Since its announcement in April 2015, the $54.5 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has helped South Asia’s second-largest economy achieve consecutive 4 percent-plus annual GDP growth rate year-on-year, expand its State Bank-held foreign exchange reserves from $11.61 billion in March 2015 to $16.37 billion in June 2017, and is expected to create 2.32 million jobs in Pakistan by the end of 2018. However, as Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Pakistan rose 3.4 times in two years while U.S. FDI into Islamabad fell 500 percent, the project has also attracted a growing amount of noise. Some critics, most notably Dr. C. Christine Fair in an article published on the website of Foreign Policy on July 3rd, have gone so far as to suggest that CPEC has left a surging nation in “unserviceable debt”, and that its ultimate aim is to set up a Chinese naval base off the coast of Gwadar.


This cannot be further from the truth. In a way, blaming CPEC for magnifying Islamabad’s debt burdens and security troubles can be likened to accusing China’s vastly popular bike-rental startups of spreading communism. The claims are equally cynical. Granted, many rented-bike rides in China are free thanks to the subsidies of the industry’s top two players, neither of which has released profitability projections. But the Chinese bike-sharing economy is, at the core, a tale of how a few private firms with a bigger mindset boldly took the initiative to build and capture a market that has become increasingly chaotic for policymakers. For CPEC, despite key facilitation between multiple government bodies in both Beijing and Islamabad, the project’s overarching incentive is also economic in nature, and its contributions thus far in aiding a nation long ridden by chronic energy shortages and militant insurgency have been well acknowledged. Simply because no apples-to-apples comparisons exist for these scenarios doesn’t lend strength to the contention that Pakistanis “should be worried” about CPEC.


That said, however, CPEC is a never-before-seen project for China and Pakistan alike, as is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of which it serves as an integral part. And as such, it is bound to draw speculation, perhaps most intuitively and profoundly from institutions and analysts for whom understanding China as a problem solver rather than a troublemaker have always presented an enormous challenge. If anything, such is precisely the reason all stakeholders should come together for candid exchanges in these open initiatives.


Beijing isn’t and will never be part of any power bloc. CPEC and BRI as a whole are thus uniquely placed to boost inter-regional development. Only last month, on June 29, the 80-member Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) received the highest credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service. The lending agency, of which India is the second largest stakeholder, serves the very purpose of supporting sustainable development of Asian economies through infrastructure investment, and can therefore play a vital role in both endeavors. In this context, New Delhi’s reservation on, if not outright opposition of CPEC and BRI and its attempts at linking Iran’s Chabahar Port with Afghanistan without engaging Pakistan or China are highly regrettable.


According to the Stockholm-based think tank International Peace Research Institute, Indian opposition to CPEC reflects its concern over the internationalization of the Kashmir issue and China’s growing clout in the Indian Ocean. While Mehbooba Mufti, leader of India-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, may have repeatedly endorsed CPEC, from where Beijing stands, the Kashmir issue and CPEC are completely separate. China’s stance on either issue does not affect its position on the other, and the ball is in India’s court to join CPEC and BRI.


Indeed, neither CPEC nor BRI can be accomplished without vibrant cross-border synergies. This was incidentally the theme of a recent international symposium in Beijing, which focused on reconnecting Afghanistan into the region under renewed opportunities made possible by BRI. Officials, scholars and corporate executives from all sides, including India and the U.S., discussed extensively about the ways in which, for example, Iran’s Chabahar Port and Pakistan’s Gwadar Port are compatible with each other and can be used to boost the economy and build trust between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.


At the same time, in spite of consistently successful operations by the Pakistani military against extremist insurgents since 2014, security challenges from Kabul to Karachi continue to loom large. Year 2016 saw a total of 441 terrorist attacks across Pakistan, which caused 908 fatalities, compared to the 1,717 attacks that killed 2,451 people in 2013, the year BRI was unveiled. But to an extent, ethnic and sectarian violence in Pakistan worsened in the first half of this year. Specifically, the purported abduction and subsequent killing of two Chinese nationals in Quetta last month, allegedly at the hands of Islamic State extremists, drew considerable public attention in China, to the point that the Chinese foreign ministry responded to questions related to the incident on 14 different occasions in 10 days.


In addition to the threat of Islamic militants, the socioeconomic roots of structural extremism can hardly go unnoticed. While China believes in peace through development, tribal regions in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, for instance, are dramatically different and require innovative indigenous methodologies to nurture and foster positive social change. Given the multilateral nature of BRI and CPEC, the role of local institutions is paramount in these efforts. That is, while both initiatives can be seen as a means to boost institutional capacities, it is local agencies and stakeholders who must take concerted efforts and spearhead the action.


And as far as economics are concerned, as is the case with any grand initiative, there are short- and long-term implications, as well as short- and long-term winners. For the time being, the sectors of infrastructure and energy would appear to have benefited the most. On July 3, the 1,320-megawatt Sahiwal Coal Power Plant, CPEC’s first mega initiative, was completed in a record-22 months. The project will generate 9 billion KWH of power per year, and meet the energy needs of 10 million Pakistanis. Across Pakistan, similar projects, including the 660-megawatt Thar Coal-fired Power Plant Project in Sindh, the 870 megawatt Suki Kinari Hydropower Project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Gwadar Port and Free Trade Zone – vital elements of CPEC – in Balochistan, are also set to demonstrate tangible progress. Surely there isn’t and can hardly ever be an even spread of projects among all regions, in Pakistan or elsewhere. If China’s own reform experiences are any indication, there is a process through which concrete benefits are felt by different communities. In the long term, everybody wins. For China, those in the coastal provinces were generally the first to reap the fruits of reform, followed by inhabitants of the more inland areas. While China’s reform cannot be replicated as is, the Chinese naturally perceive Gwadar as a new Shenzhen on the horizon – in a positive commercial sense. The success of Shenzhen, a fishing town of 314,000 people in 1979that’s become an urban metropolis of 10 million-plus residents with a $300 billion GDP in 2016, is deeply entrenched in Chinese collective memory as companies flock to Gwadar; meanwhile, the practice of establishing overseas naval outposts and stationing troops in a foreign country are alien and inconceivable concepts to China, which remains a constitutionally anti-imperialist, anti-hegemonic and anti-colonial state.


Cross-border trade facilitation through BRI necessitates the promotion of connectivity and relies upon stable governance and economic environments. Putting up highways, railways, fiber optic cables and pipelines is the easier step in this unprecedented process; the hard part is getting countries of each region to focus on their mutual interests and put aside seemingly irreconcilable differences. The yet harder problem is addressing speculation and disturbance at a time of rising nationalist sentiment and global extremism. But for China, the overall logic is simple, and the path ahead is clear. One may recall the famous quote from Rolf Hochhuth: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” As frustrating as it may be for external observers witnessing China’s rise, Beijing exports no Bible and seeks no land. Most of its overseas projects are market-oriented, or in other words, more “capitalistic” than altruistic. Its intention is never to “manage” or “contain” any nation, but to engage all in common development. In this sense, understanding CPEC and BRI requires overcoming the Cold War mentality, embracing potentially complementing visions, and sharing resources. And if China’s bike-sharing scheme offers a one-of-a-kind experience where bicycles can be picked up and left anywhere and the model can still be viable commercially, leaving bystanders baffled, why can’t the broader model of sharing economy that is BRI and CPEC work out just the same?


The writer is a fellow with the National Institute  of Strategic Communication at Peking University   in Beijing, China.