Challenges to China-Pakistan cooperation
China’s investment plan in Pakistan, with a special focus on the development of infrastructure, is a part of China’s overall initiative for Asia in general and South Asia in particular. China is also working on another regional connectivity plan to link with India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. China and Pakistan have formalized the setting-up of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has a lot to gain from its economic corridor arrangement with Pakistan; its centuries’ old vision of reaching the warm waters through the shortest route is coming to fruition through peaceful ways. It’s a win-win situation for both.
China’s emerging role in Afghanistan, in unison with Pakistan, and its announcement of $46 billion investment in Pakistan, have created panic in the Indian policy making circle. “China’s footprint to our west will continue to grow bigger as it seeks access to the waters of the Arabian Sea through Pakistan, the energy resources of Iran and the mineral resources of Afghanistan,” said Vikram Sood, an Indian strategist. Now India is bracing up for a counter-corridor—India-Iran-Afghanistan corridor. This undue criticism and alarm is despite the fact that China is opening up all sectors of its economy to all countries of Asia; and India is very much a beneficiary.
Pakistan has, in recent years, felt constantly slighted by the world. President Barack Obama avoided visiting Pakistan during both his trips to India. But by virtue of its strategic location, it is difficult to keep Pakistan away from the dynamics of global geopolitics. Sensing the opportunity, China has set out to compensate Pakistan for the US tilt towards India. Huge Chinese investment drawfsthe American assistance package to Pakistan of $7.5 billion that began in 2010, under the infamous Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act. However, it is important to understand that Beijing it prefers to see the US maintain its support for Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan also does not see China as a substitute of the United States. The Chinese investment programme focuses on ambitious projects that shall transform global trade flow patterns and extend China’s global influence, notwithstanding the military dominance of the US.
India will keenly watch how this surge of Chinese investment shapes Pakistan’s economy. It is likely to employ all means at its disposal to impede the speed of these projects, and would also try to disrupt some of these. Indian media coverage of President Xi’s visit was rather negative. While commenting on negative media projection in India, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson responded coolly: “As regards the Chinese President’s visit to Pakistan, we conduct our relations with other countries on the basis of mutual interests. The Chinese engagement with Pakistan, and in this region, contributes to stability. We welcome China’s increased role in SAARC. No country has veto over bilateral relations between countries. Hence, we would not like to comment on the Indian media reports”.
President Ashraf Ghani is in India for two days. The two leaders will discuss the final tripartite transit agreement involving India, Afghanistan and Iran centred on the Iranian port of Chabahar. India’s access to landlocked Afghanistan, and potentially on to Central Asia, Russia, and Europe, is either through Pakistan, or via Iran. The route via Pakistan is the cheapest and shortest. Unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, Ghani has reached out to Pakistan to help negotiate a settlement with Taliban insurgents, and to China to add clout to the fragile peace process as well as to invest in the Afghan economy. China is also working with Pakistan for intra-Afghan reconciliation. This has heightened the realization in India about its down-slide in South Asian affairs.
Karzai era tall-talk of India-Afghanistan strategic partnership, including significant sales of military equipment, is becoming a distant memory. Earlier this month, India delivered three light helicopters to Afghanistan, behind schedule by three years, and fell well short of Karzai’s requests for field guns and battle tanks. Likewise, Iranian comments on the pace of India’s investment in Chabahar are also interesting: “We are trying to take the steps, but Indians are very patient people, sometimes more than enough... It is very obvious that Chabahar is even more important for India than for Iranians. Strategically for India, you can access Afghanistan, Central Asia, (on) to the Caucasus, to Russians, to Turks, to North Europe,” said an Iranian source privy to negotiations on the port project. Iran has also not forgotten that India had walked away from the IPI gas pipeline project.
Developing the Economic Corridor from Gwadar to Kashgar shall open up the hinterlands of both countries to connectivity and trade, internally, with other regional countries, and across the seas, cutting down distances, duration and costs of travel. Another objective is massive investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure, which has been unable to keep pace with the country’s needs. This will be done by prioritizing energy generation in hydro, coal, solar, wind and IAEA safeguarded civil nuclear power, transportation, including improving highways and upgrading the main North-South railway line.
Despite efforts, 450 kilometers stretch of road from Gwadar up northwards has not yet been constructed due to the law and order situation. Ethnic Baloch rebels, who oppose Gwadar’s development, have in the past blown up numerous gas pipelines and trains and attacked Chinese engineers. The rebels want to scare off investors and developers. They are being lavishly funded by India and they use Afghan soil for sanctuary and regrouping. Suppression of rebellion by force has proven dicey. The political process to resolve the issue needs to be strengthened and fast tracked.
Window of opportunity is not unlimited for the leadership and people of Balochistan. If the portion of the road planned for Balochistan does not come up within a reasonable timeframe, alternative routes exist. If so, the province’s benefits from the economic corridor shall stand significantly curtailed. At the same time, the federal government should embed people friendly schemes all along the corridor to so that common people become stake holders in the economic corridor related projects. Notwithstanding the setting up of special security outfit for the corridor, the ultimate key to sustainable security rests with the local population adjoining the corridor and its associated projects.
Success and long term sustainability of cooperation would largely depend on how effectively and speedily Pakistan can implement these projects and utilize new investment windows such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund. It is all easier said than done and the onus of creating conducive environment is on Pakistan. First and foremost, there should be a diplomatic campaign to allay the fears of neighbouring countries that the economic corridor is against the interest of any third country. Second, Pakistan must approach Iran and UAE for joint management of three ports—Chabahar, Dubai and Gwadar. Third, national consensus about advantages of the corridor must be strengthened. Fourth, the Baloch leadership and public must be on board so that province can benefit from the project.