ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - China has strongly refuted suggestions its multibillion-dollar economic corridor now under construction with Pakistan has "hidden" military designs as well.
Beijing has pledged to invest about $63 billion in Pakistan by 2030 to develop ports, highways, motorways, railways, airports, power plants and other infrastructure in the neighboring country, traditionally a strong ally.
The Chinese have also expanded and operationalized the Pakistani deep water port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, which is at the heart of the massive bilateral cooperation, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC. The strategically located port is currently being operated by a Chinese state-run company .
China has positioned CPEC as the flagship project of its $1-trillion global Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, championed by President Xi Jinping.
"I want to make it very clear, BRI initiative and with CPEC under it, it's purely a commercial development project. We don't have any kind of military or strategic design for that," said Yao Jing, Chinese ambassador to Islamabad. He made the remarks in an exclusive interview with VOA.
Within five years of finalizing and launching CPEC, Jing said that 22 "early harvest" projects out of the 43 total projects under CPEC have been completed or are under construction, with a total investment of around $19 billion, the largest influx of foreign investment in Pakistan's 70-year-old history. The projects have already brought 60,000 local jobs and effectively addressed the country's once crippling energy crisis.
Power plants built under the joint venture, officials say, will have added more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity to the national grid by June, leading to a surplus of power.
While speaking to VOA, the Chinese diplomat urged the United States and India to "come to the CPEC project" and "witness the progress on the ground" for themselves, saying it will enable them overcome misunderstandings vis-a-vis CPEC.
"There are some kind of doubts that may be there are some things hidden in it. I think that when you have an objective lens to look at this project and to come to the ground to find this progress on the ground then you may have a better understanding of what we are doing here," said Jing.
The Chinese envoy was responding to concerns expressed in Washington and New Delhi that Beijing could try to turn Gwadar into a military port in the future to try to dominate the Indian Ocean.
Jing explained that a state-to-state defense-related cooperation has for decades existed between the two allied nations and China through "normal channels" is determined to contribute to "military and strategic ability' of Pakistan.
"We don't want to make the CPEC as such a kind of platform," the ambassador emphasized.
However, he added, it is "natural and understandable" that the project's massive size and design has raised doubts and suspicions" about its aims.
The skepticism about Chinese intentions stems from, among other things, a massive airport being built in Gwadar, with a landing strip of 12-kilometers. China has given nearly $300 million to Pakistan for the construction of the airport.
"Basically, it is for China and Pakistan to make this project a successful economic project, then we can make it clear our intention here," Jing said.
India is also opposed to CPEC because a portion of the project is located on territory that is claimed by both New Delhi and Islamabad. But Pakistan and China both dismiss the objections as politically-motivated.
CPEC aims to link the landlocked western Chinese region of Xinjiang to Gwadar, allowing ships carrying China's oil imports and other goods from the Persian Gulf to use a much shorter and secure route and avoid the existing troubled route through the Strait of Malacca.
There are currently up to 10,000 Chinese nationals working on CPEC-related projects in Pakistan. Ambassador Jing said that 21 new mega-projects, including the establishment of Special Economic Zones across the country, are ready to be launched in the next stage with particular emphasis on encouraging private engagement.
In the next five to seven years, officials estimate, CPEC will have created employment for half-a-million Pakistanis. The country's troubled economy, lately impacted by insecurity and energy crisis, has grown 5.4 percent in the previous financial year, the fastest rate in a decade, and officials forecast the expected growth in the year ending June 2018 will be six percent.
Pakistan's deepening cooperation with China comes as the country's diplomatic relations with the U.S. continue to deteriorate. Washington complains that Islamabad is not doing enough to eliminate terrorist groups using the country's soil for attacks against neighboring countries, including Afghanistan.
While U.S. economic assistance has significantly reduced in recent years, the Trump administration also suspended military assistance to Pakistan in January and linked its restoration to decisive actions against terrorist groups.
Pakistan strongly rejects the allegations and says it is being scapegoated for the U.S.-led coalition's failures in ending the war in Afghanistan. .
China is also worried about the spread of regional terrorism in the wake of a low-level Muslim separatist insurgency in its troubled Xinjiang border region. But Beijing has steadfastly supported Islamabad's counterterrorism efforts and dismisses U.S. criticism of them.
China's arms exports to Pakistan have in recent years exponentially increased while exports of military hardware from the country's traditionally largest supplier, the U.S., have reportedly declined to just $21-million in 2017 from $1-billion.
"China will never leave Pakistan. I shall say we have confidence in the future of Pakistan," said Chinese Ambassador Jing, when asked whether terrorism-related concerns might also push Beijing away from Islamabad.
China's investment under CPEC has also encouraged hundreds of private Chinese companies and thousands of Chinese nationals to arrive in Pakistan to look for business opportunities and buy property. The influx of the foreigners has raised alarms among local businesses and sparked worries that the Chinese labor force will take away local jobs.
Jing stressed that China and Pakistan are working together to promote mutual people-to-people connectivity through enhanced education and cultural linkages to improve mutual understanding.
Ambassador Jing says there are eight Chinese universities working to promote Pakistan's official Urdu language while 12 Pakistan-study centers are working to promote mutual understanding between the two countries. There are 22,000 Pakistanis seeking education in China.
Pakistani officials say currently, about 25,000 students are learning Chinese language in 19 universities and four Confucius Institutes affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.