KARACHI — Pakistan is set to pass legislation that would place a supranational body that oversees the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of Chinese President ’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, under control of a Pakistan Army that would also gain sweeping powers.

A parliamentary committee earlier this month passed the CPEC Authority Bill 2020 despite strong opposition from some lawmakers. According to Junaid Akbar, chairman of the parliamentary committee, the bill will be presented to parliament for a final vote in the second week of December.

Pakistan’s government under Prime Minister Imran Khan and the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, considered to be aligned with the interests of the army, had been working for months to get the draft bill through the committee. The proposed law seeks to reinstate the controversial CPEC Authority — which has been defunct since the expiry of a presidential order in May.

If enacted, the legislation will shift control of CPEC projects from the planning and development ministry run by a civilian bureaucracy to the CPEC Authority headed by retired army Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa. In addition, Bajwa would report directly to the prime minister instead of the ministry and replace the planning minister as co-chair of a Pakistan-China joint committee.

Despite the lapse of the presidential order, Bajwa has continued to preside over the CPEC Authority as chairman, a situation that has led opposition legislators to question the legality of his position. In a briefing to the committee, the planning ministry denied having a CPEC Authority chairman; it also denied that it gives Bajwa any salary or perks.

Pakistan Army set to gain sweeping Belt and Road authority Retired Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa is on the verge of gaining the power to launch investigations into any officeholder he deems as not cooperating with the CPEC Authority.   © Getty Images

Outside observers say the machinations reveal a military that is asserting itself as the elected government endeavors to find its footing.

“The civilian leadership [under Khan and PTI], which had never held national power until winning the 2018 election, has struggled with public policy on multiple levels,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, told Nikkei Asia. “This move can be seen in part as a military power play to assert more influence over a key project that it believes it is better qualified to oversee.

“In Pakistan, retired military officers often remain close to their former employer, and the military is able to exert influence through these retired [officers]. So, while Gen. Bajwa is officially reporting to the civilian leadership, one can’t discount the influence that his former bosses will wield over his decisions and actions.”

The CPEC Authority was initially formed in 2019 by a presidential order that bypassed parliament, immediately before Prime Minister Imran Khan headed to China for the third time in a year to appease China over lack of progress along the economic corridor.

Pakistan Army set to gain sweeping Belt and Road authority Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, greets Chinese President in Beijing in October 2019, right after a presidential order created the CPEC Authority. (Photo courtesy of Government of Pakistan) 

CPEC projects were stalled for months after Khan took power in 2018, mainly due to graft allegations regarding the previous government’s handling of the projects. There were also allegations that the deals unfairly benefited Beijing. Khan’s government struggled to cope with twin deficits and unsustainable external debt. Before his election, the former cricketer had been a vocal critic of the corridor, citing a lack of transparency.

But with Bajwa at the helm and Khan now making CPEC a cornerstone of his development plans for Pakistan, CPEC power generation and transportation projects have taken off.

Since its inception, the CPEC Authority has drawn flak from opposition parties, mainly the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party, which advocate for the strengthening of existing civilian institutions involved in the CPEC.

The parties aligned against the bill have also mounted brazen opposition to the army’s role in politics. They have organized rallies across the country under an alliance called the Pakistan Democratic Movement, alleging that the ruling PTI has framed them under fake corruption cases with the backing of the army.

Pakistan Army set to gain sweeping Belt and Road authority Supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement wave flags as they listen to their leaders during an anti-government protest rally in Karachi on Oct. 18, 2020.   © Reuters

The proposed law is controversial on two counts: It grants legal immunity to CPEC Authority officials, making them unaccountable for the tens of billions of dollars to be spent on corridor projects and putting them outside the purview of Pakistani courts. In addition, the bill stipulates that if a public officeholder does not cooperate with the CPEC Authority, the chairman will have the power to order an investigation into the officeholder.

“The lack of oversight and regulation by civilian authorities is worrisome, as this allows the CPEC Authority to operate with impunity and to not be accountable to elected officials,” Kugelman said. “Some may argue that taking the CPEC portfolio away from an inexperienced civilian leadership and putting it in the military’s hands will make CPEC policy more efficient. That may be so, but it also makes CPEC policy more undemocratic.”

“The military wanted CPEC authority when the project started [in 2015], but the PML-N government was against it,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the University of London’s SOAS South Asia Institute who has written extensively about the Pakistan Army’s business interests. “They were of the idea that the authority would add to additional bureaucracy. Now, the CPEC Authority [under the army’s control] is established to streamline the military’s share and control.”

According to the official website of the Pakistan Army, the Frontier Works Organization, the army’s construction and engineering arm, “has constructed 3,797 km of roads” in the past 30 years, “besides preparing 8 completely new and up-gradating 11 airfields.”

Said Siddiqa: The FWO “has contracts for building roads as part of the CPEC, and has also registered interest in copper mining. So, any mining that will happen under CPEC’s rubric, the FWO will benefit.”

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