When China’s President Xi Jinping announced its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, Pakistan was one of the first to welcome it with open arms. The two have gotten together again to revive the project from hibernation.
The countries that share a 273-mileborder have gotten together three times since June to sign new projects worth about $ 11 billion. That takes commitments of projects in Pakistan to more than $70 billion. The biggest splash has been mainly power plants that has ended Pakistan’s decade-old problem of electricity shortage.
Two of the new projects are hydro-power generation in Kashmir, a nexus of tension between Pakistan and India since the split in 1947. China has slowly added tension in the region by quietly financing projects and gaining influence all around India from Sri Lanka to Pakistan. It escalated recently with India and Chinese soldiers in a nine-week border standoff that resulted in deaths on both sides. India went on to ban Chinese apps including TikTok in India.
China has certainly had some successes with Belt and Road. The World Bank estimates about $575 billion worth of energy plants, railways, roads, ports and other projects have been built or are in the works across the globe. More recently, though, its progress has slowed. Many countries have had a rethink and coronavirus complicated its future.
Myanmar scaled back a port deal, while Malaysia with a new government renegotiated a rail project last year. Pakistan did the same with its railway effort signed last month. The most expensive project to date that will revamp a British-era railway system has seen its cost drop by a billion dollars to $7.2 billion.
So what has triggered the flurry of deals in Pakistan? There’s a new officer in town.
Former Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa was appointed last year to run the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority and then made part of Pakistan’s cabinet a few months ago. Bajwa became one of the many former and current military officials appointed in prominent government roles to get projects going, and he’s given projects with China fresh momentum.
China’s advances are setbacks for U.S. economic and political influence in the region. Washington has led a global campaign against Belt and Road, arguing that China’s reliance on loans locked poorer countries in “debt traps” while advancing its own strategic aims.
—Faseeh Mangi in Karachi