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World One Belt, One Road: China offers new roads, trains and ports – but here’s what it wants in return

Chinese President Xi Jinping, with Russia's Vladimir Putin, other world leaders and their representatives in Beijing on Monday, May 15, 2017.

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China's bid to forge new connections for cargo and commodities across Asia and into more distant regions is about trade, development and the pursuit of mutual profit – and nothing more, it insists.

China's One Belt, One Road project promises other countries new roads, trains and power plants. What China wants in return is only the willingness of other countries to link arms and make a buck together, says the Chinese President, who has made it his signature project.

"We will not base co-operation on ideological grounds, nor will we pursue any political agenda or make any explicit arrangements," Xi Jinping said Monday. He spoke at the close of a summit attended by dozens of global leaders who gathered to discuss China's Belt and Road Initiative to spread its development model and cash among neighbours near and far.

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But as a document made public in Pakistan Monday makes clear, the planners behind China's overseas ambitions envision far more than economic co-operation among so-called "Belt and Road countries."

China also wants to export its surveillance-heavy security model, deliver content from its state-controlled media, and gain privileged access to foreign agricultural lands and mineral deposits for its corporate giants.

Those details are contained in a Chinese planning document, which upon publication by a Pakistani newspaper offers one of the clearest insights yet into the sweep of what China hopes to gain from its One Belt, One Road investments – and the trade-offs that face even those who have decided that Beijing's global leadership ambitions present more opportunities than problems.

Pakistan is one of the most important countries along China's "new Silk Road," with a national leadership receptive to Beijing's concept and a geographic position that stands to open a far more efficient trading path to Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Chinese companies. China's Belt and Road spending is expected to hit $51-billion (U.S.) in Pakistan.

Exactly what Beijing wants in return has never been made clear in public.

In private, however, China Development Bank and the country's powerful planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, have assembled a highly detailed 231-page document that lays bare Beijing's ambitions.

It "envisages a deep and broad based penetration of most sectors of Pakistan's economy as well as its society by Chinese enterprises and culture," wrote Khurram Husain, a Pakistani journalist and scholar in a report for Dawn, a Karachi newspaper, which published details of the report Monday.

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"Its scope has no precedent in Pakistan's history in terms of how far it opens up the domestic economy to participation by foreign enterprises."

The report has raised new questions in Pakistan about the real price of doing business with China. Syed Tahir Hussain Mashhadi, a Pakistani senator, has raised comparisons to the East India Company, the British company and colonizer that for centuries controlled great swaths of South Asia.

"They did put in the railways which still exist in India and Pakistan," Mr. Mashhadi said. But the company is now "despised because they stole the wealth while they were here." Similarly, the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is "very one-sided," he said. "It's Chinese investments and Chinese banks, Chinese money, Chinese industry – everything is towards China. And, of course, the profits go to China."

Other countries, too, have expressed concern that the One Belt, One Road project leans too heavily in China's favour. "Tenders need to be open to everyone," German Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries said on Sunday, warning that Germany could not sign on if that condition was not met. (European press reports Tuesday said European Union countries had made good on the threat, refusing to sign one of China's proposed One Belt, One Road joint statements on trade.)

India, which opposes Chinese construction in regions whose ownership it disputes with Pakistan, skipped China's One Belt, One Road summit altogether, instead cautioning countries that accept Chinese funds risk taking on "unsustainable debt burden."

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the Chinese document suggests potential points of conflict will go far beyond corporate access and borrowing terms.

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The document details how Pakistan would be divided into geographic zones according to the industries that could prosper there, including gold, diamonds and other minerals in the west and northwest, cement in the centre and petrochemicals, iron and steel in the south.

The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military group in western China, could be used to overhaul agriculture in Pakistan by bringing mechanization and new methods of irrigation and breeding. At least some of that would be enabled by leasing large tracts of agricultural land to Chinese interests, and allowing Chinese-invested companies to build fertilizer factories and storage facilities.

In textiles, Pakistan's "cheap raw materials" can be used to build up China's own garments industry "and help soak up surplus labour forces in Kashgar," a city in China's far western Xinjiang region.

Installation of a fibre-optic connection from China would be used to bring high-definition television, but also become a "cultural transmission carrier" to present a friendly face of China with "future cooperation between Chinese and Pakistani media."

To address security issues, the Beijing planners propose a "safe cities" project that would have Pakistan's urban centres adopt some of the surveillance architecture common in China by installing video cameras to monitor "major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places." The project would start small in Peshawar and then roll out to Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.

The idea of an authoritarian state exporting its population-monitoring methods to Pakistan is "grounds for immense concern," Mr. Husain said in an interview. What the document makes clear is that what China wants in Pakistan "goes far beyond just economics," he said.

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It prompts "a lot of questions for Pakistan about what the implications are going to be in terms of our democracy, our democratic traditions and the right to free speech."

Though the plan was drafted in 2015, it circulated only inside Pakistan's federal government and the Punjab provincial government. Other provinces were sent a less-detailed 30-page version.

Still, the plan is a vision subject to change, rather than an immutable description of the future. And even many of those in Pakistan with access to the detailed version remain ardent supporters of China's One Belt, One Road concept, key among them Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"We stand at the cusp of a geo-economic revolution," he said this weekend in Beijing. "In fact, this is the dawn of a truly new era, of synergetic intercontinental co-operation."

China as the world's second-largest economy "is coming and saying, 'I can do a lot to improve standards of living in your country in terms of creating jobs from infrastructure and what comes from that,'" said Jean-Guy Carrier, executive chairman of the Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce.

"But of course, I want privileged access to some things," he said.

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Still, that compares favourably to the European colonial powers of old, he said. "China isn't going in and occupying anybody."

With China taking a bigger role in the global economy, "we should get used to it – but we should also not be so defensive and protective that we are not able to see that, in fact, they're doing some very positive things with their wealth," Mr. Carrier said.

Even Mr. Mashhadi, who chairs the country's Planning Development and Reforms committee, acknowledges that with Chinese spending, "we will get better infrastructure. We will get more development in our country. … We will become a centre of trade."

But, he cautioned, there is "hardly any free lunch involved" – and if Pakistan is not careful, it may end up giving away too much.

"There's no use having motorways with Cadillacs flying down while your people are standing on the roadside with their two goats and a cow and watching everything go by," he said. "That is not what we want."

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