In recent months, the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has left Pakistanis emboldened, Indians angry, and U.S. analysts worried. Ostensibly, CPEC will connect Pakistan to China’s western Xinjiang province through the development of vast new transportation and energy infrastructure. The project is part of China’s much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative, a grand, increasingly vague geopolitical plan bridging Eurasia that China’s powerful President Xi Jinping has promoted heavily.
Pakistani and Chinese officials boast that CPEC will help address Pakistan’s electricity generation problem, bolster its road and rail networks, and shore up the economy through the construction of special economic zones. But these benefits are highly unlikely to materialize. The project is more inclined to leave Pakistan burdened with unserviceable debt while further exposing the fissures in its internal security.
Pakistan and China often speak of their “all-weather friendship,” but the truth is that the relationship has always been a cynical one.China cultivated Pakistan as a client through the provision of military assistance; diplomatic and political cover in the U.N. Security Council; and generous loan aid in an effort to counter both American influence and the system of anti-Communist Western treaty alliances. China also sought to embolden Pakistan to harangue India, but not to the point of war because that would expose the hard limits of Chinese support. Despite Pakistan’s boasts of iron-clad Chinese support, when Pakistan went to war with India in 1965, 1971, and 1999, China did little or nothing to bail out its client in distress.
During the 1971 war, when India intervened in Pakistan’s civil war in its Bengali-dominated eastern wing, President Richard Nixon requested China move troops along its eastern border with India to intimidate India and stave off Pakistan’s defeat. However, China declined to undertake even this modest effort to preclude India from vivisecting Pakistan. East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh in 1971. In a nod to Pakistan, China refused to recognize Bangladesh until August 1975, even after Pakistan did so in February 1974.
There’s little reason to think China has made a sudden conversion to altruism when it comes to CPEC. The project originated in 2013, when the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, and Pakistan’s then-president, Asif Ali Zardari, agreed to build an economic corridor between the two countries. The project inched closer to fruition in 2014, when Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to China on different occasions to further discussions. In November 2014, the Chinese government announced that it would finance $46 billion in energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of CPEC. In September 2016, China announced a new loan deal for CPEC valued at $51.6 billion. In November 2016, part of CPEC became “operational” when products were moved by truck from China and loaded onto ships at Pakistan’s port Gwador along the Makran coast for markets in West Asia and Africa. After this major development, China declared that it would increase its investment again to $62 billion in April.
Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership alike have told the public that CPEC will solve Pakistan’s chronic electricity shortages, improve an aging road and rail infrastructure, provide a fillip to Pakistan’s economy, knit an increasingly pariah state to a new Chinese-led geopolitical order, and diminish the role of the much-reviled United States in the region. CPEC has the bonus of irritating the Indians because it strengthens Pakistan’s hold on territory in Jammu and Kashmir that it snatched in the 1947-48 war as well as portions of that territory that Pakistan subsequently ceded to China in 1963 as a part of the Sino-Pakistan boundary agreement. India claims these lands, currently held by Pakistan and China, and deems their occupation illegal.
Despite the bold claims made by China and Pakistan, there are many reasons to be dubious about the purported promises of CPEC. There’s already violence all along the corridor. The north-most part of CPEC is the Karakoram Highway (KKH), which gashes through the Karakoram Mountain Range to connect Kashgar in Xinjiang with Pakistan’s troubled province of Gilgit-Baltistan. Xinjiang is in the throes of a slow-burning insurgency by the Muslim Uighur minority against the Communist state. Gilgit-Baltistan, a Shiite-majority polity under the thumb of a Sunni-dominated Pakistan, is part of the above-noted contested territory of Jammu-Kashmir. Here, geology and weather further limit CPEC. The Karakoram Highway, a narrow road weaving through perilous mountains, can’t bear heavy traffic. Expanding the KKH will not be easy. Residents of Gilgit-Baltistan worry about the environmental costs in relation to the few benefits they will enjoy. There have been episodic protests, which the Pakistani government has ruthlessly put down. Meanwhile, Gwador is experiencing a prolonged drought, frustrating the project while the four extant desalination plants remain idle.
In the south, CPEC is anchored to the port at Gwador in Pakistan’s insurgency-riven Balochistan province. The local Baloch people deeply resent the plan because it will fundamentally change the demography of the area. Before the expansion of Gwadar, the population of the area was 70,000. If the project comes to full fruition the population would be closer to 2 million — most of whom would be non-Baloch. Many poor Baloch have already been displaced from the area. Since construction has begun, there have been numerous attacks against Chinese personnel, among other workers.
There’s also the stubborn problem of economic competitiveness. For CPEC to be more competitive than the North-South Corridor that is rooted to the Iranian port of Chabahar, Gwador needs to offer a safer and shorter route from the Arabian Sea to Central Asia. For that to happen, Gwador needs to be connected by road to the Afghan Ring Road in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, which is under sustained attacks by the Afghan Taliban. Alternatively, a new route could connect Gwador with the border crossing at Torkham (near Peshawar) by traveling up Balochistan, with its own active ethnic insurgency, through or adjacent to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which is the epicenter of Islamist terrorism and insurgency throughout Pakistan. It takes great faith — or idiocy, or greed, or all of the above — to believe that this is possible.
All of these issues raise salient questions about the real utility of this unfolding fiasco. If CPEC is not an economically viable route for actual commerce, what purpose does it serve? Analyst Andrew Small, among others, has argued that CPEC is, in reality, a redundant supply route for China should it face an embargo during a military conflict. It’s also possible that if the port at Gwador is not economically sustainable the real goal is the creation of a Chinese naval outpost. Many in India, Pakistan’s historic rival, have also come to this conclusion. They may well be correct, according to recent Chinese reports indicating that China may “expand its marine corps and may station new marine brigades in Gwadar.”
While the benefits to transit may be illusory, it is possible that Pakistan could benefit from purportedly low-hanging fruit, including the much-lauded economic zones and power plants. Pakistan does struggle with power shortages. But its problem is not a lack of supply, rather the complex issue of “circular debt” referring to the accumulating unpaid bills of the power sector; the theft of power through illegal connections, meter tampering, and other means; and an inadequate transmission system. Meanwhile, Pakistanis have learned that the current Chinese development model will do little for their economy. China prefers to use its own companies and employees rather than hire locally.
Pakistani citizens also have no way to know what CPEC will cost them. Neither government has been clear about what projects are part of the plan. Costing has been completely opaque. China sets the price, contracts the work out to Chinese companies, and saddles Pakistan with the loans. Given the ongoing security threats on Chinese nationals in Pakistan, Islamabad is raising a CPEC Protection Force, the costs of which will be passed on to Pakistani citizens. The State Bank of Pakistan has repeatedly called for more transparency, to no avail. Astonishingly, according to the Pakistani daily The Dawn, “Despite the frantic activity, Islamabad had yet to determine the expected cost and benefit, expressed in monetary terms, of the mega project.” And that’s before factoring in other costs such as the cultural and religious tensions between Chinese and Pakistanis, although there’s been a public relations push by both governments to downplay them.
Recently, The Dawn claimed to have accessed the alleged CPEC “master plan,” drawn up by the China Development Bank and the National Development Reform Commission of the People’s Republic of China. It suggests that CPEC is really about agriculture, an issue that had not previously been discussed in the extensive media coverage of the plan. As part of the overall project, thousands of acres of productive agricultural land will be leased to the Chinese for “demonstration projects” for newly developed seed varieties and irrigation technology. Chinese companies will be the primary beneficiaries of these initiatives.
Pakistanis should be worried about the way CPEC is shaping up. If it is even partially executed, Pakistan would be indebted to China as never before. And unlike Pakistan’s other traditional allies, such as the United States, China will probably use its leverage to obtain greater compliance from its problematic client. China is particularly concerned about the Islamist militant groups active among China’s Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang. Uigher militant groups have long shared ties with groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of which have been patronized by the Pakistani state, such as the Afghan Taliban. China has used religious and political oppression, along with crude violence, to eviscerate the Islamist revival among Xinjiang’s Uighers and has counted on Pakistan to give China political cover while doing so. In taking on Chinese debt, Pakistan may also risk severely worsening its already critical relations with India, which has been watching the CPEC drama unfold with growing alarm. In the north, CPEC continues to make permanent the Pakistani and Chinese grip on territory India claims. In the south, Chinese naval vessels may dock in the deep port of Gwador, threatening New Delhi in the Arabian Sea. In normal times, this would be a serious concern for the United States — but Washington is so distracted by the chaos of the Trump administration that the issue has gone largely under the radar.
But the news may not be all bad. For China to get maximal returns on its extensive investments in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan it needs stability in both countries. In recent years, China has stepped up its role in trying to negotiate peace in Afghanistan by helping to mediate between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As Pakistan’s economy becomes evermore interwoven with China’s, China may be in a position to dampen Pakistan’s worrying affinity for terrorist groups and nuclear proliferation — particularly the latter, because China enabled Pakistan’s nuclear program to begin with. If China took on the responsibility of managing Pakistan, Washington might be happy to wash its hands of the problem and let the civilians in Islamabad and the uniformed men in Rawalpindi stab someone else in the back for a change.
Photo Credit: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
C. Christine Fair is a provost’s distinguished associate professor at Georgetown University’s security studies program within the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is the author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War and the forthcoming book In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.
Tags: Argument, Bangladesh, China, china pakistan, India, Pakistan
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Since establishing diplomatic ties in 1951, China and Pakistan have enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial relationship. Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950 and remained a steadfast ally during Beijing’s period of international isolation in the 1960s and early 1970s. China has long provided Pakistan with major military, technical, and economic assistance, including the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology and equipment. Some experts predict growing relations between the United States and rival India will ultimately prompt Pakistan to push for even closer ties with its longtime strategic security partner, China. Others say China’s increased concern about Pakistan-based insurgency groups may cause Beijing to proceed with the relationship in a more cautious manner.
The India Question
China and Pakistan have traditionally valued one another as a strategic hedge against India. "For China, Pakistan is a low-cost secondary deterrent to India,"current Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani told CFR.org in 2006, when he was a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace."For Pakistan," he said, "China is a high-value guarantor of security against India." Mutual enmity between India and Pakistan dates to partition in August 1947, when Britain relinquished its claim over the Indian subcontinent and divided its former colony into two states. Since then Pakistan and India have fought three wars and a number of low-level conflicts. Tensions remain high over the disputed territory of Kashmir with periodic military posturing on both sides of the border.
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India has long been perturbed by China’s military aid to Pakistan. K. Alan Kronstadt, a specialist in South Asian affairs at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, writes (PDF) that observers in India see Chinese support for Pakistan as "a key aspect of Beijing’s perceived policy of ’encirclement’ or constraint of India as a means of preventing or delaying New Delhi’s ability to challenge Beijing’s region-wide influence." China and India fought a border war in 1962, and both still claim the other is occupying large portions of their territory. "The 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict was a watershed moment for the region," says John W. Garver, professor of international relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Both China and India incurred heavy costs on their economic development, and both sides shifted their policy over time to become more accommodating to growth."
A Deepening Military Bond
China’s role as a major arms supplier for Pakistan began in the 1960s and included assistance in building a number of arms factories in Pakistan and supplying complete weapons systems. "Until about 1990," write South Asia experts Elizabeth G. M. Parker and Teresita C. Schaffer in a July 2008 CSIS newsletter (PDF), "Beijing clearly sought to build up Pakistan to keep India off balance." After the 1990 imposition of U.S. sanctions on Pakistan, China became the country’s leading arms supplier. Collaboration now includes personnel training, joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism efforts. While the relationship is not quite balanced, it has been critically important to Pakistan. "Pakistan needs China more than China needs Pakistan," says Huang Jing, a China expert at the National University of Singapore. Pakistan has benefited from China’s assistance with the following defense capabilities:
- Missile: Pakistan’s army has both short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shaheen missile series, that experts say are modifications of Chinese imports.
- Aircraft: The current fleet of the Pakistani Air Force includes Chinese interceptor and advanced trainer aircraft, as well as an Airborne Early Warning and Control radar system used to detect aircraft. Pakistan is producing the JF-17 Thunder multi-role combat aircraft jointly with China. The K-8 Karakorum light attack aircraft was also coproduced.
- Nuclear Program: China supplies Pakistan with nuclear technology and assistance, including what many experts suspect was the blueprint for Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Some news reports suggest Chinese security agencies knew about Pakistani transfers of nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. China was also accused of having long-standing ties with Abdul Qadeer Khan (A.Q. Khan), known as the father of the Pakistani nuclear program and head of an international black market nuclear network.
Since the late 1990s, economic concerns have gained prominence alongside the military-strategic aspect of the relationship; specifically, trade and energy have taken precedence. Over the years, frequent exchanges of high-level visits and contacts between the two countries have resulted in a number of bilateral trade agreements and investment commitments. Trade relations began shortly after the establishment of diplomatic ties in the early 1950s, and the two countries signed their first formal trade agreement in 1963. A comprehensive free trade agreement was signed in 2008, giving each country unprecedented market access to the other. Trade between Islamabad and Beijing now hovers around $7 billion a year, and both sides are set on raising the figure to $15 billion by 2010.
The two countries have cooperated on a variety of large-scale infrastructure projects in Pakistan, including highways, gold and copper mines, major electricity complexes and power plants, and numerous nuclear power projects. With roughly ten thousand Chinese workers engaged in 120 projects in Pakistan, total Chinese investment--which includes heavy engineering, power generation, mining, and telecommunications--was valued at $4 billion in 2007 and is expected to rise to $15 billion by 2010. One of the most significant joint development projects of recent years is the major port complex at the naval base of Gwadar, located in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. The complex, inaugurated in December 2008 and now fully operational, provides a deep-sea port, warehouses, and industrial facilities for more than twenty countries. China provided much of the technical assistance and 80 percent of the funds for the construction of the port. In return for providing most of the labor and capital for the project, China gains strategic access to the Persian Gulf: the port is just 180 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of all globally traded oil is shipped. This enables China to diversify and secure its crude oil import routes and provides the landlocked and oil and natural gas-rich Xinjiang Province with access to the Arabian Sea.
As Pakistan continues to face economic woes with falling foreign investment, a weakening currency, and an underperforming stock market, securing closer economic cooperation with Beijing is seen as vital. Pakistan currently faces a growing balance of payments deficit, and China’s capacity as a creditor may be able to correct Islamabad’s urgent predicament. "China’s huge foreign-exchange reserves," writes Kronstadt, "are a potential source of a major cash infusion."
The Balancing Act
Despite increased cooperation between the United States and Pakistan since 2001, Islamabad places greater value on its relationship with Beijing than vice versa, say analysts. "Pakistan thinks that both China and the United States are crucial for it," said Haqqani. "If push comes to shove, it would probably choose China--but for this moment, it doesn’t look like there has to be a choice." Pakistan considers China a more reliable ally than the United States, citing years of diplomatic manipulation and neglect on the part of Washington. As this interactive timeline explains, Pakistan and China grew closer in the 1960s as Washington and Islamabad began to part ways over the handling of regional issues. In particular, Pakistan felt betrayed when Washington cut off aid to Islamabad during its 1965 and 1971 wars with India. Pakistan played a pivotal role as an intermediary during the U.S.-China rapprochement in the early 1970s, but Pakistanis are still stung by what they see as U.S. indifference toward their country after using it to funnel aid to the Afghan mujahadeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
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The India-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement compounds Pakistan’s distrust of the United States, spurring efforts by Pakistani officials to secure a similar deal with China. In April 2010, China announced its plan to build two new nuclear power reactors in Pakistan. The deal is seen as a violation of the guidelines laid down by the Nuclear Suppliers Group of which China is a member. In a CFR interview, Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says "in private, Chinese analysts are quite clear that this is a strategic tit-for-tat [in response to U.S-India nuclear deal] and it’s a very worrying portent if this is going to be China’s approach to the nonproliferation regime in future."
Meanwhile, China is concerned over the increasing level of extremism inside Pakistan. Some experts say China is also concerned about Chinese Uighur separatists in the western province of Xinjiang finding a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas. According to Ziad Haider in a 2005 Asian Survey article, Uighur militants were enrolled in Pakistani madrassas during the 1980s and fought the Soviets alongside the Taliban and later against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. Some of these madrassas, Haider writes, "provided an important site for the recruitment of [Uighur] fighters" who later returned to Xinjiang.
China has also publicly expressed concern over the increased level of kidnappings and killings of Chinese citizens by Pakistani militants. China’s ambassador in Islamabad urged Pakistan to "take effective measures to protect all the Chinese in Pakistan" after militants shot and killed three Chinese nationals in July 2007. Militants continue to target Chinese workers in Balochistan Province. However, Beijing is wary of getting heavily involved in counterterrorism efforts. "China is well aware of the threat it faces if it becomes too involved in counterterrorism efforts within Pakistan," says Garver, "and that means taking a more cautious and calculated approach--at least publicly--in strengthening Pakistan’s secular institutions against the Islamist challenge. This may partly explain why China has been quite comfortable in encouraging the United States to engage more with Pakistan: to take the heat off of China."
Experts say all countries in the region are reevaluating their traditional positions. "Everyone in the region has learned to [develop] a relatively non-ideological set of policies," says Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a noted China expert and professor at the University of Michigan. As CSIS’s Parker and Schaffer note, China has taken a more neutral position on India-Pakistan issues such as Kashmir in the past decade and a half, and has "begun to take the relationship with India more seriously." A case in point, they say, was China’s dissatisfaction with Pakistani military action across the Line of Control, which separates India- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, during the 1999 Kargil conflict.
Pakistan is also not the only South Asian nation China is interested in strengthening ties with: Beijing has expanded its relations with Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives. "China has a clear-cut strategy for using its leverage in the region," says Ganguly of Indiana University. "They’re going to continue to work with India’s neighbors as a strategic hedge against New Delhi, but Pakistan will remain central to this strategy."
Experts believe that any confrontation between India and Pakistan is not in China’s interest and would put Beijing in the position of having to choose between the two countries and draw the United States further into the region. "In this sense," writes Kronstadt, "peace between India and Pakistan is in China’s interest."
Esther Pan contributed to this Backgrounder.