The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s 15-year, $62 billion investment in Pakistan and the flagship project of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), took the five-decade long strategic alliance between the two countries to the economic sphere in 2015. CPEC is best seen as the economic peg in the wider strategic relationship between Pakistan and China.
While the plan’s details — the terms of the investments and loans, the full extent of the projects, and the overall cost to Pakistan — remain opaque, the Chinese and Pakistani governments have together zealously aimed to control and drive the narrative on CPEC, aggressively stamping out criticism.
Zhao Lijian, formerly China’s deputy chief of mission (DCM) in Islamabad, was a central character in China’s control of information on CPEC, hitting back against critics on social media from his perch at the Chinese Embassy. His success in that sphere saw him promoted to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, and he is now a key player in China’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy” on the coronavirus pandemic.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government sought a reset of CPEC, which was seen as closely aligned with the previous government, when it came into office in 2018. It saw swift pushback from China and from Pakistan’s military, with the chief of army staff issuing a telling statement from a visit to Beijing: “BRI with CPEC as its flagship is destined to succeed despite all odds and Pak Army shall ensure security of CPEC at all costs.”
The U.S. Department of State has spoken out in recent months against what it sees as China’s predatory lending to Pakistan. It argues that the plan’s terms benefit Chinese companies and workers, and are unsustainable for Pakistan, leading to its rising debt burden. China and Pakistan have both pushed back concertedly on the criticism. The strength of Pakistan’s pushback is notable in the context of Pakistan’s improving relations with the U.S. since 2018 through the Afghan peace process, and its reliance on the International Monetary Fund.
In the end, the tight control of the narrative on CPEC by both China and Pakistan and a lack of transparency on its terms prevents proper accountability of the venture. It would benefit Pakistan to allow some transparency on CPEC that might pressure both parties to move to terms that are equally beneficial to Pakistan.