Decoding Alice Wells’s speech lambasting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

by Michael Kugelman

On November 21, Ambassador Alice Wells delivered an address at the Wilson Centre in Washington lambasting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Why did Ms. Wells make this speech? And why now? After all, while several Trump administration officials have criticised the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), they have said little publicly about CPEC.

Additionally, Washington’s relations with Islamabad have improved over the last year or so as the administration has sought Pakistani cooperation with the peace process in Afghanistan. With Washington not wanting to antagonise Islamabad, the timing may seem odd for a senior U.S. official to excoriate what Pakistan designates as its most high-priority development project.

Indo-Pacific Strategy

In reality, why Ms. Wells made this speech, and why now, has more to do with China than Pakistan.

The speech was an incisive critique of Chinese policy, and of the development model embodied by BRI. It was not a critique of Pakistan. (Islamabad’s relatively subdued response acknowledges as much.) Ms. Wells argued that America’s development model is more desirable than China’s — and that Pakistan and other nations receiving BRI monies can benefit more from American largesse.

The speech was an expression of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which aims to underscore a vision for Asia that facilitates more freedom and prosperity than that espoused by Beijing. To be sure, the Indo-Pacific strategy doesn’t include Pakistan. Still, what better way for Washington to push back against Beijing than by calling out CPEC, the most operationalised and expensive component of BRI — and a project that raises concerns about financing, transparency, and sustainability?

It’s also worth keeping the administration’s broader China policy in mind. The White House has been relentlessly hawkish towards Beijing. It set the tone when its first national security strategy identified strategic rivalry as a national security concern — and China, by extension, as a national security threat. While the administration has contemplated conciliation with some bitter rivals (North Korea and even Iran), it has been consistent in its hard line on China. Against this backdrop, Ms. Wells’s speech makes perfect sense.

Challenge For The U.S.

It’s easy to agree with her CPEC criticism; the concerns she articulated about cost, debt, transparency, and jobs are acknowledged by many, including some CPEC boosters in Pakistan. However, her suggestion that the U.S. can do development better — both in Pakistan and the broader region — is a harder sell. The U.S. may well promote “a vision for the Indo-Pacific region that is free and open,” and it may pledge to partner with the region on “freedom, openness, and economic prosperity.” Implementation, however, is the challenge.

Yes, Washington has provided billions in development aid to Islamabad. It has long backed the fledging Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. The Trump administration’s first budget included the New Silk Road initiative — first articulated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 as an idea to better connect South and Central Asia — as part of its funding request for activities in both regions. Other opportunities abound, from engaging with development-focused regional groups like BIMSTEC to backing a potential electricity-sharing arrangement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal. And yet, to date, the U.S.’s collective efforts on economic development in Pakistan and the region can’t hold a handle to those of China. Beijing has more capital, presence, projects, and arguably popularity.

Still, Ms. Wells’ speech is a wake-up call for Beijing about Washington’s concerns about CPEC, and a reminder of the intensity of U.S.-China rivalry. We shouldn’t expect smoother sailing for the world’s two most powerful nations any time soon.

Michael Kugelman is the Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC