Dr Claude Rakisits
In the last few months, Government of Pakistan has taken a number of steps which have entrenched that country even further into China’s geostrategic orbit. And although China and Pakistan have had a long and fruitful relationship for well over 50 years, it was the launch during a visit to Pakistan by Chinese President Xi Jinping in April of the 1,800 mile China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that qualitatively changed the bilateral relationship. This $46 billion CPEC project, which involves the construction of roads, railroads and power plants over a 15 year period, comes on top of other previous important Pakistan-China agreements in the military, energy and infrastructure fields.
As the US and NATO withdraw from Afghanistan, deepening Pakistan and China economic and military cooperation is generating unique challenges for US and India and increased maritime competition. While dealing with extremism remains a shared concern, Gwadar would provide China with a firm and reliable long-term beachhead in the Indian Ocean close to the Persian Gulf, effectively making it a two-ocean power.
Pakistan, China Military, Economic Cooperation
China’s interest in deepening its economic and military involvement in Pakistan is nothing new. As noted above, it is a relationship which has been nurtured for over half a century. However, what has changed and has enabled the Chinese to intensify their focus on Pakistan is the effective end of the West’s, and in particular the United States’, military operations in Afghanistan in 2015. Accordingly, NATO’s departure from Afghanistan has had two consequences: it has created a regional power vacuum and it has diminished America’s interest in Pakistan. And China has quickly jumped into the breach.
China has used this opportunity to bolster its long-term economic and strategic interests in Pakistan, the critical land bridge in the development of China’s Silk Road. Accordingly, the Chinese leaders have been willing to invest substantially in the development of Pakistan’s decrepit infrastructure, particularly in its roads and the energy sector. In absolute and relative terms, CPEC is huge compared to Washington’s last big economic package of $7.5 billion (2009-2014). The completion of the CPEC would also enable China to link up with its very significant economic interests in neighbouring Afghanistan, particularly in copper and oil. Significantly, the first capital that the new president of Afghanistan visited was Beijing, not Washington, let alone New Delhi.
Before assessing the geostrategic importance of CPEC, it is essential to first briefly examine some earlier Pakistan-China agreements which deepen further the significance of this latest project.
Gwadar And The Emerging Maritime Competition
In April, China was granted 40-year operation rights to the port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. This little-publicized agreement is hugely significant because Gwadar will be where the CPEC begins and eventually makes its way to Kashgar in western China. Beijing is expected to invest $1.62 billion in Gwadar. Eventually when the port is fully operational and CPEC is completed, China will be able to ship some of its oil needs from that port, thus saving billions and precious time and most importantly avoiding the potentially vulnerable Malacca Strait.
Gwadar will play a critical part in China’s land and maritime silk routes, linking it to Central Asia and beyond. Importantly, while Gwadar is being built as a commercial port and not as a naval facility for China’s navy–at least for the time being, it could potentially be developed as one in the future. Such a development would certainly up the ante in Sino-Indian maritime competition in the Indian Ocean.
Another little-publicized aspect of the CPEC agreement, and which still appears to be under negotiation, is Pakistan’s purchase of eight diesel-powered attack submarines that would be conventionally armed. This would be one of Pakistan’s biggest weapons purchases ever, at about $6 billion.
Pakistan’s possession of such submarines would seriously complicate any Indian attempt in blockading Karachi or Gwadar. This sale would further entrench China as Pakistan’s principal arms provider. In 2010 alone, Pakistan was the destination for 60% of China’s total arms sales to the world. It is important to note that China and Pakistan already jointly manufacture the JF-17 fighter jet which will eventually become the Pakistan Air Force’s main combat aircraft. And, of course, China has provided technical assistance to Pakistan in the development of its missile arsenal, including the nuclear-armed.
Challenges In The Path Of CPEC
However, for China’s ambitious projects in Pakistan to come to fruition, the restive frontier area in western Pakistan, notably the provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas, will need to be pacified. The Chinese leaders have been putting a lot of pressure on Pakistan to ruthlessly pursue the Afghan Taliban and their fellow ideological travellers, including the Uighur militants of the Al-Qaeda-linked separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), who are hiding in those areas.
ETIM fighters have launched raids into Xinjiang province from those lawless areas in the past. Accordingly, partly prompted by Beijing, the Pakistan military has been engaged in a year-long operation in North Waziristan (Zarb-eAzb) hunting down the terrorists, including the members of the ETIM. Unfortunately, many of these have fled across the border into Afghanistan. China also recently hosted peace talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan, with the Pakistan army intelligence present as well.
Baluchistan also remains a serious problem for China, with Chinese workers having been killed by Baluch separatists in the past. In order to avoid such a reoccurrence, the Pakistan government will be assigning a division of Pakistan’s special security to protect Chinese workers in the future.
What Does the CPEC Imply for Pakistan, US, and India?
Notwithstanding the difficulties discussed above, if the CPEC does become a reality — and this is a big if — this would be very good news for Pakistan, as it would help it address some of the country’s major developmental and economic issues. Put differently, it would prevent Pakistan from collapsing as a functioning state, a distinct possibility down the road and something China would not want to see happen given the knock-on effects this would have in the region.
However, in geo-strategic terms the success of CPEC would not be good news for the US, for to all intents and purpose it would displace the US as Pakistan’s major external patron in favour of China. Most importantly, it would provide China with a firm and reliable long-term beachhead in the Indian Ocean close to the Persian Gulf, effectively making China a two-ocean power. This would be a red rag to India. So no wonder India has been complaining loudly about the CPEC. But the even more important question for policy-makers in Washington is how will this mega-Chinese project affect in the long-term America’s own pivot to Asia.
PoliTact will be further examining the different dimensions of these implications in a series of articles.