Sep 07, 2018

Congressional Conference Discusses CPEC and the Future of US-Pakistan Relations

On 6 September 2018, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) convened a conference on the challenges connected to the implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the project’s implications for US-Pakistan relations. Taking place at the US Congress, the event saw contributions by Hermann Kreutzmann (Professor of Human Geography at Freie Universität Berlin), Madiha Afzal (Nonresident Fellow at Brookings Institution) and Michael Kugelman (Senior Associate for South Asia at Wilson Center).

The conference was opened by UNPO Program Manager Fernando Burgés who, after introducing UNPO to the audience, drew attention to the importance of the issue raised by the conference and mentioned that -  while CPEC is an issue that is covered by academia and regional news outlets – the infrastructure project has so far generated only limited debate among policy-makers outside the region.

Prof Dr Hermann Kreutzmann (Freie Universität Berlin) elaborated on the circumstances around CPEC and the larger infrastructure and economic framework it is a part of, the Silk Road Initiative. While presenting the economic impacts and manifestations of the project, Prof Kreutzmann also painted a picture of the challenges related to its implementation, such as the neglect of minorities and remote areas, the growing dependency on China and the concentration of development funds on only limited corridor areas. Prof. Kreutzmann drew particular attention to the effects the project’s implementation has on the situation of minorities in Pakistan, including the people in Gilgit-Baltistan. A multi-ethnic region, home to numerous languages and religious sects, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan will be disproportionately affected by CPEC, many of whose sub-projects will be located in the region (Karakoram Highway, Maqpoondas Special Economic Zone, etc.). Prof Kreutzmann reminded the audience that the political disenfranchisement of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan dates back several decades and, to this day, contributes to rising tensions while, at the same time, Islamabad claims that it is in its “national interest” and due to “diplomatic obligations” that Gilgit-Baltistan is deliberately kept in a state of constitutional limbo.

In her talk, Madiha Afzal (Brookings Institution) laid out the findings she collected in her book “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State”, elaborating in particular on the perception of the United States within the Pakistani population. While mentioning that, after 2002, unfavourable views among Pakistanis towards the United States never fell below 50 percent – evidence of a base level of mistrust going back to the historical roots of the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s – Ms Afzal stressed that this number fluctuates significantly and is subject to influences by current events, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, US drone strikes on Pakistani territory and, more broadly, a perceived rapprochement between India and the US. Stressing that a social-religious anti-Americanism as well as a bias in non-secondary education material further contribute to anti-American sentiments among the broader population, Ms Afzal concluded that the resulting mistrust and the feeling of having been abandoned by the US make Islamabad turn to countries who are much more positively regarded by Pakistanis, namely Muslim countries and China.

Picking up on this aspect and connecting the points made in the two previous talks, Michael Kugelman (Wilson Center) further elaborated on the current state of the US-Pakistan relationship and then related it to CPEC and the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan. Referring to the “strange” nature of their relationship and vastly different expectations, priorities, interests in the wider region lead to mistrust and tensions, he pointed out that – despite these differences – US-Pakistan relations have survived with a fair amount of cooperation, in particular as regards security concerns in the region. Continuing that the US had raised concerns over the broader ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative and its impact on “disputed territories”, Mr Kugelman pointed out that the US had, so far, failed to specifically make reference to CPEC and its impact on the situation of Gilgit-Baltistan. He stressed that, ultimately, how the US perceives and views CPEC will depend on the type of lens that the US applies to CPEC. According to him, from a strictly economic lens, US policymakers may be inclined to look favourably on CPEC, given that – in theory! – the envisioned outcomes of CPEC, (such as, ultimately, increased stability) align very closely with US interests in Pakistan. Mr Kugelman concluded that from a purely strategic view point, however, the US is not at all likely to support CPEC, given that “it is a case of the US’ biggest strategic rival deepening its foot print in a country that is critical to US interest”.

Following a short discussion between the panelists and members of the audience, UNPO Programme Manager Fernando Burgés concluded the conference by pointing out that UNPO’s regards it as an ongoing project to raise awareness of the implications of CPEC which too often is looked at through an economic or geo-strategic lens – to the detriment of local communities who bear the brunt of the project’s negative impacts. Stressing that UNPO’s goal is to widen the current debate, Mr Burgés stressed that it should be in the interest of both policy-makers in the US and the South-East Asia region to put a peaceful solution to the Gilgit-Baltistan question at the heart of their dialogue.