SHAFQAT ALI -  China aims to bring Pakistan’s rural areas at par with the cities under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as the two nations have further tightened their bond of friendship.

Beijing has a number of times asked Pakistan to settle differences among the provinces over the multi-billion-dollar project as the ‘bumper harvest’ is yet to come. Smaller provinces like Balochistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhaw had complained regularly that the CPEC was now benefitting all the provinces equally – blaming Punjab of taking away more than its share.

Last year, China itself had to intervene and ask Pakistan to remove internal differences over the CPEC to create a favourable environment for the originally $46 billion project – now swelling to more than $ 57 billion.

In a telephone interview from Beijing, Dr Lan Jianxue, Associate Research Fellow at China Institute of International Studies, said CPEC will unite Pakistan.

“Generally speaking, CPEC help connect the rural areas with some other regions in Pakistan, which will unite Pakistan as a whole. CPEC is a long-term development project that will drip benefit into the local people step by step,” he commented.

Under CPEC framework, he said, people from rural and remote areas will be more accessible to the outside world and business opportunities. “For example, China is a huge country with vast rural areas and population. After 10 years of strategy of developing the western region, China as a whole is now very well-connected with good infrastructure and broad-based industrial systems,” Dr Jianxue said.

He said the urbanization was rapid. “Of course we are facing new issues of urbanization that need to be addressed but poverty alleviation and public welfare are significantly improved,” the Chinese think-tank member said.

Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong said the CPEC was the major and pilot project of the Belt and Road Initiative. “With our joint efforts, the CPEC has entered into full implementation with tangible progress. Seventeen early harvest projects are under construction. It has become the major platform for our substantive cooperation,” he maintained.

The envoy said CPEC had made contribution to Pakistan’s economic and social development. The completion of the projects under CPEC will provide ample supply of energy and strengthen road connections across Pakistan. It will improve the economic conditions and investment environment of Pakistan.

The CPEC, he said, had played a positive role in promoting the livelihood of Pakistani people. “It has created over 10,000 jobs in different parts of Pakistan. It has also improved educational, medical and training conditions for local people. It has brought tax and tariff revenues for the federal and local governments,” the ambassador said.

“I believe that CPEC will bring positive effects to the economic and social development of Pakistan. It will promote the all-weather strategic cooperative partnership between our two brotherly countries. It will also bring benefits to the people of the region,” he added.

He said Chinese President Xi Jinping had proposed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. “It provides the important network and platform of win-win cooperation among the countries along the Belt and Road regions. It should be jointly built through consultation to meet the interests of all, and efforts should be made to integrate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and Road. It is the best reflection of the Silk Road Spirit featuring peace, cooperation, openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning and shared prosperity,” he elaborated.

He said China Overseas Ports Holding Company had completed the maintenance and upgrading work of the Port and restored its designed handling capacity. The groundbreaking ceremony of Pilot Project of Gwadar Free Zone was held three months ago. The China-Pakistan Government Primary School in Faqeer Colony was launched and now the students are enjoying their school time there.

The first joint trade convoy was successfully inaugurated recently. The Port exported a large number of containers to overseas destinations for the first time. “Gwadar Port has a unique geographic location. It will enhance the regional connectivity, economic and trade cooperation. It will be a hub to connect the land route and maritime route for the region. The Free Zone of Gwadar port will facilitate the free trade of the region,” he said.

The envoy said CPEC had made significant contribution to the promotion of livelihood of Pakistani people and will equally develop the rural and urban areas. Some political parties protested against the federal government over alleged shifting of projects under the CPEC from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Punjab.

KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak warned that the people of the province will not allow construction of the CPEC in any part of the country if its projects were shifted to Punjab. Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan also alleged that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was shifting mega projects under the CPEC to Punjab to win the next general elections.

But the government held meetings with the parties and with the Chinese intervention the provinces seem to have sorted out the main differences after assurances of justice. A Chinese Embassy official said multiple routes were considered for connectivity of urban and remote rural population of Pakistan to provide equal development opportunities.

He said in fact the rural areas across the CPEC sphere was gaining more than the urban areas. “The agenda is development of Pakistan which could also benefit China,” he remarked. The official said the Corridor was a landmark project, which would link Gwadar port with China's Xinjiang region bordering Gilgit Baltistan.

Gwadar Port Chairman Dostain Jamaldini said the representation of all provinces in the last meeting in Beijing was positive and gave a message that “we are united on CPEC”.

He said economic benefits of CPEC will be transferred to the people of all fields, adding Balochistan province had 44% of total area of Pakistan and will benefit more as compared to other provinces through CPEC. He was optimistic the Gwadar port will be among the busiest and deepest ports in the world. Jamaldini said the government had initiated a number of projects for the youth of Balochistan.

CPEC expert Major General Zahir Shah (retd) said industrial parks and economic zones will be established in all the provinces under the CPEC projects. “CPEC is the project of peace and prosperity. Our main aim is to improve regional cooperation and economic development. It is a win-win project,” he said.

Mr Shah said Pakistan and China are bound in a steel-like bond and their friendship is ever green. “CPEC will develop our villages like cities,” he hoped.