Mattis Raises CPEC Concerns, Backs Iran Deal

US defense secretary Jim Mattis testifying during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. Image Credit: James K. McCann/ US DOD

US defense secretary, Jim Mattis expressed misgivings about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the broader Belt and Road Initiative at a hearing on Tuesday.

‘In a globalised world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road’,’ Mattis told lawmakers of the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

In a clear reference to CPEC, Mattis noted that the ‘One Belt One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think, that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate’.

CPEC links the Chinese hinterland with the port of Gwadar in Pakistani Balochistan. However, a section of the corridor goes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which India claims as its sovereign territory.

During a speech at Delhi’s United Service Institution In early May, China’s ambassador to India had suggested his country might rename CPEC to reflect Delhi’s concerns. But less than four days later, the relevant sentence disappeared from the version of the speech published the embassy’s web site.

Soon after, Beijing has dismissed Indian concerns about CPEC’s Kashmiri component, saying the project is an economic initiative and ‘does not affect China’s position on the Kashmir issue’.

At the same time, India skipped the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing even as leaders from Pakistan and Sri Lanka attended.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump met in Washington in June, they issued a joint statement that indirectly highlighted shared concerns about the Belt and Road Initiative.

Part of the statement expressed support for ‘bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity’.

The statement reflected India’s broader concerns about the Belt and Road Initiative, including Sri Lanka’s increased indebtedness to Chinese lenders and a general sense of strategic encirclement.

Mattis’ words on Tuesday simply indicated that the US continues to share some of these apprehensions.

Saving the Iran deal

During Tuesday’s hearing, Mattis also backed the nuclear deal with Iran, in stark contrast to the words of his boss, Donald Trump.

When asked if the deal was in America’s national interest, Mattis paused for about eight seconds before answering, ‘Yes, senator, I do’.

As this blog has noted before, Trump has repeatedly attacked the nuclear deal without providing any convincing explanation for why it should be scrapped. He has until October 15 to tell congress if Iran is complying with the terms of the deal. If he doesn’t, lawmakers could impose new sanctions that would cause Iran to withdraw from the agreement.

Mattis’ support for the deal came even as CNN reported that secretary of state Rex Tillerson was quietly working with US lawmakers to keep it intact.

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