Pakistani army to sideline Islamabad over China’s $62bn infrastructural project

China is pressuring the Pakistani army to impose a hybrid martial law to speed up the pace of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative in the country. Will workers’ democratic rights of strike, freedom of association, and collective bargain be safe?

Pakistani military seeks greater control over China’s $62bn infrastructural project “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) in the country.

The army, with close ties with Beijing, is muscling Pakistani government out China’s BRI project in the country with a bill that will cede more responsibility to the army to implement the project.

Although the army would still report to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, the bill will give the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority greater autonomy from Islamabad while carving out a position for the army, which has already taken over control of CPEC in 2019 through a presidential ordinance that bypassed parliament, to speed up the pace of construction.

According to a draft document of the legislation seen by the Financial Time, “the CPEC Authority shall be responsible for conceiving, implementing, expanding, enforcing, controlling, regulating, coordinating, monitoring, evaluating and carrying out all activities” related to the corridor.

The manoeuvre, labelled as hybrid martial law according to SOAS’s research associate Ayesha Siddiqa, threatens to weaken the civilian government, as well as posing serious concerns over labour and human rights as the Army will have the power to call off workers’ democratic rights to strike and freedom association and collective bargain.

The bill comes after Islamabad approved the most expensive CPEC project yet, a railway upgrade worth $6.8bn to be largely financed by China, hydropower projects worth $3.9bn to be built in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and again financed by Beijing, and after Islamabad has deferred a probe (and consequential talks to delay payments) that accused Chinese and local power companies of misrepresentation of interest payments. Imran Khan himself had convened the committee to report on overcharging set-up costs for Huaneng Shandong Ruyi (Pakistan) Energy coal plant and Port Qasim Electric Power Company’s by more than Rs32bn ($204m).

While supporters of the CPEC argue that it will kick-start Pakistan’s economy at a time when Islamabad is struggling to attract international investors, it is no doubt true that the CPEC gives China access to the Gwadar port in the south of Pakistan, which is close to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route for oil-producing nations, therefore extending China’s influence over the region.

On the other hand, opponents of the CPEC (among which western powers) argue that it is only a debt trap that will leave Islamabad in thrall to Beijing. The warning is well-grounded as employing the army to manage the construction of infrastructure in strategic location such as Iraq’s oil fields was a tactic employed by the US and the UK to control the oil market, its infrastructure and delaying democratic claims abroad.

What is known for sure is the vast swaths of Pakistan’s economy the army controls through military-linked corporations, such as the Fauji Foundation. In this regard, three army-run companies – the Frontier Works Organization, the National Logistics Cell and the Special Communications Organization — have already won lucrative CPEC contracts.

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