Game-Changer or Military’s New Boon: CPEC as a Tool of Societal and Economic Interference

Perspective By Divya Anand* and Monica Verma**


The military establishment is Pakistan is not only showing a preference for CPEC for sustenance and survival but it has also become a tool for the military to increase its existing stronghold over the economy.

Pakistan has emerged as a classic case study of being a praetorian state ever since its emergence with continual flip-flops of civilian and military rule. Overtime the military has assumed a predominant role as the sole guardian of the national sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan. This elite institution has not only controlled the important policy imperatives including national security, defence and external relations but has also consolidated power either directly or indirectly in the domestic political channels of Pakistan including its society and economy. A case in point is the mega-project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor worth $46 billion and consisting of numerous infrastructure projects to “deepen” economic ties between China and Pakistan. This economic corridor will connect China’s largest province Xinjiang, passing through Pakistan occupied Kashmir, with Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan.

Many protagonists of the project have highlighted the economic and geo-political benefits of CPEC for Pakistan in the strategically important South-Asian region. They argue that it will upgrade Pakistan’s overall stature, notwithstanding the undermining of internal political dynamics in favour of the military institution by entrenching its role and scope even at the societal level. There emerges a contradiction impacting the democratic façade of the country- on the one hand, one witnessed the smooth transfer of power to another civilian dispensation under the leadership of Imran Khan; on the other hand, there emerged an indirect increased role of the military through CPEC as the promoters of economic and infrastructure development. For instance, for the successful implementation the project, there is an increasing “militarization” of Balochistan’s coastal belt. Considering it to be an over-lapping economic-cum-national security priority, the Pakistani military has deployed a large number of police and paramilitary officers, a Special Security Division, comprised of 15,580 army personnel and the Maritime Security Force, to protect CPEC projects and the Chinese workers. Such a move in a province already reeling under a continuing hardened tussle between the Baloch nationalists and the Army, adds on to the Army’s already increased military presence and oppression to suppress the genuine demands of Baloch’s social, economic, and political autonomy and their sense of alienation. It is alleged that since 2003, more than 23,000 students, lawyers, women, journalists, writers and human rights activists have faced forceful disappearances by the Pakistani army and its death squads. It is pertinent to mention that the duplicity of the Pakistani Army is noticeable again in two stages through which it has enhanced its influence and autonomy in the province. On one hand, the Army continues to use its “strategic assets” i.e. non-state actors to deal with sub-national movements and on the other, it has recently carried out a military operation in Balochistan under the broad banner of “Operation Radd-ul-Fassad”, to garner and consolidate the gains of the previous military operations. Such attempts to achieve both the unity and the elimination of terror risks in the province and Pakistan at large can be linked to achieve the smooth functioning of the CPEC in a “terror free Pakistan.” By projecting CPEC as a successful hunch, the Pakistani Army has in a subtle manner increased its presence impacting Balochistan even at the societal level by accelerating the local alienation further. This is also done by carrying out strict security surveillance and control of the locals by the Army and various intelligence agencies impinging on the dignity of the individuals and undermining the particularity of its socio-cultural fabric.

The increased interference of the military in the garb of CPEC is not limited to a societal level alone. In fact, it has also helped the military establishment spread its tentacles over the economic policymaking in Pakistan. Any decision to undertake trade and investment relations with external economies are not taken on the basis of a rational cost and benefit analysis but on the basis of the military’s own interests as a commercial actor. The military continues to be not just the richest land owner in Pakistan but it is also the largest capital owner in the country with a net worth of more than USD 20 billion.

The extent of Pakistani military’s control over the economy is not limited to domestic sphere alone. It has become an important stakeholder in decisions related to the international trade and investment of Pakistan as well. In a series of interviews for our respective PhD research projects that were conducted with the stakeholders in Pakistan’s economy it was revealed that military actors in Pakistan have always cautioned against liberalizing trade with India with the fear that a pro-India lobby might emerge within Pakistan. The business community also recalled how behind closed doors political actors help them count the benefits of opening trade with neighboring economies such as India but in public, they play to the gallery and demands for liberal trade ties are never met. The very act of Pakistani military throwing its weight behind the CPEC is again a result of its security calculations where CPEC is being seen as a game changer one that can help Pakistan overcome its economic crisis and develop economically with help from all-weather ally China. As a result, Pakistani Army acted swiftly in covering up the graft allegations in CPEC after Panama leaks in order to make sure that it does not become a casualty of the exposé. A reiteration of this is the fact that the investments under CPEC were initially sought by the civilian leadership under Ex-PM Nawaz Sharif. However, military is quickly taking over the projects with even China showing more acceptance for the same.

The military establishment is Pakistan is not only showing a preference for CPEC for sustenance and survival but it has also become a tool for the military to increase its existing stronghold over the economy. Ayesha Siddiqa in her book, “Military Inc” notes that the governments have encouraged the commercial interests of the military over the private enterprise. Subsidies and awarding of contracts are two ways in which government strengthens monopolistic tendencies of the military commercial establishment at the cost of the private sector players , she notes. CPEC has come as a step in a similar direction. The strategy employed by the military to overtake CPEC control from civilian leadership is same as the one which it has been using to gain control over domestic and foreign policymaking. It first raises a rhetoric of security to seek a formal role in the execution of the projects and then bypasses the civilian government and makes sure that the decision-making power comes to rest with the military-bureaucratic complex. Military so far has been very effective in increasing its stake in the economy through the CPEC.

At the institutional level military’s commercial interests have been organized into three key economic entities- Frontier Works Organization (FWO), Special Communications Organization (SCO) and National Logistics Cell (NLC). All three of them are a part of the projects under CPEC.

Sometimes the need to rope in these entities owned by the military arises mainly due to concerns around security. For instance, the contract to build the Gwadar-Ratodero motorway was initially awarded to a Chinese construction firm but due to death of their engineers in a car blast, it was finally awarded to FWO which despite high number of casualties in militant attacks was able to complete the project in 2017. But the awarding of contracts through the so-called ‘open bidding’ process is also not free from allegations of favouritism. Recently funding to three major CPEC road projects was stopped by China over issue of corruption and a set of new guidelines were to be drafted. However, it is believed that it was just a ploy to benefit the military’s engineering and construction arm, FWO.

Similarly, NLC which is the most reputed fleet operator in the country has become the nodal agency for execution of the National Trucking Policy, as a part of which it is undertaking an NLC Drivers and Emergency Rest Areas (DERA) project to set up parking and resting facilities at major locations just off the national highways.

CPEC is reinforcing the very cocktail of suppression of human rights and consolidation of military’s control over the country’s societal fabric that has so far dominated the history of Pakistan. Case in point is the Thar Coal field project. It was heralded as a solution to Pakistan’s grave energy problem when coal was discovered in the Thar desert in 1991. The quality of the coal deposit already ranks low thus the damage to the environment would be considerable in generating power using this new-found resource. At the same time, the project led to protests from the indigenous Thari community over damage to local ecology. The project is a part of CPEC but is being executed by a joint venture between Sindh Government and Engro Corporation. The security of the project has been ensured by the Special Security Division- a 15000 strong additional troops raised for the purpose of securing CPEC projects. In fact, Maj. Gen. Ahsan Gulrez, commanding officer of the SSD has stated in clear terms that any attempt to obstruct the progress of CPEC projects will be crushed during a visit to the coalmines.

CPEC might be herald as a game-changer by the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan alike. However even a cursory analysis reveals that it based on the very power dynamics that have dominated Pakistan’s political economy till now. The fact that China has a preference for authoritarian setup is a very worrying trend, one that will have ramifications for the entire region of South Asia.

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