Pakistan recently cleared a bill in Parliament that will virtually give the powerful army sweeping control over the $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects while diminishing the role of the civilian government. The proposed law has caused discomfort in the opposition ranks and sparked concerns over the possible implications of establishing a “parallel government”. Here’s what the proposed law means and why it’s controversial:
In 2019, the Imran Khan government had passed an ordinance to establish the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPECA) for timely execution of big-ticket CPEC projects. It was widely speculated that CPECA was established to please China, which had expressed dismay over the slow progress on the CPEC front and wanted the army to get directly involved. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s close aide Lt General Asim Saleem Bajwa (retired) became the first chairman of the authority.
Ever since its establishment, the CPECA had been facing flak from lawmakers in Pakistan as it undercut the role of the civilian government and functioned as a “parallel authority.
But things got murkier when the ordinance lapsed in May this year.
According to reports in Pakistani media, Bajwa continued to preside over the CPEC well beyond May despite having no legal sanction to do so. This raised eyebrows within the country, with several opposition leaders questioning the legal status and functioning of the authority after the expiry of the ordinance. Concerns were particularly raised since Bajwa was involved in a major corruption scandal earlier this year and had to quit as the special advisor to Prime Minister Khan.
Over the last few months, the Pakistan government has been working on a draft bill that seeks to reinstate the controversial CPEC Authority. In November, a parliamentary committee finally cleared the CPEC Authority Bill 2020 in the National Assembly. The proposed law will be put to a final vote in the second week of December.
But the devil is in the details
The bill will not only pave way for the official return of the CPEC Authority, but will give the Pakistani army far greater control over CPEC. According to a report on Nikkei Asia, the proposed law will allow Bajwa to replace the planning minister as co-chair of a Pakistan-China joint committee and eliminate the role of the planning ministry as an administrative division and the authority.
“A new post of chief of staff is also being proposed in the bill and the position of CEO is proposed to be scrapped. Presently, the CEO is a top officer from the bureaucracy. The two positions of executive directors are proposed to be abolished,” the report said.
Most importantly, Bajwa would report directly to PM Imran Khan instead of the planning ministry. Observers feel this would give the army sweeping influence over the key projects since Khan is considered close to the military, with critics often giving him monikers such as “selected PM” or “puppet ruler”.
The report said that the law seeks to grant legal immunity to CPECA officials, which will make them unaccountable for tens of billions of dollars spent on the projects and put them outside the purview of Pakistani courts.
The law further stipulates that the CPECA chairman will have the power to order a probe against any official who refuses to cooperate with the agency.
What’s in it for China?
Military control over the CPEC project benefits China in more ways than one, according to various experts.
Sources in Pakistan’s planning ministry had told Asia Times that China wanted the Pakistan army to be directly involved in CPEC — part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — to expedite the pace of the projects.
Ensuring a healthy pace of BRI projects in Pakistan is crucial for Chinese ambitions as it seeks to expand its influence in the South Asian region, even if it comes at the cost of financially draining the partner nations.
A report by the Center for Global Development had pointed out that Pakistan is among the eight countries most at risk of falling into debt distress due to China’s BRI projects.
The report said that nations like Pakistan are staring at rising debt-to-GDP ratios beyond 50 percent, with at least 40 percent of external debt owed to China once BRI lending is complete. ( TOI )
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