May 20, 2017
At the University of Oxford on 19 May 2017, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) collaborated with the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment to organise an academic conference titled “China’s Frontier: Institutions, Infrastructure and Landscapes in Pakistan’s CPEC”. The event featured speeches by high-profile academics and scholars, resulting in a valuable meeting of minds with a focus on the scope and impacts of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan. The experts hailed from a variety of disciplines and examined topics ranging from the logistics of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) to the political composition of the Pakistani state.
The series of speeches covered a breadth of pertinent issues surrounding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): institutions and governance, infrastructure and investment, environmental and social impacts, and the roles played by China and Pakistan respectively. A University of Oxford Saïd Business School academic with expertise in public sector infrastructure outlined the development effects of megaproject investments, chronicling China’s infrastructure investment boom and drawing attention to the substantial cost overruns seen in most Chinese development projects. A Chinese foreign policy expert from SOAS University of London raised the question of how much political leverage China stands to gain from its position of power in piloting CPEC.
An expert in security studies from the Royal United Services Institute clarified that the securitisation costs of CPEC’s implementation will be transferred to consumers because neither China nor Pakistan is undertaking a regional needs assessment. A professor from King’s College London delved into China’s opaque geopolitical strategy, detailing the state’s efforts to detract attention from the South China Sea while simultaneously rerouting the oil trade from the Indian Gulf through to Kashgar in Western China. The purported new routes for CPEC will extend from Kashgar across the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan over to Karachi in Sindhi, ultimately connecting to Balochistan’s deep-sea port of Gwadar.
A University of Sheffield professor assessed the security risks necessarily involved in CPEC and elaborated on a previous speaker’s Chinese foreign policy insights, namely in tracing China’s prospective plan to mitigate external hurdles to the implementation process. The dialogue then moved towards the effects on the ground in Pakistan, as a University of Oxford Scholar described the dominant military presence in Balochistan and the increased outsourcing of violent repression. The Scholar deemed CPEC an exploitative enterprise intended to socially re-engineer the region through massive displacement and further political marginalisation. A King’s College London academic closed the conference with a reminder of the very real circumstances for the Baloch, stating that there has not been a single organised gathering in Balochistan without mandated military attendance since before CPEC.
Several academics echoed concerns about land acquisition complications that will arise due to CPEC’s presence in disputed territories. More than one speaker also voiced the danger of seeing CPEC as a panacea in Pakistan, particularly while it is shrouded in energy plans and economic schemes without being tied to any policy reforms. Overall, the conference provided a platform for academics to communicate their measured insights into China’s deliberate architecture of CPEC, the implications for Pakistani governance, and the potential effects upon marginalised and indigenous communities within Pakistan who will bear the burden of this internationally-sponsored megaproject.