The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a huge project, mainly funded by the Chinese government, with the overall aim of transforming the economy of Pakistan. It sets out to do this by modernising the road and rail infrastructure in the country, building state of the art 21st century energy production and transportation systems and creating international trade hubs such as the Deep Sea Port at Gwadar.
The official launch of CPEC took place on April 20, 2015, when the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Chinese President Xi Jinping signed 51 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding with a combined value of $46 billion. The actual beginnings of CPEC, however, and therefore the answer to the question ‘Who started CPEC?’ lie further back in history. Given the scale of the project – which is designed to form a major plank of the Chinese One Belt one Road (OBOR) initiative – it should come as little surprise to discover that it developed from roots which are slightly more complex than a meeting between two heads of government. The OBOR consists of CPEC and another five corridors which deliver infrastructure development in more than 65 countries, accounting for 60% of the world’s population and 40% of global GDP.
The strategic alliance between Pakistan and China, driven by regional proximity and shared concerns, has been the most important feature of their relationship since as long ago as the early 1960s. During recent decades, however, the feeling has grown in both countries that the strategic partnership they wish to pursue will only be successful if they work together much more closely in economic terms.
The first fruits of this policy emerged in 2000, when President Pervez Musharraf visited China and used meetings with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to underline the need for much stronger economic links between the two countries. This policy was expressed in practical terms when the two leaders signed an agreement based around economic co-operation. This was followed up in 2001, when Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji visited Pakistan and signed six agreements and a Memorandum of Understanding which covered areas including railways, telecommunications, tourism, mining and petroleum. This was the same visit during which President Musharaff asked the Chinese Premier to support the construction of Gwadar Port. The support was forthcoming and, even more importantly, when Chinese Vice Premier Wu Bang Guo visited Pakistan in 2002, he attended the Gwadar Port ground-breaking ceremony in the company of President Musharaff. Although Gwadar Port is now rightly seen as playing a central role in the wider CPEC project, at the time it was described as the ‘Pak-China Friendship Journey from Karakoram to Gwadar’.
The CPEC Alliance Strengthens
The political underpinning of CPEC was strengthened in 2003 when President Musharraf visited China and signed a Joint Declaration on the Directions of Bilateral Cooperation. This declaration included initiatives in sectors such as agriculture, industry, tourism and transport, an aspiration to work toward a wider free trade agreement and a bolstering of the China-Pakistan Business Council.
The next major landmark on the road to the official launch of CPEC in 2013 came in 2006, when two major developments took place. The first of these was the signing of a Framework Agreement on Energy Cooperation, which outlined the Chinese government’s commitment to aid the development of the Pakistan oil and gas sector. The second development took place during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Pakistan in November. During the visit, the two countries signed a Free Trade Agreement and a Five Year Plan for cooperation on trade and economics, as well as an agreement for China to financially support the upgrading of transport infrastructure including the Karakorum Highway.
The summary of developments discussed between the two countries in the period between 2004-2207 – the period which laid the practical groundwork for the launch of CPEC – includes the following:
- Gwadar Port being developed as a deep sea commercial port with petro-chemical facilities
- Special Economic Zones being developed to promote enterprise throughout Pakistan
- Road and rail links being developed and/or upgraded between Gwadar, Karachi, Khunjrab and Kashgar
- The upgrading of the Karakorum Highway, including the ability to handle gas and oil pipelines as well as optical fibre links
- Oil and gas pipelines from Gwadar to Kashgar
- In 2013, the operation of the Gwadar Port was transferred from Singapore to China, and the deal was heralded as helping to create an energy and trade corridor which would benefit Pakistan at the same time as connecting China to the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz.
- The final pieces of CPEC as it is recognised today fell into place during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Pakistan in May 2013. It was during this visit that the two governments reached an agreement on the shape that CPEC should take, and committed to jointly preparing a long term plan on the project. This plan finally came to fruition in 2015, with the signing of 51 Memorandums of Agreement worth $46 billion, as outlined at the start of this article.
CPEC’s Commitment to the Future of Pakistan
As can be seen from the above, which is still only a relatively brief description of the development of plans for CPEC, an initiative of this size can never really be put down to the actions of particular individuals, or even of successive Pakistan and Chinese governments. Instead, CPEC represents the logical end-point of what was initially a much more vague commitment to strategic cooperation between the two countries. Over the course of several decades, and in particular since 2000, this commitment was gradually realized in economic terms, thanks to the realisation that any desire for governments to work together had to be funded in a manner which made it possible to create the infrastructure needed. The hope – and expectation – is that the kick start which CPEC can give to the Pakistan economy is reflected in the enthusiasm of the populace to take full advantage of the opportunities which it presents. If everything goes to plan, the development of CPEC outlined above will come to be seen as a transformative period in the rich history of Pakistan.