CPEC: Corridor of huge promise and some peril

CPEC:  Corridor of huge promise and some peril


Aijaz Ashraf Wani

Around the mid-1890s, a French Canadian engineer had proposed to make use of snow shoes in Gilgit with the aim of securing a passage to China. The British resident in Kashmir turned down his proposal arguing that such ‘ambitious’ proposition was impracticable and useless because any prospect for trade or any threats from that side were absent.

Today, the same route is being developed and financed by the Chinese government, as an economic corridor, popularly known as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC, expected to immensely benefit not only China and Pakistan but also the entire region. It is because of its immense potential that a number of countries in the region are showing immense interest to join this economic corridor.

CPEC is a 3,218-kilometre long route, to be built over next several years (at present it is expected to be completed by 2030), consisting of highways, railways, power projects, pipelines and other infrastructure. Over a year ago, CPEC was unveiled with a $46 billion Chinese investment. The Chinese have been upwardly revising this investment and today CPEC has become a massive $62 billion bilateral developmental project between Pakistan and China and is supposed to be a “game changer” in the geopolitics of South Asia and beyond. CPEC is in a way culmination of a long economic and strategic relationship between China and Pakistan which stretches back to 1950. The project offers enormous opportunities to China and Pakistan and the whole region as well. But lot needs to be done for its success  as this ambitious project is fraught with multiple challenges both internal and external.


All-Weather Friendship and CPEC

In 1950, writes Christophe Jaffrelot in his book Pakistan At The Cross Roads, Pakistan recognized China when the latter country was rather isolated, as if Karachi (the then capital) was preparing the future understanding, before everyone else, that Beijing was bound to have complicated relations with India. China, appreciative of the Pakistan’s move, decided to exchange its coal against their cotton, which had no place to go after the Indian mills were cut off from the places where this textile plant were produced prior to Partition in 1947. Thus began a long lasting economic and strategic relation between the two countries. In 1963, the two countries took this friendship forward by granting each other the status of most favoured nation (MFN). After 1962 India-China war, ties between China and Pakistan became stronger with India being seen as a common ‘enemy’. Both countries even swapped some territory in Kashmir as well — a move that India seriously objected to. While China helped Pakistan diplomatically (and continues to do so like in recent case of Masood Azhar or India’s claim to permanent membership of UNSC or induction into Nuclear Suppliers Group) Pakistan helped China in opening up and developing diplomatic ties with US during President Richard Nixon’s tenure in the early 1970s. Pakistan is in a way considered as having laid a foundation for future engagements between Beijing and Washington, something that was critical when seen in the backdrop of the Cold War politics of that era.

In the domain of defence, China helped Pakistan to lessen its dependence on US by supplying arms. During 1960, China committed itself to provide tanks and fighter jets to Pakistan. In 1982, Chinese weapons made up 75 percent of Pakistan’s tanks and 65 percent of its air force. In 2005, China provided Pakistan with four naval frigates, and today China and Pakistan are jointly producing the J-17 Thunder fighter jets (Jafferlot, Pakistan At The Crossroads, pp- 5-6). In 1986, both countries signed a comprehensive nuclear cooperation agreement and China has supplied Pakistan several nuclear power reactors for civilian use.

For China, argues Jafferlot, arming Pakistan was clearly a good way to force India to look west instead of east, as the two largest Asian powers are potentially rivals in Southeast Asia. Besides Pakistan gave China access to the Indian Ocean. Along with military cooperation, the two countries have been linked together through a strong economic cooperation. In 1967, the ancient Silk Route between Xinjiang and Gilgit was ‘reopened’. In 1971, the Karakoram Highway linking China with Pakistan was inaugurated. Culminating at 15,397 feet above the sea level, it is still the highest paved international road in the world. The ultimate aim of this road has been to lead to Gawadar.  CPEC is a consolidated metaphor of this multi-dimensional cooperation between China and Pakistan, which both believe greatly caters to their respective economic, strategic and political ambitions.

This economic corridor aims to connect Kashgar in the North-Western Chinese province of Xinjiang with Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan through a vast and complex network of roads measuring around 3,000 km, besides other infrastructure projects. Gawadar port is supposed to be a linchpin for China’s dream of ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project  providing the Maritime Silk Road with a link to the Arabian Sea. The port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf provides China with the shortest possible route to the oil rich Middle East, Africa, and most of the Western hemisphere (Balochistan: The Troubled Heart of the CPEC, Usman Shahid http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/balochistanthetroubledheartofthecpec/). CPEC will provide China an access to the Arabian Sea barely 600 kilometres east of the narrow Strait of Hormuz through which passes about 35% of the world’s oil shipments. Therefore, CPEC has global trade implications, besides other geo-political ramifications with multiple competing political interests relating to CPEC. It  will open doors to immense economic opportunities not only to Pakistan but will physically connect China to its markets in Asia, Europe and beyond. It will act as a bridge for the new Maritime Silk Route that envisages linking 3 billion people in Asia, Africa and Europe as part of a trans-Eurasian project. When fully operational, Gwadar will promote the economic development of Pakistan and become a gateway for Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and others linking Sri Lanka, Iran and Xinjiang to undertake marine transport. China will save millions of dollars every year by shortening its route for energy imports from the Middle East by about 12,000 km. CPEC also offers it greater access to the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Pakistan expects infrastructural enhancement and the reduction, or even elimination, of its severe energy crisis by getting in return an estimated $34 billion for various hydro, solar, thermal, and wind driven power plants. CPEC offers Pakistan an excellent opportunity to upgrade the basic infrastructure of all provinces as the Corridor essentially passes through the whole of Pakistan. New roads, highways, railways, airports, and seaports are to be built and developed according to the blueprint of this ambitious project. Provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, which lag far behind Punjab in terms of development, are expected to get an infrastructural boost. In addition, a fully functional Corridor promises huge employment opportunities to all sections of society. CPEC provides Pakistan an opportunity to work closely with a trusted friend — China, independent of Western influence.

However, for this Pakistan needs to get rid of its traditional policy of centralisation of resources that often neglects needs of the provinces. Provinces like Balochistan are rich in natural resources like natural gas, mineral ores, etc., which are exploited by the central government leaving these regions underdeveloped. One of the major reasons  for the emergence of insurgency in Balochistan was to fight against this exploitation. Therefore, for the real success of this mega-project it is necessary that all provinces are given their due share and made part of the development process.

More importantly, the least publicised aspect of the agreement is a deal for eight submarines to be supplied by China to Pakistan, which considerably elevates Pakistan’s naval military strength and at the same time caters to the strategic interests of China (CPEC: Boon or Bane for Pakistan, Hanan Zafar, The Diplomat).

Chinese interests in Pakistan aren’t only economically driven but stretegic as well.  A fully-operational Gwadar port not only provides China with commercial benefits but also enormous strategic and geopolitical advantages. Although at present Gwadar is being developed for commercial purposes only, but there are enough reasons to believe that it would be developed into a well-equipped military naval base in the future. If and when that is done it would provide China a tremendous strategic advantage in the region and even beyond.

The keenness of Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to be a part of CPEC in the future has added to the mystique of the already highly-hyped economic corridor. This economic corridor has been called a “game changer” and even a “fate changer” by some sections of  overly enthusiastic Pakistani press and government; with some analysts even saying that this $56 billion “unprecedented” Chinese investment over the next decade and a half will make Pakistan the next Asian Tiger (The New Game Changer in Pakistan, S. Akbar Zaidi, The Hindu).

CPEC appears to be a very important project for both the countries. For China it provides an alternate secure route to import energy and find new markets for its goods and services. For Pakistan it helps counter Indian influence in the region, position itself as a major transit point connecting Eurasian region with South Asia and South East Asia and provide a much needed base to kick-start its economic growth


Challenges to CPEC:- Internal and External

Despite the fact that CPEC provides Pakistan huge economic opportunities, there are apprehensions regarding the efficiency and economic feasibility of the project. Moreover Pakistan faces various internal and external political challenges which may hamper the progress of CPEC. Unfortunately, the most ignored aspect of the CPEC is the presence of huge number of Chinese security personnel in Pakistan, which have been deployed to provide security to Chinese workers and officials. The presence of Chinese soldiers in such huge numbers should be a cause of concern for the Pakistani establishment, keeping in mind the alleged neo-imperialistic ambitions of China, especially in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moreover, many in Pakistan worry about the CPEC being used by China to exploit Pakistan’s huge natural resources, especially in Balochistan, in the name of developmental assistance. Furthermore, increasing calls in Balochistan for a separate state and the ensuing armed conflict pose an enormous challenge to the Corridor. Various Baloch rebel groups have already attacked Chinese engineers and officials working on different CPEC projects. While the leaders are touting CPEC as a ‘game changer’ for Pakistan and China, certain sections in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan see the project as another attempt to undermine their autonomy. People of these regions also highlight the imbalance in provinces with the largest one, Punjab, being seen as favoured especially in terms of investments on road infrastructure, thereby, fuelling bitterness among the rest of the three provinces. A major issue highlighted by some political groups is the possible in-migration of working-class people from Khyber Pakhtunkha, Punjab and Sindh to Balochistan. The existing population doesn’t possess the necessary skill sets and diversity of occupational requirements essential to sustain a mega enterprise as demanding as CPEC. Hence, the fear of being marginalised in the wake of newly arriving workers and investors is cause of concern (CPEC`s Territorial Impact,  Noman Ahmed, The  Dawn).

Further there is another section of the people with deep imperial and colonial concerns about the Corridor and they argue that another ‘East India Company’ is in the offing. Their central argument is that by allowing huge Chinese human and economic presence on the Pakistani soil with capitalist and colonial intentions, national interests of Pakistan and its autonomy are being compromised.  Their main concern is that the interests of the Pakistani state should come first. They voiced their fears over what they perceived as the utilisation of local financing for CPEC projects, instead of funding from the Chinese or any other foreign investment. (CPEC could become Another East India Company’ Syed Irfan  Raza, The Dawn). With no clarity about the methodology of division of benefits that may come from CPEC, they suspect that Pakistan isn’t going to benefit much from the project and it may end up as a minting machine for Chinese companies and government.

Voices have also been raised in Pakistan about the environmental costs and consequences a project of such magnitude is likely to spell. There are already strong apprehensions among environmentalists about the extraction of vast reserves of coal from Pakistan and its use in coal-fired power projects as part of the CPEC plan. Such projects using fossil fuels are considered extremely detrimental to environment.

Not only some provinces like Balochistan and certain section of media and the intelligentsia in Pakistan are apprehensive of this project but even government of India has also voiced its concern against the Corridor. As the Corridor passes through Pakistan -administered Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan, which India claims to be its integral and indispensable territory, illegally held by Pakistan, New Delhi has openly opposed CPEC. India’s official position has been articulated by foreign secretary S. Jaishankar at the 2017 Raisina Dialogue when he said, “China is very sensitive about its sovereignty. The economic corridor passes through an illegal territory, an area that we call Pak-occupied Kashmir. You can imagine India’s reaction at the fact that such a project has been initiated without consulting us” (Harsh Pant, http://www.dailyo.in/politics/cpecchinapakistaneconomiccorridorindiakashmir/story/1/16449.html). The official position of the Indian government is that GB is part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and which it claims in entirety. Indian External Affairs Ministry too reacted to the CPEC project describing GB under “illegal occupation” of Pakistan.

India opposes the proposed CPEC route and development of Gwadar port mainly for two reasons. First, the planned route passes through the territories of Gilgit Baltistan and Kashmir that India claims as its “integral” part. Second, India fears that Gwadar will be developed as a Chinese naval base posing a direct security threat to India. Despite clarifications from China and Pakistan that the port will be used only for economic purposes, India is still wary of developments in Gwadar, fearing that it will give the Chinese navy access to Indian Ocean. Mirroring previous statements, India’s foreign minister in a recent meeting with her Chinese counterpart stressed that India would oppose CPEC because it passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which India claims as its territory. Last year, India’s prime minister termed the Corridor “unacceptable” for the same reason. Moreover, as a substitute to Gwadar, India has invested in Iran’s Chabahar port, just 72 km from Gwadar. In May 2016, India, Iran, and Afghanistan signed a trade corridor deal giving India land access to Central Asia from Chabahar, bypassing Pakistan. The closest land route for India to access Central Asia is to the west, through Pakistan. Therefore, as an alternate though longer route, India will access Iran’s Chabahar from the sea, and from there its goods will enter Afghanistan and eventually Central Asia and Russia. Moreover, Chabahar will give Afghanistan access to Indian Ocean, which wasn’t possible earlier without passing through Pakistan.

What do these grand geopolitical plans have to do with Balochistan’s militant and separatist movements? Andrew Small, in his book The China Pakistan Axis, maintains that the biggest concern for the Chinese is growing terrorism in the region, especially in its most trusted ally Pakistan, where Beijing is investing $62 billion for CPEC. That means a rise in violence may be the most effective way to scare Beijing off the ambitious plan.  Islamabad has repeatedly accused India and other foes of CPEC of fomenting attacks with just that goal in mind (Balochistan: The Troubled Heart of the CPEC, Usman Shahid, The Diplomat). Pakistan asserts that India is bent on sabotaging CPEC by funding and training anti-state elements in Balochistan. The claim is supported by India’s official concern over CPEC and a potential Chinese naval base in Gwadar to ensure Chinese maritime hegemony in Indian Ocean. Pakistan has continuously accused India of conspiring to disrupt the project by fueling the Baloch insurgency, a claim contested by Indian state.

Unhealthy Indo-Pak relations cast shadows over the prospects of a peaceful and stable South Asia. A prosperous South Asia is possible only if both these nuclear-power countries shun their stagnant political positions and work closely with each other. CPEC being transformed into ICPEC by connecting it with Indian Punjab may be the first step in this direction. However, this seems a mere fantasy in the present context. India is bitterly opposed to allow the passage of CPEC through Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK). On the other hand, constructing the Corridor through PaK means China considers it a part of Pakistan that comes in direct clash with India’s stance on Kashmir. At the same time, India feels alarmed at the possibility of China’s military and civilian presence so close to India. Once Gwadar port is functional, China not only gets three times reduction in the total distance that would need to be covered by the Chinese trading ships but China will also get an easy access into Indian Ocean, thereby undermining India’s supremacy and influence in the region. Chinese expected naval edge over India is naturally causing unrest among the Indian military and civil circles. Both Gwadar and Chabahar ports have a unique geo-strategic and geo-political significance. Economically and strategically both are vital choke-points which provide unrestricted access to the Indian Ocean where about 100,000 ships and around 70 percent of the world’s petroleum trade passes each year. The strategic significance of these ports is visibly clear from the fact that these sea trade centres are located at the crossroads of international sea shipping and oil trade routes while linking the three regions of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East (The Port Politics: Gwadar and Chabahar. https://www.voj.news/theportpoliticsgwadarandchabahar/).  Gwadar would be a future sea port from where China would acquire a stronghold in the Indian Ocean region. China would also get an access to the Arabian Sea and would minimise the distance to the Strait of Hormuz through which 35 percent of world oil transits. India also feels that China has already encircled it by  developing commercial as well as defence relationships with several countries including Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives.  India fears CPEC would further strengthen the encirclement.


CPEC and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir has remained a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since the partition of the subcontinent took place in 1947. Both countries lay claim to the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir as it existed in 1947.

While on the one hand there are valued reasons for celebrating CPEC and advocating for joining this mega project, on the other hand the political consequences that this project may throw in future makes many apprehensive. The proposed move by the Nawaz Sharif Government, alleged under Chinese pressure, to merge GB as the 5th Province of Pakistan, can have serious ramification for this part of Kashmir. The GB Legislative Assembly, which is dominated by Nawaz Sharif’s party, would certainly endorse this move in the name of ridding their homeland of the seven decades long political uncertainty. To fulfill their aspirations to develop trade and tourism in their homeland with the help of the CPEC which, full merger of GB with the Federation of Pakistan would be justified. Something of similar nature is often advocated with respect to this part of Kashmir also. What the merger of GB with Pakistan without a plebiscite would spell out for Kashmir is the most critical question. If GB will be merged with Pakistan fully, Pakistan state will cease to be a party to the overall Kashmir dispute which includes GB, PaK, and J&K, because merging GB without a plebiscite (to be possibly followed by merger of PaK in a like manner), would be a stark violation of UN resolutions on Kashmir (CPEC: Boon or Bane for Kashmir, http://kashmirreader.com/2017/04/04/cpecboonorbaneforkashmir ). It is also argued that if Pakistan will decide to merge GB with Pakistan without referendum, the Indian government may shun its rhetoric that GB and PaK were/are integral parts of India which India has maintained to counter Pakistan Government’s rhetoric that Kashmir was/is the ‘jugular vein’ of Pakistan.  This process will encourage the Government of India to fully integrate Jammu and Kashmir with Union of India by doing away with whatever is left of its so-called special status under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. The issue of plebiscite in Kashmir and giving Kashmiris an opportunity of deciding their political-territorial future through the exercise of right of self-determination will thus be buried once and for all. It is because of this possible fallout that pro-freedom leadership in Kashmir has unequivocally opposed any move by Pakistan to merge GB as another province.

All in all, CPEC will bring far-reaching changes in the region and alter geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic equations in ways never seen before. For now it looks full of promise, but there can be a good measure of perils as well lurking underneath the Corridor.


(Author is Senior Assistant Professor at Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir.)

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