FEATURE: China-Pakistan link advances despite India

Dec 04, 2015, 4:52 PM EST
Pakistan railway train
Source: Farhan Chawla/flickr

The $46 billion planned China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) may actually come to fruition now that a security plan has been agreed upon. Last month, the two partners finalized a security blueprint in which some 32,000 guards (including 500 Chinese military personnel) will protect the approximately 14,000 Chinese workers on the projects along the CPEC. The security threats have by no means decreased since the beginning of the year, when Blouin News first reported on CPEC’s future. And the presence of Chinese troops is a major development; it would be politically unthinkable for U.S. troops to do the same in Pakistan.

China has good reason to be wary, and to want to rely on its own troops. In particular, the western route of the CPEC (running from the port of Gwadar through the secessionist insurgency-wracked province of Baluchistan and extremist-ridden Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) is far more troubling than the eastern route (which runs along the Baluch coast before crossing P.M. Nawaz Sharif’s home province of Punjab). This is not to imply that the eastern route is safe. In any case, both routes join in the north, where the dangers are not yet over—the corridor passes through restive Pakistani-occupied Kashmir before crossing the Chinese border and ending at the city of Kashgar.

The greater objective risks of the western route are only amplified by the government’s bias for the eastern route. Punjab, the country’s largest and wealthiest province, is usually more peaceful than other parts of Pakistan. An elected official favoring his or her home region is nothing new in politics, but Sharif's opponents accuse him of tolerating militancy elsewhere in return for peace in his province (a charge he of course denies).

And recently this discrepancy (or injustice, as the marginalized ethnic and provincial groups term it) was spotlighted with precise figures. Pakistan’s National Highway Authority told a Senate panel last month that the government had allocated less than a fifth of funds ($189 million) for the western route than it had for the eastern route (1.04 billion).

In fact, a report earlier this year by the Baluch state government concluded that Islamabad’s emphasis on the eastern route would inflate total costs and even result in the CPEC being unviable. Pakistani daily the Express Tribune reported:

The districts along the preferred eastern route are the most densely populated, having large swathes of land under cultivation and is the main source of production of four major crops, according to the report. All these factors will increase the construction cost. By comparison, the western route is thinly populated and the land is mainly barren.

In any case, China will be able to exert influence over the location of CPEC projects in Pakistan. In October, Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s Minister for Planning, said his country and China will establish a joint investment and industrial cooperation working group to identify the locations for industrial parks and Special Economic Zones under the CPEC. So some particularly risky areas may very well be vetoed by Beijing.

Meanwhile, China is trying to maintain friendly ties with Pakistan and India. Beijing hopes to shift the focus of Islamabad and Delhi away from their historic rivalry and periodic skirmishes, and instead towards shared economic development and joint counterterrorism efforts.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “[The] Chinese side is willing to stay in communication with India, Pakistan as well as other countries in the fight against terrorism.” She said there was “sound cooperation” between China and Pakistan on counterterrorism. Notably, the Pakistani military has cracked down on al Qaeda-linked Uighur separatists who have carried out terrorist attacks in China. Militants of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement were among the targets of Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani military’s ongoing campaign against Islamic militants that began in June 2014.

And if official Pakistani figures are credible, that operation has already been a major success. On Tuesday, Defence Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif informed the Senate that due to the Zarb-e-Azb operation 89% of North Waziristan and 87% of Khyber Agency have been cleared of militants. He added that the operation would continue until the terrorists and their financiers are eliminated.

India and Pakistan are even set to join the China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organization as full members of the security alliance next year. However, India has publicly opposed the CPEC, arguing that any trade route through Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan would give de facto legitimacy to Pakistan’s claim over Kashmir. Furthermore, according to Pakistan Today, Indian ministers have also threatened to sabotage the trade route despite the fact that China has repeatedly made it clear that no opposition would be tolerated and the project would be completed come what may. China has brushed aside India’s objections by saying CPEC was a commercial venture meant to improve peoples’ lives.

And India and China still have a thorny unresolved border dispute of their own. However, the two Asian giants have an enormous bilateral trade volume (just over $70 billion last year, a 7.9% increase from 2013). And they both want to cooperate on counterterrorism. Last month they held 10 days of joint “Hand-in-Hand” counterterrorism exercises in Kunming, China, which sought “to develop joint operating capability, share useful experience in counter-terrorism operations and to promote friendly exchanges between the armies of India and China.”

Furthermore, senior officials from both countries recently met to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation -- the first such meeting since 2013. This is a delicate matter; one anonymous Indian official said, “India discussed the probable involvement of certain Chinese individuals in supplying of arms and ammunition to the Northeast-based terrorist outfits.” But the larger problem is without a doubt Pakistan-based terrorism.

Making the CPEC a reality will be no easy task for China. The economics are complicated enough as it is, without all of the geopolitical intrigue between Pakistan, India, and China, to say nothing of the very real threat of terrorism (beyond the control of national governments). But China has the resources to make it happen, and enough clout to avoid irrevocably antagonizing India in the process. And by inserting itself in the midst of the India-Pakistan conflict with both investments and personnel in Pakistan, perhaps China will make the chances of a war between the two South Asian arch rivals less likely (for fear of drawing Beijing’s wrath). That would be the best investment of all.

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