Political change in Pakistan won’t affect CPEC

By Wang Dehua Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/3 20:13:40

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT


On Tuesday, Pakistan's lower house of parliament elected Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as the country's new prime minister. The Supreme Court last week disqualified Nawaz Sharif from office over corruption charges. The political change Pakistan is undergoing has raised concerns that the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) may be adversely affected.

In Pakistan, opinion has been divided on either the eastern or western route of the CPEC should be given priority in development. Due to this split, the project has advanced slowly. The eastern route moves along the populous and relatively prosperous area of the country including Punjab Province and connects Islamabad with other major Pakistani cities, while the western route cuts through backward areas like Balochistan Province.

A consensus was eventually reached to pursue the simultaneous development of the two routes, but there are concerns among some analysts that Pakistan's new leader may give priority to the eastern route and thus harm the interests of people in the western region and revive the controversy.

Abbasi is a loyalist of Nawaz, who initially preferred the eastern route. Most observers think that Abbasi will be an "interim" prime minister until Nawaz's younger brother Shahbaz Sharif wins a by-election to fill his brother's seat. Shahbaz is the chief minister of Punjab, a province that could benefit from the development of the eastern route.

The CPEC project may be affected if Shahbaz replaces his brother as the prime minister in the coming months, but the impact will be very limited. 

Shahbaz seems to be a seasoned politician, and it is quite possible that Abbasi and then Shahbaz will continue Nawaz's policies and strategies to ensure a smooth power transition.

Nawaz initially preferred the eastern route of the CPEC, a stance that prompted protests from people supporting the western route. The situation that led to Nawaz's downfall is unlikely to be repeated under the tenures of Abbasi and Shahbaz, however.

Some observers have suggested that the removal of Nawaz might lead to political chaos in the country and cause economic upheaval, adversely affecting the CPEC. However, the current political situation in Pakistan is more stable than expected.

There are, however, some scenarios where political unrest is possible. For one thing, information from many sources suggests Abbasi and Shahbaz have the support of Pakistan's ruling party and the military, which has laid a solid foundation for the new administration.

For another, military support reportedly promised by Pakistan to Qatar, as well as Islamabad's involvement in Afghanistan-related issues, may spark unhappiness in the US, at a time when the bigger role being played by Pakistan and other emerging countries in regional affairs has dented the US presence in the region. This situation has led some to speculate that the US may have been a factor in Nawaz's removal.

In reality, Nawaz was disqualified due to corruption charges that arose last year, and his removal was not a result of recent geopolitical events. It can be expected that the US is unlikely to openly oppose Abbasi and Shahbaz.

China always respects Pakistan's choices and attitudes toward the CPEC, under the principle of non-interference in Pakistan's internal affairs. The Chinese side initially preferred the eastern route of the CPEC because that route goes through heavily populated areas where infrastructure including railways, roads and power plants are in great demand.

After all the CPEC is not an aid package. Compared with the western route, projects along the eastern one will be more likely to recover the costs of construction. But after thorough research into the projects along the western route, the Chinese side found that the costs can be recouped if the eastern and western routes are developed together.

The CPEC is a flagship project of Sino-Pakistan cooperation on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit. There is no possibility that China will take advantage of Abbasi's replacement and Shahbaz's status as the chief minister of Punjab Province to preferentially develop the eastern route. 

However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Abbasi's replacement and Shahbaz's potential succession may bring some uncertainties to the development of the CPEC. Shahbaz's status as the chief minister of Punjab Province may become a target of attack from opposition parties. Regarding the possible impact, China should keep a close watch on Pakistan's domestic situation and spare no effort to ensure stable development of the CPEC project.

The author is director of the Institute for the Southern and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Municipal Center for International Studies. bizopinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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