chinese enterprises into Pakistan’s agricultural sector. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. The agri-sector is in dire need of investments. But the fact that this is being done with some care to ensure no attention is brought to bear upon it is curious.
The policy has an entire section that details the creation of what it calls “CPEC agricultural development zones”. It identifies areas for the “agricultural economic and technical cooperation between China and Pakistan”, and details that “the corridor is divided into nine sections, each of which possesses distinct opportunities for establishing diverse agro-based businesses” since the corridor traverses different agro-ecologies.
“The commodities that can be potentially exported to China include cereals, dairy, eggs, honey, live animals, tobacco, meat, seafood, fruit and nuts.” The idea advanced by the policy is “developing business clusters for more than 40 commodities identified across the corridor for promoting rural businesses through developing entrepreneurship, processing zones, skilled manpower and modern market infrastructure”.
The whole enterprise is then wrapped up in agrarian development objectives. “Overall, the establishment of agricultural economic zones along CPEC in collaboration with Chinese counterparts can help to achieve: a) food sovereignty; b) benefiting farmers and rural communities; c) smarter food production and yields; d) biodiversity conservation; e) sustainable soil health and cleaner water; f) ecological pest management; and g) resilient food systems.”
In another place, the policy says all this is being done to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular the one that relates to hunger, to which it says the government has a “strong commitment”.
The policy measures advanced to catalyze the creation of the CPEC agri-development zones also sound like they came straight out of the plan document revealed in the Dawn report. They are designed to facilitate the entry of private enterprises into the agrarian markets (again, nobody should construe this to be a bad thing), with a focus on “market intelligence”, reducing “post-harvest losses”, and so on.
This suggests that a policy framework is being built, under the guise of a ‘national food security policy’, that, in reality, is designed to lay the groundwork to advance the agriculture-related priorities of Chinese enterprises, as the master plan document revealed in the Dawn report clearly stated.
The same thing can be seen in many other areas too. In finance, for example, work is under way to facilitate a greater role for the yuan in Pakistan’s economy, for payment and settlement purposes. The attorney general has said that “disputes between commercial entities of the two countries are bound to crop up”, for which “a bilateral institution for arbitration” between China and Pakistan could be necessary, so recourse to other bodies like the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes and the International Chambers of Commerce is not necessary.
All this is happening beneath the radar of the headlines. There are no flashy announcements, and often the work being undertaken is not mentioned at all. Look at the CPEC website run by the government of Pakistan, and you will find no mention of any of this, only of roads and power plants. The descriptions contained in the National Food Security Policy are a rare example, but even they are vaguely expressed, couched in other development objectives, and with pains taken to draw little or no attention to them.
Yet, this is where the reality of CPEC is. The corridor is only minimally about transit trade. The power plants, too, are little more than the “early harvest projects”, on commercial terms, designed to jump-start the economy before the real game begins. The real game of CPEC is about granting access to Chinese enterprises to Pakistan’s domestic markets, raw materials and the agrarian economy.
But that side of the entire equation is being kept deliberately quiet while we are encouraged to think of the projects in terms of roads and power plants alone.
There is a growing and urgent need for our CPEC conversation to move beyond transit trade and balance of payments. The real game has not even begun, and few understand the form it will take.