This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Pakistani leaders say the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), launched in 2015, is a “game changer” for the country’s ailing economy. But opaque plans for the corridor, the upheaval likely to affect locals along its route, and profits flowing mostly to outsiders could stir unrest. The government has repressed CPEC critics.

CPEC could help revive Pakistan’s economy. But if it moves ahead without more thorough debate in parliament and provincial legislatures and consultation with locals, it will deepen friction between the federal centre and periphery, roil provinces already long neglected, widen social divides and potentially create new sources of conflict.

What should be done?

The government that assumes power after the July 2018 elections should encourage debate about CPEC; consult with business leaders, civil society and locals affected; ensure landowners receive fair compensation; encourage hiring local labour; and allow space for dissent. Beijing and Chinese companies involved should support such measures.

Envisaged in mid-2013 and launched in April 2015, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a set of projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, marks a new era of economic ties in a bilateral relationship historically defined by security cooperation.

Pakistan’s economy clearly needs reform to better serve its people, and many officials say CPEC will help in this regard. But as currently rolled out, the corridor risks aggravating political tension, widening social divides and generating new sources of conflict in Pakistan.

The government that assumes power after Pakistan’s July elections should mitigate these risks by being more transparent about CPEC plans, consulting all stakeholders, including smaller provinces, the business community and civil society, and addressing concerns that the corridor subordinates Pakistan’s interests to those of China.

For its part, Beijing also should consult stakeholders in regions that will host CPEC projects it agrees upon with Islamabad. It should encourage Chinese companies to display sensitivity to residents of those areas, including by hiring local labour.

CPEC, which comprises loans, investments and grants that could grow to around $60 billion, travels a 2,700km route. It starts on the Pakistani Arabian Sea port of Gwadar, in Balochistan province, climbs along the Karakoram highway through the Khunjerab pass in Gilgit-Baltistan, before crossing into the Kashgar prefecture in China’s Xinjiang region.

Within Pakistan’s territory, the economic and development project prioritises transport infrastructure, industrial development, energy and Balochistan’s strategically located Gwadar port. Agricultural modernisation and production form another critical component.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, which came to power after elections in 2013 and stepped down on 31 May 2018, depicted CPEC as a leap forward both in relations with China and for the country’s economic development.

Protecting local interests

Contenders to national office from across the political spectrum have broadly endorsed this view. Yet some high-level officials and prominent voices in Pakistani business are concerned about the failure to protect local economic interests, high guaranteed returns on equity to Chinese investors and unaffordable national debt.

While it is too early to assess if CPEC can deliver the economic gains Islamabad promises, the project risks inflaming longstanding tensions between the centre and smaller federal units and within provinces over inequitable economic development and resource distribution.

Less-developed federal units such as Balochistan and Sindh contend that the corridor’s route, infrastructure and industrial projects will mostly benefit Punjab, already the country’s wealthiest and politically powerful province. Yet, even in Punjab, locals could forcibly resist the state’s acquisition of land for CPEC’s agricultural projects.

In Balochistan, CPEC is exacerbating existing grievances among a population whose perceptions of exploitation and neglect by the centre, together with authorities’ suppression of dissent, have long fuelled an insurgency.

The province will receive no direct financial benefits from Gwadar port, a key CPEC project, which means local anger at Islamabad is likely to intensify. Instead of developing a sleepy fishing village into a bustling commercial hub as pledged by Islamabad and Beijing, the project is producing a heavily militarised zone, displacing locals and depriving them of economic lifelines.

In Sindh’s Tharparkar district, coal-based CPEC power projects are not only damaging the environment, but are also displacing locals from their homes and could destroy livelihoods.

Many of these problems stem from opaque policy formulation, and the failure to heed regional and local concerns.

CPEC’s Long-Term Plan (2017-2030) was formulated by the centre with little input from local leaders, business or civil society actors. It was not disclosed until December 2017 – and then only in broad strokes – after the rollout of some major elements had already begun.

Security presence

From the project’s entry point, Gwadar, to its exit point, in Gilgit-Baltistan, the state’s response to local dissent and alienation has been an overbearing security presence, marked by army checkpoints, intimidation and harassment of local residents, and crackdowns on anti-CPEC protest.

Perceived geopolitical gains could also take precedence over economic ones.

Pakistan’s military establishment views a deeper economic relationship with China, even if tilted in Beijing’s favour, as a counterpoint to rising US diplomatic and economic pressure to end support to Afghanistan - and India - oriented militant proxies. But as it expands its economic footprint in the country, Beijing, too, seems increasingly concerned about the threats posed by such proxies to its national and regional security interests.

Moreover, unequal gains, combined with perceptions that CPEC projects undermine the economic, social and political interests of key stakeholders, could aggravate anti-Chinese sentiment within Pakistan. There already have been several attacks on Pakistanis employed in CPEC projects.

Islamabad should ensure that CPEC’s directions and priorities address the country’s economic and political interests, including by taking the following steps:

  • Build political consensus on the project’s direction, including by fostering debates in the national and provincial legislatures, to ensure that there are equitable gains for all provinces; and stop arrests, harassment and other coercion of critics.
  • Consult economists, chambers of commerce, the Pakistan Business Council, trade associations and other business community stakeholders, and incorporate measures to address their concerns in a new framework for CPEC special economic zones and development projects.
  • Hire local labour and ensure that CPEC projects apply labour protections and practices.
  • Consult extensively with local communities about the potential costs and benefits of major development projects and devise an appropriate compensation and resettlement plan for all those displaced, including not just formal landowners but also those with the informal land ownership common across Pakistan. If needed, parliament should consider relevant reforms to the 1894 Land Acquisition Act.

Beijing and Chinese firms should:

  • Consult and engage the full spectrum of Pakistani stakeholders, from competing elites to the grassroots, as CPEC projects are identified and/or implemented, and prioritise job creation for locals.
  • Conduct comprehensive risk and political analysis of CPEC projects to ensure that benefits are shared equitably between competing interests.
  • Complement such efforts with effective and extensive communication with Pakistani stakeholders at the local, regional and national levels, so as to illustrate common interests.

For all the risks and challenges, CPEC offers an opportunity to upgrade Pakistan’s aging and dysfunctional infrastructure, and revive a flagging economy.

But to deliver on these promises, both Islamabad and Beijing need to implement it with considerably more sensitivity and consultation than they have displayed thus far, with provinces and the communities most affected given a greater voice in shaping CPEC projects.

Locals need to see dividends; benefits that overwhelmingly flow to outsiders would aggravate social and political divides, fuelling tension and potentially conflict. As Pakistan’s democratic transition approaches another milestone, with a second consecutive elected government completing a full term, its successor should seize the opportunities of a fresh mandate, shape public debate on CPEC and adopt related policies that put the well-being of Pakistani citizens at their core.