KARACHI – Pakistan will pass a law that will place the supranational body overseeing the $ 50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s main Belt and Road Initiative, under the control of the Pakistan Army which will also gain immense power. .
A parliamentary committee earlier this month passed the CPEC Authorities 2020 Bill despite strong opposition from some lawmakers. According to Junaid Akbar, chairman of the parliamentary committee, the bill will be submitted to parliament for a final vote in the second week of December.
The Pakistani government under Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan’s ruling party Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which are seen as aligned with military interests, have been working for months to get the bill through the committee. The proposed law seeks to restore the controversial CPEC Authority – which has been closed since the end of the presidential order in May.
If enacted, the law will shift control of the CPEC project from the ministry of planning and development run by the civilian bureaucracy to the CPEC Authority headed by retired army General Asim Saleem Bajwa. In addition, Bajwa will report directly to the prime minister instead of the ministry and replace the planning minister as co-chair of the joint Pakistan-China committee.
Even though the presidential order has ended, Bajwa continues to lead the CPEC Authority as chair, a situation that has led opposition legislators to question the legality of his position. In a briefing to the committee, the planning ministry denied having a chairperson of the CPEC Authority; they also denied that they gave Bajwa a salary or allowance.
Outside observers say intrigue reveals a military proclaiming itself to be an attempt by the elected government to find its footing.
“Civil leadership [under Khan and PTI], who never held national power until winning the 2018 election, has struggled with public policy on multiple levels, “Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, told Nikkei Asia was seen in part as a play of military power to asserts greater influence over key projects that are believed to be more eligible for supervision.
“In Pakistan, retired military officers often stay close to their former employers, and the military can exert influence through these retirees. [officers]. So, while General Bajwa formally reports to the civilian leadership, one cannot ignore the influence his former boss will exert over his decisions and actions. “
The CPEC authority was originally formed in 2019 by a presidential order that passed through parliament, just before Prime Minister Imran Khan went to China for the third time in a year to appease China due to a lack of progress along economic corridors.
The CPEC project came to a halt for months after Khan took power in 2018, mainly due to allegations of corruption related to the handling of the project by the previous government. There are also accusations that the deal unfairly benefits Beijing. Khan’s government is struggling to overcome twin deficits and unsustainable foreign debt. Prior to his election, the former cricketer had been a vocal critic of the corridor, citing a lack of transparency.
But with Bajwa at the helm and Khan now making CPEC the cornerstone of its development plans for Pakistan, CPEC’s power and transportation projects have begun.
Since its inception, the CPEC Authority has drawn criticism from opposition parties, notably the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party, which advocate strengthening of the existing civilian institutions involved in CPEC.
Parties allied to the bill have also raised brazen opposition to the military’s role in politics. They have organized countrywide rallies under an alliance called the Pakistan Democratic Movement, alleging that the ruling PTI had framed them in a bogus corruption case with the backing of the army.
The proposed law is controversial for two reasons: It grants CPEC Authority officials impunity, rendering them responsible for the tens of billions of dollars that would be spent on corridor projects and placing them outside the purview of Pakistani courts. In addition, the bill stipulates that if a public official does not cooperate with the CPEC Authority, the chairperson will have the power to order an investigation into the incumbent.
“The lack of oversight and regulation by civilian authorities is worrisome, as it allows the CPEC Authority to operate with impunity and is not accountable to elected officials,” said Kugelman. “Some might argue that taking CPEC’s portfolio from an inexperienced civilian leadership and putting it in military hands would make CPEC policy more efficient. Maybe so, but also make CPEC policy less democratic.”
“The military wants CPEC authority when the project starts [in 2015], but the PML-N government is against it, “said Ayesha Siddiqa, a researcher at the SOAS South Asia Institute at the University of London who has written extensively on the Pakistani Army’s business interests.” They argue that authority will add to the extra bureaucracy. Now, the CPEC Authority [under the army’s control] was established to streamline the share and control of the military. “
According to the Pakistan Army’s official website, the Frontier Works Organization, the construction and engineering armed forces, “has built 3,797 km of roads” in the last 30 years, “in addition to preparing 8 completely new and upgraded airfields.”
Said Siddiqa: FWO “has a contract for road construction as part of CPEC, and has also registered an interest in copper mining. So, any mining that will be carried out under the rubric of CPEC, the FWO will benefit.”