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The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor

Beyond the Rule of Capital?

Inside a Haier Pakistan factory

Inside a Haier Pakistan factory. Credit: Arif Ali, White Star.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is an assistant professor at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

In August 2017, seven months into the most reactionary U.S. presidency of modern times, Donald Trump ventured into the political minefield that Washington has named the “AfPak” region, accusing Pakistan of hindering efforts to establish a lasting peace in Afghanistan and the region at large. Trump then reaffirmed his predecessor’s commitment to deepening ties with South Asia’s preeminent power, India. The Pakistani government, media, and intelligentsia reacted sharply, incensed both at Washington’s “do more” mantra and the continuing U.S. tilt toward their archrivals in New Delhi.

A little over a month later, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis upped the ante further by questioning the legality of China’s much-hyped One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, warning that the planned infrastructure-building initiative would pass through what India considers the “disputed territories” of Kashmir and Gilgit-Balistan, where the borders of China, India, and Pakistan meet. This time the retort came from Beijing, which called on other countries to join their regional cooperation agreements instead of perceiving them as a threat.

Three hundred years after what became known in the nineteenth century as the Great Game—a struggle for regional hegemony between the British and Russian Empires—Southwest Asia remains an imperial staging ground. By the middle of the twentieth century, with the collapse of European colonial empires, the United States and the Soviet Union had taken over the mantle of the world’s Great Powers, and Southwest Asia emerged as one of the major theatres of the Cold War. The collapse of the USSR ushered in a period of virtually unchallenged U.S. hegemony in the region, with China still cast as a “developing country” harboring only modest geopolitical aspirations.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in September 2001 signaled Washington’s desire to cement its hegemonic position, but seventeen years later it is mired in an unwinnable war, even as the U.S. economy—and that of much of the Western world—endures the “endless crisis” of contemporary capitalism.1 At the same time, China’s economic power and political influence have grown steadily, and over the next decade the country is widely predicted to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. Today the globalized world order born after the demise of twentieth-century Communism is in the throes of profound change. In much of the Western political mainstream, neoliberal doctrines of globalization have been overtaken by parties and programs demanding a turn inward. The clamor barely masks the protracted decline of Western hegemony, and attendant shifts in the global balance of power.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has long been known to understate its ambitions, has in recent years begun to acknowledge its global designs far more openly. This was made clear in the grandest of ways in May 2017, at a high-level summit in Beijing to mark the formal launch of OBOR, which will see a wave of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects initiated in many parts of Asia and Africa. While Trump and his neofascist counterparts fearmonger about the perils of “openness” and “globalism,” Chinese premier Xi Jinping has announced his country’s intention to lead the world into a new “golden age” of globalization.2

There has been much controversy on the left over the extent to which China’s remarkable transformation from an insular backwater to the center of the world-system represents a counterweight to capitalist imperialism. I do not engage here with the question of China’s own development trajectory per se, which has become a subject of debate even within China itself, most recently at the CCP’s Nineteenth Congress.3 Samir Amin has in any case argued that a full understanding of China’s “sovereign” path requires a rejection of a simple “capitalism vs. socialism” binary and of the prevailing trend toward “China bashing.”4

The most notable international impact of China’s growth has been its stunning emergence since the 1990s as the workshop of the global economy. For thirty years, Chinese manufactures have flooded world markets, a success made possible by its seemingly inexhaustible supplies of cheap labor. However, rising labor costs (and worker unrest), along with falling aggregate demand in Western economies, have confirmed to the CCP that the country is entering a new phase of accumulation, one that will facilitate the transition to a service-oriented economy and focus developmental efforts on western China. Among other initiatives, excess capacity will be channeled into massive communication thoroughfares linking both the western regions and the rest of mainland China to Southwest and Central Asia.

Arguably the most significant single element in Beijing’s calculus for the region—and certainly OBOR’s biggest component—is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In this essay, I will interrogate what China’s flagship globalization project means for Pakistan, and how to evaluate China’s growing footprint in the country, given Pakistan’s central place in U.S. imperial strategy in Southwest Asia for much of the postwar period. By distinguishing official CPEC rhetoric from reality, we can better evaluate the degree to which China’s role as an emergent global superpower challenges not only U.S. hegemony, but capitalist imperialism itself.

The debate over China’s emergence as a world power often ignores specific national and regional contexts, particularly those where Western imperialist nations have long-established interests. In recent years, OBOR-funded developments in Africa have become the subject of critical study on the left.5 Here I will consider whether CPEC is likely to reinforce class and state power within Pakistan, and what kind of larger developmental and ecological vision the project advances. Only by studying such on-the-ground effects—rather than abstractly hypothesizing whether China’s will be an “anti-imperialist” intervention by virtue of its displacing the United States—can we gain real insights into the trajectory of the world order in the coming decades, and specifically the future of working people and fragile ecosystems in the historically imperialized zones of the global South.

Trump’s announcement last August that Pakistan would be held to account for its alleged duplicity in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was followed by even more incendiary finger-pointing in subsequent months.6 In contrast, China has generally appeared to stand by Pakistan, thus reinforcing the belief that the country should move further away from a bullying Washington, into Beijing’s ever-expanding orbit. Even before Trump’s latest outburst, the CPEC project was widely hailed as a “game-changer” in Pakistani intellectual and political circles, notwithstanding the exceedingly limited public discussion of the plan itself.7

Outside the mainstream, however, Beijing’s growing power is a far more contested matter. CPEC has sparked considerable conflict within the small Pakistani left, with discernible pro-China and anti-China positions emerging. As I suggest below, both perspectives shed light on imperialism in Pakistan, as well as on the state, class, ethnicity, and other social fault lines. By mapping this history, it becomes possible to envision a meaningful anti-imperialist politics in Pakistan in the years to come.

Pakistan: Frontline of Imperialism

Since the events of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror,” Pakistan has arguably been the single most important country in U.S. foreign policy calculus. The U.S. military adventure in Afghanistan against the Taliban has been facilitated by successive Pakistani regimes, starting with the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf (1999–2008). Yet since shortly after the opening of the Afghan theatre, Washington has accused Pakistan of playing a “double game” by providing covert support to some Taliban factions, most notably the Haqqani Network.

The current love-hate U.S.-Pakistan relationship is to a significant extent a microcosm of the two countries’ ties through much of the postwar era. Pakistan remained central to U.S. imperial designs for most of the Cold War, despite their starkly different motivations for investing in bilateral relations. Washington saw Pakistan as a key member of its anticommunist alliances in Southwest Asia, namely the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the Central Treaty Organization, or Baghdad Pact. Bilateral aid began with the so-called Mutual Assistance Program in 1954, through which the United States provided resources and training to the Pakistani army, seeking to modernize it as a fighting force, and more generally to shape the new nation into a pliant third-world state along Huntingtonian lines.8 For its part, Pakistan, which after a military coup in 1958 had embraced its colonial inheritance as a garrison of Western imperialism, saw the alliance as a means of offsetting its relative weakness vis-à-vis a much bigger and better endowed India.

The contradictions of this uneasy alignment were exposed after the Sino-Indian border conflict erupted in 1962. Routed by the more professional and modern Red Army, New Delhi looked to Washington for help, and its request was promptly heeded by the Kennedy administration. Feeling betrayed by Washington’s overtures to Jawaharlal Nehru’s left-leaning Congress Party, the military regime in Islamabad headed by General Ayub Khan turned its attention to Beijing, laying the foundations of a Sino-Pakistani nexus and confirming the complex geopolitical calculus of the Cold War in South Asia.

However, China’s “all-weather friendship,” as it came to be known in Islamabad, could not offset fallout from the Pakistani military establishment’s India-centric strategic policy. When New Delhi decisively intervened in east Pakistan’s civil war in late 1971, neither Beijing nor Washington was willing to directly support the Pakistani army’s floundering Operation Searchlight against Bengali insurgents. The country’s eastern wing seceded to form the state of Bangladesh, and Pakistan’s strategic defeat reached its humiliating conclusion.

In the immediate aftermath, Pakistan’s foreign policy briefly approximated non-alignment. A left-of-center regime headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto claimed to represent a third-world popular-nationalist project, and for a time threatened to overturn a history of unconditional allegiance to larger powers. In the event, Bhutto’s first significant initiative was to facilitate Washington’s reestablishment of formal diplomatic ties with China, thus bringing together both of Islamabad’s major allies and confirming that Pakistan would remain firmly on the anti-Soviet side of the Cold War divide.9

Indeed, just a few years later, Pakistan became the staging ground for one of Washington’s most consequential anti-Soviet interventions, the “jihad” against the Moscow-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. By then Bhutto had been overthrown—and later hanged—by General Zia ul Haq, thus ushering in yet another military dictatorship backed by the United States. Pakistan had once again become Washington’s blue-eyed boy, while jihadi militants were depicted as warriors serving the cause of freedom and democracy, helping defang the “evil empire.”

The blowback from this anti-Soviet jihad has since engulfed much of the world. Right-wing millenarian ideology has taken deep root both in sections of majority-Muslim societies as well as among some disaffected Muslims in Western countries. The growing influence of religious militancy amongst Muslim populations is nevertheless far from an unchanging cultural fact. While Trump’s sheer demagoguery confirms the growing power of the far right, it is worth recalling that it was neoconservatives under George W. Bush who initiated a new phase of U.S. militarism under the guise of fighting radical Islam, fueling the “clash of civilizations” narrative from which reactionary forces in Muslim contexts have also benefited.

The shift in U.S. foreign policy toward direct confrontation with its erstwhile jihadi protégés, with Afghanistan again a major theatre of bloody conflict, has tested relations between the United States and Pakistan’s military establishment. The latter has sought at one and the same time to maintain a relationship with its overlords in the Pentagon, and to continue patronizing those jihadi groups that serve its longstanding strategic objectives in India and Afghanistan.

Even accounting for the opportunism of Pakistan’s generals, Washington’s convenient insistence, both before and during the Trump presidency, that Pakistan is the “epicenter of global terrorism” betrays the utterly contradictory effects of unbridled U.S. militarism. Delusions of grandeur notwithstanding, a U.S.-dominated global economy is now a thing of the past, with American working and even middle-class populations devastated by deindustrialization and financialization—the “endless crisis” exploited in the xenophobic idiom of Trump and his ilk. Although the U.S. dollar for now remains the global reserve currency, U.S. imperial power is sustained primarily by its enormous military capacity and the attendant ideology of unending war peddled by its military-industrial complex and a compliant corporate media.

China as New Patron Saint?

Against this backdrop of bloated militarism, Washington’s increasingly strained relations with Islamabad contrast sharply with the cordiality of the Sino-Pakistani relationship. Effusive and mutual praise has flowed freely since the two countries became close allies more than fifty years ago—although only in recent times has China emerged as a genuine competitor to the United States as Pakistan’s major benefactor.

Beijing has unfailingly supplied weapons to Islamabad for the better part of five decades, and its support was critical to the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yet even China’s steadfast support during periods of strain between Pakistan and the United States has not lured Pakistani generals away from higher-quality U.S. weapons as part of their long-term efforts to modernize the county’s military. In fact, the ebbs and flows in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad have never translated into a complete freeze in arms sales and technical support from the Pentagon to the Pakistan army’s General Headquarters (GHQ).

At the same time, U.S. aid to Pakistan has never included a substantial economic component—at least not consistently so—and it is on this front that China’s evolving role is likely to prove distinct. While economic cooperation between China and Pakistan has increased considerably since the turn of the millennium, Beijing’s stakes in the Pakistani economy are set to increase exponentially in the form of CPEC commitments: to date the Chinese government has pledged more than $54 billion.

The question, as ever, is whether CPEC will simply buttress Pakistan’s inegalitarian and authoritarian power structure, or if, instead, Chinese intervention will trigger incipient forces of change, even if unwittingly. So far the only detailed material available in the public domain about CPEC is the so-called Long-Term Plan (LTP), a Chinese government document finalized in December 2015 by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the China Development Bank. The LTP in its original form is over 250 pages long; a greatly abridged version of only 36 pages was released to the public in December 2017, simply to stave off growing criticism about a lack of transparency – secrecy, even – in CPEC-related matters.

Public relations gimmicks notwithstanding, the original document confirms Beijing’s longer-term objectives in Pakistan, meticulously outlining plans for cooperation between both governments to attract increased investment by Chinese companies in Pakistani industry, agriculture, coastal tourism, communications infrastructure, and water resources. While the document makes boilerplate overtures to Pakistan’s economic and social development, it can on the whole be read as a not very subtle assertion of China’s regional interests—especially the drive to gain market access for Chinese firms and develop China’s vast western interior via the transportation routes to be built under the CPEC plan.

Of particular note is the document’s emphasis on modernizing Pakistan’s agricultural heartland in central Punjab, which contradicts the vague claims by Pakistani officialdom and intelligentsia that CPEC is primarily about stimulating the country’s manufacturing industries. As far as China is concerned, Pakistan’s comparative advantage is in agriculture, and improving infrastructure and technical expertise while reducing waste in the sector will directly complement the modernization of agriculture in Xinjiang and other parts of western China. In the context of the CCP’s relatively undisguised policy of promoting migration by Han Chinese to the underdeveloped and sparsely populated western provinces, some of which have become hotbeds of minority unrest, the utility of Pakistan’s agricultural sector becomes even clearer.

As conceived in the plan, Beijing’s chief reciprocal contribution to Pakistan’s development would come from Chinese companies operating in the telecommunications, energy, and household appliances sectors. The resulting boost to a burgeoning domestic market of ostensibly middle-class consumers has been touted time and again as a virtual panacea for Pakistan’s development needs, recalling the remedies all too often outlined in standard neoliberal policy prescriptions.

In fact, Chinese goods and services started to flood the Pakistani market long before the CPEC initiative was announced, especially after a free trade agreement between the two countries was signed in July 2007. The total value of bilateral trade surged from just over $1 billion in the early 2000s to more than $16 billion by 2016. Wholesalers and retailers handling the influx of Chinese goods have undoubtedly benefited, but local industry has been throttled. Some manufacturers have survived by moving production abroad, to the detriment of Pakistan’s already immiserated industrial working class; more than 20,000 jobs have been slashed in the shoe-manufacturing sector alone.10

Pakistan’s Federal Chamber of Commerce has demanded that local businesses be given access to the Industrial Parks and Export Processing Zones conceived in the CPEC plan, but there is little evidence to suggest that Pakistani manufacturers will prove competitive enough to reverse established trends. The only “successful” local companies in recent years have partnered with Chinese manufacturers to shift at least part of the latter’s operations to Pakistan—but in doing so, they have helped push out other domestic firms that cannot offer cut-price production to Chinese businesses. In effect, the Pakistani bourgeoisie has become even more of a comprador class than when it operated exclusively as the middleman for the imported goods of Japanese zaibatsus and Western multinationals.

The business-friendly Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML–N) government, in power since 2013, has made much noise about fixing the country’s longstanding energy crisis, a major cause of stagnation in the manufacturing sector. The government has promised that chronic electricity shortfalls will be resolved once and for all by the numerous power plants envisaged under the CPEC plan. Yet there is no sign that power blackouts, popularly known as “load shedding” in Pakistan, will end anytime soon, and new power plants being built under the CPEC plan will likely only reinforce the competitive advantage that Chinese firms already wield over their local counterparts.

As for the prospect of Chinese investment generating employment for a rapidly increasing Pakistani population—now over 200 million, with more than 60 percent under the age of twenty-five—the evidence to date is clear. Chinese firms have acquired a reputation for bringing most of their employees with them, from highly skilled engineers to construction workers. In the Mansehra district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, site of some of the most intensive road-building works initiated under the CPEC plan, thousands of Chinese engineers and laborers work and live in relative isolation from the local population, with only a specially designated Pakistani military unit allowed access to both the construction site and the nearby housing settlement.

While officials insist that CPEC has already generated an employment boom, the only concrete evidence of job creation is in the armed forces. A special security force of at least 15,000 operating under army command has been raised to protect CPEC instalments and Chinese personnel who, by keeping almost entirely to themselves, reinforce the perception that they are insular outsiders who want only access to the country’s resources, hardly endearing themselves to local populations.11

A Divided Left

This special military force was conceived after the CCP made clear that CPEC would be initiated only if the Pakistani government could guarantee the safety of Chinese investments, engineers, and workers. High-profile kidnappings and even murders of Chinese citizens working in Pakistan have been reported for some years, particularly in the resource-rich but insurgency-wracked province of Balochistan in the southwest. The Chinese government has accordingly appeared to support the intensification of counter-insurgency operations by the Pakistani army against secular Baloch separatists.

Meanwhile, Beijing is concerned with militancy of a decidedly non-secular variety in Xinjiang, where Islamists have cultivated pockets of support among the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority group that has long harbored fears of cultural and economic subjugation by the Han Chinese majority. A similar perception exists within the Baloch ethnic group, which for decades has resisted the oppressive rule of a Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state. Not surprisingly, CPEC is viewed as yet another state-sponsored attempt to rob the Baloch people of their resources in the guise of “development.”

The crown jewel in the CPEC plan is a deep-sea port opened in November 2016 in the once-sleepy fishing village of Gwadar, on the westernmost tip of Balochistan. The construction of Gwadar Port has been viewed with great suspicion by at least a segment of Baloch nationalists, who consider the project an extension of Islamabad’s longstanding economic colonialism. Moreover, they believe that Gwadar—and CPEC in general—will accelerate incipient demographic trends in Balochistan that are fast turning ethnic Baloch into a minority in their own land.

For China, Gwadar is a warm-water port offering the isolated cities of its western provinces a window to the world. Kashgar, the largest town on China’s western border, is more than 1,200 miles from Gwadar, but more than 3,100 miles from Shanghai, on China’s eastern seaboard. The development of Gwadar thus clearly serves China’s medium-term objectives. Whether it suits the Baloch people, or Pakistan’s working masses more generally is a matter of much greater contention.

CPEC has intensified longstanding divisions within the embattled Pakistani left, which has struggled to come to terms with what CPEC signifies, especially in light of Pakistan’s status as a frontline state of U.S. imperialism. While such thorny debates among left activists and intellectuals are in part a hangover from Cold War factionalism, distinct perspectives on the growing Chinese footprint in Pakistan have emerged in recent years. A closer look at these arguments offers considerable insights into a complex country and region where the geopolitical stakes are extremely high.

On one side is the fairly straightforward hypothesis that China’s growing power represents a counterweight to Washington’s seventy-year influence in Pakistan. In this argument, Beijing—and other capitals, like Moscow, that are reasserting themselves in the region—appears as an ally of anti-imperialists in the country, and the CPEC plan as concrete evidence that Chinese aid can address Pakistan’s development needs, in contrast to the narrow strategic and military goals that Washington has always pursued. Extrapolated further, this argument takes on an anti-imperialist accent on a global scale, envisioning emergent political-economic blocs such as the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement and BRICS as new opportunities for countries like Pakistan to extricate themselves from the centuries-old hegemonic orbit of Western imperialist powers.

The opposing view on the left emphasizes that even if changing geopolitical dynamics do reduce Islamabad’s historical dependency on the United States, China’s intervention is far from a win-win situation for Pakistan—and, in fact, is likely to exacerbate existing class, ethnic, and ecological conflicts. Like its pro-China counterpart, this left critique is relatively simple: it holds that the CPEC only reinforces the established neoliberal paradigm, with its emphasis on corporate control and endless expansion of markets for consumer goods, even as it intensifies ecological degradation and labor exploitation, all behind the veil of “development.” A rapidly expanding urban middle class in Pakistan—which by liberal estimates could number up to 60 million people—will certainly buttress demand by indulging a Rostowian fetish for mass consumption. But what of the dark side of development, ignored by the corporate media and Chinese and Pakistani authorities—namely, the masses of dispossessed working people whose livelihoods and cultures revolve around the land, water, mountains, forests, and other natural resources that predominantly Chinese corporations are being given free rein to pillage?

Such processes of dispossession were intensifying even before the launch of CPEC, with hitherto untapped mineral resource zones in peripheral regions like Balochistan, Sindh, and Gilgit-Balitstan most affected. Balochistan, for instance, is home to the Reko Diq and Saindak mines, with some of the largest untapped copper and gold reserves in the world. CPEC will no doubt signal intensified mining of such precious metals, along with other process of extraction and accumulation that are anything but beneficial for local communities. Coal-powered energy plants being set up in the Punjabi heartland, for example, will inevitably yield significant ecological fallouts across both central and peripheral regions. By 2020, thermal power production is expected to reach more than 13,000 megawatts annually, with all but about 500 megawatts coal-fired.

It is more than a little ironic that the CCP has in recent years begun cutting back on domestic coal and steel production in an effort to make the Chinese development model more efficient and ecologically sustainable. The NDRC reported in April 2017 that China has already reduced coal and steel production by 400 million metric tons, halfway toward its planned target of 800 million by 2020. By facilitating more intensive coal production in Pakistan, China appears to be following in the footsteps of “advanced” Western countries whose partial greening of their own economies has derived in large part from shifting environmentally destructive practices to the global South.

Under CPEC, coal production in Pakistan is expected to increase enormously, with the biggest initiative planned for the Thar coalfields in eastern Sindh, reportedly home to the world’s seventh-largest coal reserve, with around 175 billion metric tons. The extraction of Thar’s coal has been promoted within Pakistan as a homegrown cure for chronic underdevelopment, and China’s financial and technical support for the project has been met with much fanfare.

In practice, even in its initial phases—actual coal production is not projected to begin until 2019—the project has already begun to displace local communities and alter the regional ecosystem. More than 9,000 square miles of Thar’s total area of 22,000 square miles will be mined for coal, while the rest will be subject to substantial damming, projects that promise to transform the lives of the region’s 150,000 people. The Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), which is leading the development in partnership with China Power International, has launched a vigorous public relations campaign, claiming it will prioritize the hiring of local workers, compensate displaced communities, and preserve the local environment. Yet the reality in Thar is far less rosy: to take only one example, more than 70 percent of Thar’s people lack access to clean drinking water, and as coal mining intensifies, the already saline groundwater is growing contaminated and potentially poisonous.

Not surprisingly, authorities have not looked kindly on local activists’ demands for accountability. Several activists have been threatened by SECMC goons and local officials, and in August 2017 some were even forcibly disappeared by the military’s intelligence apparatus, a practice that has become almost endemic in Pakistan in recent years.

While intolerance for dissent in Pakistan is nothing new, CPEC has already acquired the status of a sacred cow. Despite serious conflicts between the PML–N government and the military establishment, there appears to be little elite disagreement over Chinese investment in the country. Pakistan’s rulers clearly do not want to antagonize their new patron-in-chief. For its part, the Chinese government has also stepped up its public relations efforts to silence the murmurs of dissent outside the mainstream. In short, to question CPEC in contemporary Pakistan, even if only to demand greater transparency around the project, is a dangerous endeavor.

The fear that Beijing will reinforce the Pakistani state’s authoritarian tendencies is not based only on circumstantial evidence or speculation. A significant section of the LTP focuses on how China will facilitate the surveillance capacities of local security agencies. The major infrastructural investment in this regard is the laying of a country-wide fiber-optic cable, which would both transform Pakistan’s communication network and give China extensive control over information flows in the country. China Mobile already accounts for 20 percent of domestic telecommunications traffic, and this share is projected to increase dramatically in the near future. Meanwhile, the Huawei group is likewise acquiring monopoly-like dominance over the digital technology and hardware markets.

The LTP also makes no secret of China’s plan to use communications networks, including digital television channels, to disseminate Chinese culture in Pakistan, while the explosion of Mandarin-teaching institutes across the country, alongside initiatives in the realm of arts and culture, reflects Beijing’s desire to project China’s power in new ways.

It is against this backdrop that left debates over China’s increasingly hegemonic role in Pakistan’s polity and economy must be understood. To a significant extent, these differences revolve around the question of the Pakistani state, and particularly the army. There is a palpable sense that China’s interventions will empower the coercive arm of the state and further constrict democratic space in the country, particularly in the historically oppressed peripheral regions outside the Punjab.

The debate also reflects a broader controversy over “development” itself. While some on the left have stayed true to a “stageist” Marxism which considers a certain level of capitalist industrialization a necessary evil in the protracted struggle for socialism, others see no progressive potential in the Chinese-supported incarnation of the Pakistani bourgeoisie, and view CPEC as hardly challenging the contemporary regime of global capital, with all its economic, ecological, and political crises.

To be sure, the displacement of local communities in Sindh due to the Thar coal project is only the latest example of forced migration in Pakistan, which has steadily increased over the past few years amid worsening ecological and political catastrophes. The “war on terror” has forced millions of Pakhtuns on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to flee their homes for cities like Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, where they are condemned to poverty, squalor, and discrimination. Meanwhile the realities of climate change have come to the fore for numerous village communities in Siraiki and Sindhi regions in the heart of the Indus Basin which have been devastated by monsoon floods almost annually since 2010. The mass exodus that follows each episode has exacerbated the already explosive pressure on urban centers unable to meet the demand for either gainful employment or basic needs like housing and sanitation.

Of course, these longer-term trends cannot be attributed to the Chinese footprint in Pakistan per se. But there can be little doubt that CPEC will reinforce existing pressures on already vulnerable ecosystems while forcing ever more displaced communities into the ranks of the largely unseen and dispossessed masses, both in the rural hinterlands and major metropolitan areas. All this while the prevailing technocratic developmental imaginary—to which all contenders for political power in Pakistan subscribe—lavishes its attention solely on a mythical middle class, serviced by Chinese corporations.

Whether new political projects can confront this crisis of political imagination and organization in an era of near-total neoliberal hegemony is certainly not a challenge unique to the Pakistani left. Unfortunately, existing divisions in left circles have to date prevented this difficulty from even being acknowledged with any degree of coherence. Insofar as certain left factions view China’s growing role in Pakistan as unequivocally beneficial, based on a rather facile mapping of the shift from the unipolar post-1991 world order to an increasingly multipolar present, they draw a distinct line between themselves and those on the left working in peripheral zones among historically oppressed ethnic groups. If the left ignores these regions and communities where neoliberal development and war generates untold misery and ecological destruction, it risks delegitimizing the very essence of the socialist project.


U.S. imperialism has played an unambiguously destructive role in Pakistan for most of the country’s seventy-year history. Aside from decisively empowering the military establishment, its support of religious militancy in the 1980s precipitated a complete transformation of the body politic. The secular political traditions of other societies in the region were similarly undermined by the rise of millenarianism, with Afghanistan worst affected. Today Washington seeks to maintain its waning influence in the region through a zero-sum strategic game that has seen India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan pitted against one another, forcing their own people to bear the cost.

In this context, China’s claim to advance a development agenda that transcends the narrow geopolitical calculus that has long defined regional dynamics should be evaluated carefully. The biggest question mark in the OBOR strategy in South Asia remains Beijing’s frosty relations with New Delhi. Still, the volume of official trade between China and India totaled almost $71 billion in 2016—nearly six times that between China and Pakistan. Thus economic ties are expanding despite the Modi government’s nationalist posturing. In any case, China’s growing economic and political role in the region necessarily means that the era of Washington’s unrivalled hegemony, especially in its longtime frontline state of Pakistan, has ended.

Yet the discussion above confirms the danger that China’s emergent hegemony represents more of the same for Pakistan’s long-suffering people, especially those from historically underrepresented ethnic groups. There has also been little evidence so far that the ideal of building an “ecological civilization” that has gained credence in China in recent years is anything more than an afterthought when it comes to Chinese investments in Pakistan.12

Even if one takes the rather blunt metric of CPEC financing, the rhetoric is far removed from reality. Of the $28 billion injected into Pakistan’s economy by late 2016 through CPEC’s “early harvest” projects, $19 billion was in the form of commercial loans. In the not-too-distant future, this portends yearly debt repayments of more than $3.5 billion.13 It is not at all clear, then, that China offers a financial alternative to the International Monetary Fund/World Bank juggernaut that has already saddled Pakistan with a foreign debt burden approaching $80 billion.

Perhaps most importantly, China’s seemingly apolitical developmental intervention is consolidating the existing structure of power in Pakistan, and in particular the military establishment that Washington helped make into the country’s dominant force. Recent events suggest China is exerting some pressure on Pakistan’s GHQ to break with the religious militants long used as proxies against India and Afghanistan.14 This would make sense, given China’s commitment to expanding market exchange through its infrastructural and other investments, and the attendant fear that these investments may be threatened by militant movements in Pakistan.

Even if peace were achieved overnight, however, the Chinese vision of “development” would not represent a genuine and sustainable alternative to neoliberal development practices as they have been institutionalized around the world. China’s intervention in Pakistan thus cannot be considered the progressive “other” to the destructive militarism—both state and non-state—that U.S. imperialism and domestic elites have imposed on Southwest Asia for decades.

China’s larger-than-life role and the real material consequences of its global expansion are in fact reinforcing anxieties about the extent to which the Chinese challenge to U.S. hegemony can move the planet and its people toward a post-capitalist future. If the rosy rhetoric about the CPEC project does not translate into an environmentally sustainable reality, one that makes Pakistan more egalitarian and just, little hope will remain that China can lead the world into a new era of peace, prosperity, and ecological harmony that transcends the rule of capital.


  1. John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).
  2. Tom Phillips, “China’s Xi Lays Out $900bn Silk Road Vision amid Claims of Empire-Building,” Guardian, May 14, 2017.
  3. Two recent analyses by Chinese writers are Yuezhi Zao, “The Struggle for Socialism in China: The Bo Xilai Saga and Beyond,” Monthly Review 64, no. 12 (October 2012): 1–17; and Cheng Enfu and Ding Xiaoqin, “A Theory of China’s ‘Miracle’: Eight Principles of Contemporary Chinese Political Economy,” Monthly Review 68, No. 8 (January 2017): 46–57.
  4. Samir Amin, “China 2013,” Monthly Review 64, no. 10 (March 2013): 14–33.
  5. Patrick Bond, “‘Africa Rising’ in Retreat: New Signs of Resistance,” Monthly Review 69, no. 4 (September 2017): 24–42.
  6. Trump Attacks Pakistan ‘Deceit’ in First Tweet of the Year,” BBC News, January 1, 2018.
  7. Complete Harmony on CPEC Project,” Dawn, March 19, 2016.
  8. At the height of the Cold War struggle for influence in newly independent countries, Samuel Huntington famously described the Ayub Khan regime in Pakistan as an island of order in a chaotic third-world sea: Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).
  9. The “secret” visit of then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger to Beijing in 1971 was facilitated by Islamabad; Kissinger travelled to China in a state airliner while on a formal diplomatic trip to Pakistan.
  10. Nasir Jamal, “Mother China: A ‘Chinese Revolution’ Sweeps across Pakistan,” Herald, August 2017.
  11. Syed Irfan Raza, “15,000 Military Personnel Protecting CPEC,” Dawn, February 21, 2017.
  12. See Zhihe Wang, Huili He, and Meijun Fan, “The Ecological Civilization Debate in China: The Role of Ecological Marxism and Constructive Postmodernism–Beyond the Predicament of Legislation,” Monthly Review 66, no. 6 (November 2014): 37–59.
  13. Khurram Husain, “CPEC Cost Build-Up,” Dawn, December 15, 2016.
  14. BRICS Name Militant Groups as Regional Security Concern,” Dawn, September 5, 2017.
2018, Volume 70, Issue 02 (June 2018)
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