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China's massive infrastructure initiative across Asia, Europe and Africa hits snags


China now spends twice as much as the U.S. does on development projects around the world. But China's Belt and Road initiative across Asia, Europe and Africa keeps hitting major snags. International affairs correspondent Jackie Northam explains.


UNIDENTIFIED PASSENGERS: (Non-English language spoken).

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Passengers jostle to catch a late afternoon train here at the Rawalpindi station, not far from Pakistan's capital city, Islamabad. Porters ferrying battered suitcases on their heads expertly dip and weave among the crowds. The trains look positively antique, like they belong on the set of "Downton Abbey."


NORTHAM: The railway lines here at the Rawalpindi train station were laid down by the British during the colonial era, and they've not been upgraded since. Now the Chinese are coming in to modernize the system with new technology and to lay down new lines. The plan to modernize the decrepit rail system is part of the China-Pakistan economic corridor, better known as CPEC. It was conceived in 2015.

Farrukh Pitafi, a columnist with The Express Tribune newspaper in Islamabad, says, at that time, Pakistan was in a really bad place.

FARRUKH PITAFI: Pakistan was going through all the terrorism. And whatever was happening in Pakistan was so abysmal, so horrible. But then China's president comes to Pakistan and introduces these projects.

NORTHAM: Beijing approached Pakistan with an offer of $42 billion in investments and loans to upgrade its infrastructure. CPEC was hailed as an important showcase for China's Belt and Road initiative. And it started off with a bang. Chinese companies quickly built several power plants to help Pakistan alleviate its chronic electricity shortages and many new roadways, says Pitafi.

PITAFI: If you have travelled on any of these roads, you will be impressed that it really connects Pakistan. And I - when I used to drive before, it was (laughter) horrible. And now it is quite a cakewalk driving on those roads.

NORTHAM: But now six years on, many CPEC projects are stalled because of COVID, political infighting in Pakistan, contract disputes and charges of corruption on both sides.

Haroon Sharif, an economist and former chairman of Pakistan's Board of Investment says Pakistanis are taking a harder look at what they need.

HAROON SHARIF: So far, we are buying whatever China is telling us to do. They say make economic zones, we'll make economic zones. But me and few others are pushing hard that we need to come up with our own model - what is good for us.

NORTHAM: CPEC projects have also slowed because of cultural differences.

Talat Shabbir is with the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. He says Pakistan struggles to match China's pace in building large-scale projects

TALAT SHABBIR: In China, you hear examples where they built a bridge of two kilometers in 30 days. They built a building of 20 stories in 20 days. So we are very slow. We have many bureaucratic impediments. So we are grappling with this problem.

NORTHAM: Some projects are in places caught up in Pakistan's internal problems. That includes restive Baluchistan province, where the Chinese are developing the Port of Gwadar, considered the crown jewel of CPEC. Chinese workers there and elsewhere have been killed by militants in an effort to discourage Chinese investment.

Sharif says Beijing is putting pressure on Pakistan to stop the attacks.

SHARIF: They have a legitimate concern because physical security of Chinese workers is extremely critical. Now the other security thing which has put alarm bells in China is if Afghanistan gets destabilized.

NORTHAM: Which could lead to greater cross-border attacks - but Elizabeth Threlkeld, director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., says despite the setbacks, it's unlikely China will walk away from its multibillion-dollar investment.

ELIZABETH THRELKELD: What I imagine happening going forward is just a focus more on finishing up the projects that have started, making some very limited future investments. But I do not expect any additional megaprojects.

NORTHAM: Which means those new rail lines in Rawalpindi may just have to wait.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAPA'S "OPEN BOOK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.