At the recently held third Think Tank Roundtable Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia (CICA) in Shanghai, issues such as China-US relations, Afghanistan, non-traditional security threats and a new Asian security paradigm topped the discussions. Much of the discussion moved around the One Belt One Road (OBOR) notion that President Xi Jinping has turned into China’s flagship project. Most participants looked at the OBOR as a game-changer for the region, a concept that envisages a win-win situation for all through road, rail and maritime connectivity. They looked at this ambitious project as a consequence of China’s internal stability and economic development that has lent it enormous soft power.
Some looked at this project as Chinese expansion headed westwards. Others were skeptical about China’s capacity. They questioned whether its “over-drive” in getting heavily involved in the realization of three economic corridors could get out of control. Participants from Central Asian states also wondered whether isolated economic models can guarantee success of grand visions such as the OBOR. Its success, they pointed out, depended on equitable development of all regions that are connected by this concept.
The Roundtables and the CICA conferences involving scholars, experts and officials from all over Asia are held to garner international consensus on how Asian countries should take the management of security and conflicts in their own hands rather than being dependent on Nato. In this context, some delegates also questioned whether the insurgency in Afghanistan and militancy in parts of Pakistan would allow the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Professor Xing Guangcheng, director of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies at the China Academy of Social Sciences, pleaded for an institutional mechanism where Asian countries and major powers outside Asia can communicate with one another. It is, he underlined, a multipurpose idea which should not be seen as Asia-specific. The CICA should be seen as a means for dialogue on security issues both in and outside Asia.
There was an across-the-board unanimity on the need for dealing with threats to societies, including challenges emanating from bad governance, absence of rule of law, trans-border religious radicalism, the nexus between organized crime and ideological rebel groups (al Qaeda, the IS, Taliban), water and food insecurity and mass migration due to social or economic adversity.
The participants also welcomed the Chinese lead in the Afghan reconciliation process. Most scholars argued that cooperation among China, the US and Pakistan on Afghanistan should be expanded to include Iran, India and Russia because such collaborative regional engagement can be key to the economic corridors that aim at connecting western China with Gawadar or other ports on the Arabian Sea, or with Europe through the Euro-Asia corridor.
Chinese scholars were welcoming of what they called “Pakistan’s generous willingness to facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process”. However, skepticism also accompanied such exuberance. The expectations that Afghans have of Pakistan go beyond what is stated in public. For them, President Ashraf Ghani’s overtures to Pakistan mean little.
Some Chinese participants also alluded to the controversy currently raging over the alleged changes in the CPEC. A couple of them had visited Gawadar last month and sounded skeptical about the project’s future.
Though buoyed by the promise of $46 billion worth of investment, the PML-N government bears a huge responsibility in fostering a national consensus on the CPEC route, and also in expediting construction or up-gradation of whatever is necessary to kick-start the work on the CPEC, which has indeed become the envy of many countries in the region. The advice from Chinese friends is unequivocally clear and categorical: develop consensus on the proposed CPEC and start walking the talk. You may miss the bus otherwise.
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad
This article was first published in The Express Tribune, a leading daily of Pakistan. Click here to go to the original.