Urbanization, special economic zones and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor: Upgrading Pakistan’s urban system or bypassing metropolises?

This PhD project is based at the University of Melbourne with a 12 month stay at University of Manchester.

Project Description:

The deterioration of the relationship between the US and China accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic, and according to some commentators it heralds a ‘new Cold War.’ Indeed, the Financial Times recently launched a New Cold War Series. The ‘new’ Cold War differs from its namesake in a number of ways. The USSR had a relatively small economy based on natural resource exports, it was technologically backward and autarchic. By contrast, China’s economy is on track to be the largest in the world within a decade, its firms can operate competently at the technological frontier and it is deeply integrated in the global economy.

Given these differences, the ‘new’ Cold War will be a very different conflict from its predecessor. Most importantly, the containment of the USSR was Washington’s primary foreign policy objective for nearly four decades, but US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently noted that the competition with China “isn’t about containment…It’s about a complex new challenge that we’ve never faced before. The USSR was closed off from the free world. Communist China is already within our borders.” Thus, the new Cold War exhibits a novel territorial logic, in which China, and the US and its allies, compete to strategically integrate territory in ways that orients it towards value chains anchored by their domestic champions. To this end, the US, Australia and Japan recently established the “Blue Dot Network,” whose objective is to “strengthen development finance cooperation in support of principles-based infrastructure and sustainable economic growth.” China has a head start, however, because its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched in 2013 and it is perhaps the world’s most ambitious infrastructure development scheme. Through a series of terrestrial and maritime development corridors, the BRI serves to expand China’s infrastructural linkages, open new markets for its oversized construction sector and offshore labour-intensive manufacturing.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one of the BRI’s primary components, and it links China’s remote western border to Gwadar on the Indian Ocean via a Trans-Himalayan highway and railways that criss-cross Pakistan. This transport network is anchored by a series of special economic zones that serve as key urban nodes designed to attract Chinese investment and foster export-oriented growth.

The overarching question of this project is how CPEC’s SEZs shape urbanization in Pakistan, and it focuses on their economic, social and political impacts. Many SEZs become enclaves which offer few benefits to the city in which they are located. In this case, however, Chinese investment is supposed to prioritize sectors that offer potential to improve human development indicators. This project will explore the ground reality of Chinese SEZs within CPEC, and assess their economic and social impacts. Furthermore, this research will be contextualized in Pakistan’s dynamic institutional and political environment. Phase II of CPEC includes its SEZs, and the CPEC Authority has been created to manage their construction, thereby circumventing civilian oversight. As a result, urban development has been depoliticized and this project will explore the political impacts of this regulatory reform.

Supervision team:
Dr Julie Tian Miao, Prof Michele Acuto (The University of Melbourne)
Dr Seth Schindler, Prof Kevin Ward (The University of Manchester)