By: Aisha Ahmad

With the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the “all weather friendship” that has labelled the Sino-Pakistan relationship for decades is under more scrutiny than ever. As part of China’s “open up the West” policy, CPEC seeks to connect China’s western Kashgar in Xinjiang province to Gwadar port in Pakistan.

Much has been written on this “One Belt, One Road” Chinese policy, ranging from wide-eyed appraisals of seemingly limitless economic enrichment for Pakistan to more sober commentaries on the financial, inter-provincial and social ramifications of getting in too deep, too quickly.

How does one wade through this proliferation of commentary, celebration and criticism? Perhaps, we should take a look at Africa.

The deepening Sino-African relationship is an increasingly common conversation in policy and academic circles alike. In economic terms, the relationship has grown exponentially over the past several decades, with China becoming Africa’s largest trading partner in 2011. Between 1980-2011, the Sino-African trade volume has risen drastically from $1 billion to $199 billion.

By and large, China’s presence on the African continent has been quite similar to what we are seeing emerge slowly in Pakistan — an “infrastructure-for-resources” approach that employs the use of large Chinese loans to facilitate mass infrastructural development, with Chinese workers and firms doing much of the work.

Perhaps, the simplest way to put it is — “has this been good or bad for Africa?” And as always, the simplest questions give way to the most complicated answers. Commentaries on the Sino-African economic relationship host a diversity of views — China as neo-colonial versus a counter to American (and IMF-World Bank) hegemony, a welcome presence versus one treated with suspicion by locals, a purely extractive relationship versus a “win-win” arrangement of mutual benefit.

The debate around the economic consequences of Chinese development interventions in Africa has been characterised by academics Hess and Aidoo as containing a “China-skeptic/China-optimist dichotomy”. The optimists (of which there are many) argue that China has contributed to key infrastructural development in sectors where African countries are most lacking such as hospitals, water pipelines, dams, railways and airports.

They argue that this infrastructure-for-resources approach produces a trickle down of economic benefit to the populaces of multiple African countries.

Pakistan’s geographical proximity adds another unique dimension to its economic relationship with China. CPEC is seen as an effort to develop China’s impoverished Western provinces (like Xinjiang), which collectively host 9/10ths of China’s poor. This internal disparity has been at the heart of provincial discontent in Xinjiang.

Deborah Brautigam, author of The Dragon’s Gift, has argued that China is not the “rogue donor” the West believes it to be, as its activities are not exclusively geared towards extraction in resource-rich African countries.

The China-skeptics, on the other hand, argue the exact opposite. For them, the phenomenon of Chinese “enclaves” — a concept that refers to the strict territorialisation of Chinese capital investment, profit and presence in areas that are closed off to wider African societies — should be the focus of discussion.

James Ferguson, writing on Angola, claims that oil wealth produced from Chinese investment and activities rarely ever “touches Angolan soil”. Albert Bergensen has labelled Chinese interventions as “surgical colonialism”. Another skeptic, Ching Kwan Lee, points to the widespread presence of “Chinese compounds” where Chinese workers and management personnel live segregated lives from local populations, arguing that they are
detrimental to the social acceptance of Chinese investments and presence across the African continent.

It is perhaps no surprise then that a similar optimist-skeptic dichotomy has so far characterised Pakistani commentary on CPEC. Asif Qureshi, amongst a host of optimists, has lauded the strengthening of the Pak-China friendship from a largely geo-political one to a robust economic partnership. Mordechai Chaziza has called this burgeoning friendship a “game changer”, not just for the two countries involved, but for the wider South Asian and MENA regions.

Indeed, to talk about CPEC and not talk about geo-strategy is misplaced. As China becomes the world’s largest net importer of oil, the Persian Gulf and Africa are proving insufficient to meet the Asian giant’s energy needs. Through CPEC, Gwadar Port and the Arabian Sea allow China to diversify its energy sources whilst also providing a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean where it can counter another emerging Asian giant — India.

Pakistan’s geographical proximity adds another unique dimension to its economic relationship with China. CPEC is seen as an effort to develop China’s impoverished Western provinces (like Xinjiang), which collectively host 9/10ths of China’s poor. This internal disparity has been at the heart of provincial discontent in Xinjiang and, with CPEC, it is China’s western half that is said to reap the fruits first.

Another dimension of this provincial discontent that makes Pakistan particularly relevant pertains to its Uighur Muslim majority. More extreme factions of the group have forged cross-border linkages with violent, sectarian groups in Pakistan’s northern FATA region. According to Andrew Small, author of The China-Pakistan Axis, domestic violence and terror borne out of Xinjiang has convinced China of the significance of a strengthened economic partnership with Pakistan — one that can quell the internal discontent and violence that threatens its continued rise in the world.

These myriad of compelling geo-strategic reasons inform the optimism of many CPEC commentators. For them, China will not be a neo-colonial, extractive agent in Pakistan because of the latter’s deep importance to China’s viability as a future super power.

The skeptics, however, remain unmoved. After all, geo-strategic considerations heavily motivated China’s move into Africa. The diversification of energy supplies, alternate transport routes for oil, a diplomatic mission to achieve a Sino-African alliance on the status of Taiwan — the critics are no strangers to the frequent murmurs of “geo-strategy” to justify largely economic expeditions.

Moreover, as more and more details of the precise terms of CPEC are beginning to emerge, so are the many and varied critiques. Concerns ranging from transparency and provincial inequity, to the financial terms of Chinese loans to finance infrastructural development in Pakistan are dampening enthusiasm.

Khurram Hussain’s latest investigative piece on CPEC has pointed to the “enclave” motif that critics of China in Africa have so often raised. In it, he reports that the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) China is planning to build along the corridor will cater exclusively to Chinese investment, businesses and personnel — no Pakistanis allowed. Though the government has refuted this claim, it is a refutation built more on insistence than on fact. Such revelations fit the motifs of surgical colonialism and enclaves that have been used to describe the more sinister dimensions of Chinese investment in the Africa continent.

Where are we left in our pursuit for some CPEC-clarity, then? It seems, as with anything in political economy, that proof lies in the eyes of the beholder. One takeaway that the Pakistani reader can gain from the African experience, however, is that of the importance of agency.

Commentators have noted the pivotal role played by African agency in moulding the nature of Chinese activities on the continent.

In Zambia and Tanzania, workers collectivised to resist labour casualisation and force their Chinese employers to offer them permanent contracts with pension. In Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, research shows that African agents are actively seeking Chinese investment in agricultural production and that most of that production is geared towards domestic consumption. Others have argued that different political regimes in different African countries have produced different results for economies, societies and peoples.

Ching Kwan Lee’s words are important: it is a “mistaken notion…that there is a singular Chinese interest bringing about uniform impact, imperialist or not, on a singular Africa”. Let this serve as a reminder to all Pakistanis, optimist or skeptic, that the fate of CPEC lies as much in the hands of Pakistani politicians, civil society members, trade unions and organisation as it does in the hands of the Chinese.