Pakistani newspapers as well as foreign media outlets have been all agog recently with the news of investment promised by the Chinese President on his recent visit to Islamabad. A total of $46 billion has been pledged by the Chinese as they look to build a trade corridor from western China down the Karakoram Highway, through Pakistan, and to the port of Gwadar on the coast. To put that figure into context, it is three times larger than the total sum of foreign aid received by Pakistan over the last decade. It is, to use the appropriate economic term, An Awful Lot Of Money.
The list of proposed projects is immense: expanding the Karakoram Highway, the road that leads through the northern mountains to the Chinese border; building the world’s largest solar power plant; expanding roads all the way through Pakistan; building a railway to China (which, as it happens, would pass through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet); and adding enough megawatts to Pakistan’s power capacity to remove the power cuts that plague Pakistan. Frankly, if even half of these projects come to fruition Pakistan’s infrastructure will be completely changed.
Your correspondent sincerely hopes that this will come to pass. Yet it’s also worth pausing to consider something that has occupied my mind over the last few weeks: why is it that major infrastructure projects in Pakistan only happen with foreign investment?
Think about it. The Grand Trunk Road, the epic road that crosses the subcontinent linking Kabul with Bangladesh, was built by Sher Shah Suri, an Afghan.
Pakistan’s railway network was built by the British (and hasn’t been significantly upgraded since).
Pakistan’s excellent motorways were built by the Koreans.
The Karakoram Highway was initiated and built by the Chinese.
This new project, of unprecedented scale, falls into this category too. History tells us that Pakistani infrastructure projects on any significant scale only happen when foreigners stump up the money and come up with the idea.
The reason for this goes right back to one of the main challenges faced by Pakistan: as a country, it is too divided. Pakistan is diverse in every conceivable way: geographically, culturally, linguistically, religiously, you name it. An Ismaili from Hunza has little, if anything, in common with a Deobandi from Multan or a Shi’a Hazara from Quetta. A significant chunk of the Pakistani population tends to be more concerned with their own personal networks than with any broader notions of national identity. Pakistan is, in some ways, rather artificial: a 70 year old construct slapped down onto a land that dates back thousands and thousands of years. The religious, social, cultural and historical currents that ebb and flow through this land are far, far older than any idea of Pakistani national identity.
The idea of creating any national-scale infrastructure projects requires people to think far beyond their own personal networks, to envision a nation for nearly two hundred million people. The mental shift required to make this happen (and to consider other elements of statehood such as paying taxes) has not really taken place in any meaningful way. Perhaps that’s not surprising: Pakistan is not yet 70 years old, and 70 years, in this part of the world, is really not a long time at all.
It may yet happen, and we hope that it will, to create a nation that exists to benefit all of its citizens.
Until then, come, China! You are most welcome.