China ‘perturbed’ on being left out of Saudi inclusion in CPEC


—Pakistan didn’t consult China before including of KSA despite China assuring they were open to changes

—Both countries agreed to keep CPEC a bilateral affair till 2020

—Official says China agreed to open CPEC for the inclusion of Afghanistan in 2017

—Says Pakistan included KSA as the situation in Afghanistan not improving

ISLAMABAD: China feels ‘perturbed’ and ‘overlooked’ as Imran Khan-led government is unilaterally finalising modalities for the inclusion of one of it’s another strategic partner, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), in the multi-billion-dollar project, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Background interviews and interactions with officials linked to the CPEC have revealed that Pakistan had not even consulted the Chinese leadership over the inclusion of Saudi Arabia despite the fact that China was the principal party in the economic corridor project.

CPEC is a bilateral agreement between Pakistan and China under which China had initially pledged to invest the US $46 billion in various energy, infrastructure and industrial projects. Later, the portfolio of CPEC was added up with the addition of five additional mass transit projects including Orange Line Metro besides Mass Transit Systems in Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta.

CPEC has been the biggest Chinese investment overseas and it has changed the overall perception of Pakistan within a year as almost all international economic monitors and international financial institutions have started to reflect Pakistan as one of the few emerging economies of the world with the potential to challenge regional and global players.

However, ever since the PTI-led government took charge in August, officials linked with CPEC are reluctant to speak to media due to its sensitive nature and the change of guard.

Eminent CPEC expert and Pakistan, China Institute Chairman Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed told Pakistan Today that China only came to know about the Saudi Arabia’s addition to the project through media as the PTI government did not take Beijing on board prior to making a formal offer to King Salman to join the CPEC.

“The Chinese learnt about the inclusion of Saudi Arabia from the media announcement made by the Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry,” said the PML-N leader, who is known for close association with the Chinese leadership.

“While CPEC’s expansion was already on the cards, there should have been prior consultations between Islamabad and Beijing on the inclusion of Saudi Arabia,” he added.

Although CPEC is all about regional connectivity, it is imperative that China is taken on board on all important decisions. Thus, given this context and the flip-flops of the regime, the parliament and Pakistan Army are now the principal stakeholders and guarantors of CPEC, according to Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed.

Chinese Ambassador Yao Jing also dropped a hint on Beijing being kept out of the loop by Pakistan on Saudi venture, telling a news agency on Sunday that China was open to the changes proposed in CPEC by Prime Minister Imran Khan-led government and “will definitely follow their agenda” to work out a roadmap for BRI projects based on “mutual consultation”.

“It constitutes a process of discussion with each other about this kind of model, about this kind of roadmap for the future,” the Chinese ambassador said.

However, an official requesting anonymity told Pakistan Today that initially, Pakistan and China had agreed in 2015 that the CPEC would remain under bilateral framework till 2020 – the time till the early harvest projects of the CPEC could mature.

The official said that despite being a bilateral project, China agreed in 2017 to open the CPEC for the inclusion of Afghanistan as a third party, making it a trilateral affair. But it was also decided that Afghanistan’s joining of the CPEC would be discussed threadbare mutually by Pakistan and China.

“The situation in Afghanistan is far from improving; therefore, Pakistan has decided to include Saudi Arabia in the project. Now since Saudi Arabia is already inching towards China, Beijing would have no worries. Beijing, however, is worried the way Islamabad is acting i.e. keeping China out of the loop on the framework and modalities being discussed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia,” the official said.

When asked in categorical terms whether China was kept out of the loop on Pak-Saudi venture, the official said that Beijing was contacted neither directly or indirectly to even brief what was being discussed between the two countries.

“As China is principle stakeholder in the CPEC, Pakistan should have sought its approval over the Saudi inclusion,” the official said. He added that during his recent visit, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had signalled Beijing’s eagerness to work with the new government in Islamabad.

“He had even said that Beijing was open to a third party’s inclusion as well but all Islamabad needs to do is to discuss the matter first with the Chinese,” the official said.

Former Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal told Pakistan Today that Pakistan and China were strategic partners in the CPEC and each of them had the right to include a third party to the CPEC with mutual consultation.

“We hoped that the federal government would take China on board before offering Saudi Arabia membership of the CPEC,” he said.

“But if the government did not take China on board, I fear they [PTI government] are going to embarrass all the three partners i.e. Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia. We hope it does not happen,” he added.
The former minister also said that there are investment opportunities in the CPEC for any third country.

“Saudi Arabia can also join CPEC as investment partner like we have Qatar in Port Qasim Power Plant,” he said.

However, Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry had last month said that Pakistan has taken China into confidence over Saudi Arabia joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project as a strategic partner.

Fawad said this while responding to a tweet by former planning minister and PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal, who asked whether Beijing had been taken on board before formally inviting Riyadh to join the mega venture.

“Has China been taken into confidence? CPEC is a bilateral project in which induction of any other country has to have [the] concurrence of both sides,” Iqbal wrote.

In response, Fawad said that Chinese assent had been sought and that the “expansion of CPEC is in the interest of China and Pakistan.”

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader and former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani also blamed the government of trying to “weaken the CPEC”.

Questioning if China was taken into confidence before bringing Saudi Arabia into the CPEC, he asked, “If taken in the loop, what did China say about the matter?”

Rabbani said the parliament too should have been taken into confidence before inviting Saudi Arabia to become the third partner in CPEC and said that no statement was issued from the prime minister, except that Saudi Arabia had been offered to set up an oil refinery in Gwadar.

Senator Mushahid Hussain believed that there have been a number of missteps by the present regime vis-a-vis China.

“The list is long though, but Imran Khan’s failing to mention CPEC in his maiden speech, statements by ministers calling for a review of CPEC projects, particularly PM’s advisor’s irresponsible remarks, then the remarks attributed to another minister regarding Xinjiang, so much so that the army chief had to go personally to Beijing to reassure President Xi Jinping about CPEC,” said Senator Mushahid Hussain.

Pakistan Today contacted Planning Minister Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar to inquire whether China was consulted before making an offer to Saudi Arabia. The minister, however, did not respond to the messages sent to him.

When contacted, CPEC project director in planning ministry, Hassan Dawood Butt, said that he was in a meeting with Saudi Arabian delegation. Later, however, his cell phone was switched off when Pakistan Today contacted him again.

Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry also did not respond to the attempts made to contact him.

Moreover, the Chinese embassy’s spokesperson also remained unavailable to comment owing to the ongoing vacations on their national day.