Pakistani Military And CPEC – OpEd

“Most countries have an army, but Pakistan’s army has a country.”

Pakistan has had a near continuous military dominance of both serving and retired General officers being co-opted into its bureaucracy by lateral induction. General Musharraf brought in officers at every level. Imran Khan Government appears to have beaten all earlier records in filling civilian posts with military officers into the civilian government. The armed forces are now everywhere especially in departments having Chinese investments.

Pakistan military are one of the major stakeholders in Pakistan’s economy. The military’s business is spread out in the form of over 50 large projects, and hundreds of small and medium projects. The military also controls about 13 percent of the land out of which about 7 percent is distributed to officers and soldiers for personal gains. The Pakistan Army has the National Logistics Cell employing over 6,500 mostly ex-servicemen and managing more than 2,000 heavy transport vehicles. The Special Communications Organisation (SCO), executed the Pakistan-China Optical fibre cable project in collaboration with Huawei in record time. It will eventually service Gwadar, and a range of defence communication and satellite facilities.

“The military wanted the control of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) when the project started in 2015, but the PML-N government was against it,” said Ayesha Siddiqa who has written extensively about the Pakistan Army’s business interests. “They were of the idea that the authority would add to additional bureaucracy and the CPEC Authority under the army’s control will establish to streamline the military’s share and control.”

Mounting pressure from China over long delays in the completion of key projects in the CPEC forced Imran Khan to get the CPEC Authority promulgated to appease China. CPEC Authority Ordinance was promulgated by President Dr Arif Alvi in October 2019 before the visit of Prime Minister Khan to China. CPEC Authority Bill 2020 was passed despite strong opposition from some lawmakers. CPEC a supranational project of $50 billion was placed under control of the Pakistan Army. Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa was appointed as the as Chairman of the CPEC Authority with sweeping powers and to report directly to the PM instead of the Planning and Development Ministry. Pakistan’s government under Prime Minister Imran Khan and the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party appears to have been forced to align with the interests of the Army. This move can be seen in part as a military power play to assert more influence over the CPEC projects.

CPEC projects were stalled for months after Imran Khan took power in 2018, mainly due to allegations that the deals benefited Beijing and also corruption against the previous government’s handling of the projects. Before the election Imran Khan had been a vocal critic of the CPEC projects, citing a lack of transparency. With Bajwas’ at the helm and Khan at the behest of China has made CPEC a cornerstone of Pakistan’s development plans.

Chinese engagement in Pakistan is leading to the military’s tighter control of civilian and economic matters relating to CPEC because of the present civil-military relations in Pakistan. An increasingly powerful role has been assumed by the military in the grand CPEC project. It is leading to further weakening of the civilian government. Forced by the Chinese solely to protect their workers working on CPEC projects dedicated Frontier Corps force has been earmarked throughout the country post 36 Chinese nationals died in a terrorist attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in 2021.The Chief of Army Staff reiterates that this security will ensure a secure environment for the completion of the CPEC projects.

In Pakistan, China showed this flexibility by pushing for the security establishment’s takeover of the security issue of CPEC. Fighting Uighur militants in North Waziristan was one of China’s crucial concerns that led to the Chinese state forming an alliance with Pakistani military. Historically as well, China has been more comfortable in negotiating with Pakistani military than its civilian counterpart. Hence, Pakistani military power can only be expected to strengthen further with this project unless there’s a serious local resistance. Involving Pakistani military is in China’s national interests for convenience.

Prime Minister Imran Khan in August 2021 appointed Khalid Mansoor as his special assistant on CPEC affairs after allegations were leveled regarding Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa family’s assets. Gen Bajwa submitted his resignation after the allegations. Bajwa family’s now owns a business empire which has 99 companies in four countries, including a pizza franchise with 133 restaurants worth an estimated $39.9 million. Bajwa family’s companies spent an estimated $52.2m to develop their businesses and $14.5m to purchase properties in the US. Bajwa’s wife was a shareholder in all the foreign businesses as a shareholder in 85 companies (71 in US, 7 in UAE and 4 in Canada). However, the allegations have been rejected and vehemently denied as incorrect and false. Wonder how many in the chain would have siphoned off CPEC funds!

BRI passes through Gilgit-Baltistan (PoK) integral part of India which is located strategically. It borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and China.It is ahigh-altitude territory located on thenorth west of the Union Territory of Ladakh. Its strategic, economic and commercial significance has increased in light of the CPEC agreement, under which Beijing is investing large sums to develop the area as part of its BRI. In hind sight Pakistan and its military must be happy of getting the Chinese involved in PoK to counter India with the help of their ‘Iron Friend’ China.

Pakistani military’s penetration into politics, society and economy is well established over the decades and CPEC projects have provided yet another opportunity for the military to further expand its influence in the decision-making process of the country. The process has been facilitated by Beijing’s security concerns and its own war against Uighur militants. Under pressure from China, Pakistan Army has taken institutional control over CPEC which is seen as a lifeline saviour for the dwindling economy of Pakistan and is the cornerstone of China Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China with the help of Pakistan has made concerted efforts to establish the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship amid deteriorating regional security post the US withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. Interestingly with shifting geopolitical competitions China is the new player in Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is not surprising that Central Asia will have one of the main routes connecting China and Europe under the BRI. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries will connect China mainland to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and on to Europe. Pakistan’s CPEC and the BRI has provided the springboard to the Chinese dragon to leap frog over continents.