There is considerable brouhaha over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s journey to the west—neighbouring Pakistan —what with a pledge of a whopping $46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which purports to link western China with the southern port of Gwadar in Pakistan. This will, in effect, facilitate China’s easier access to the Persian Gulf countries (which hold more than half of the world’s oil reserves) and cut China’s reliance on the maritime route of transportation, which relies on the longer Indian Ocean route through the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea. India’s experts may suspect that Gwadar could, in addition, morph into a Chinese naval base.
There is good reason to laud the ambition—China enters the vacuum when nobody else does, this round with a strategic “1+4” vision: “Economic Corridor at the centre, the Gwadar Port, energy, infrastructure and industrial cooperation” being the other four arms. For Pakistan, in short supply of allies but with “four arms”, this would be the proverbial shot in the arm. Much of the money will be spent overhauling and modernising the tired power infrastructure, adding 16,000 MW of electricity by 2021, creating employment and lending to political stability.
For China, too, this is the first of the initiatives of President Jinping’s pet project, part of a larger, grandiose Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road plan announced last year (2014). China-Pakistan’s “all weather friendship” appears a rosy “win-win” with bilateral trade growing from $4.26 billion in 2005 to $16 billion in 2014, estimated to reach $20 billion in the next three years. The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed in 2006 has been instrumental in giving trade a big push. And it helps that Pakistan has pledged to buy $6 billion worth of Chinese submarines.
But if only logistics were horses, the project would fly. Amidst the excitement on both sides, the sobering ground realities, which pose formidable obstacles for the newly-fangled “iron brothers”, are increasingly being recognised.
For one, Pakistan had to transfer the contract to operate and upgrade the Gwadar port from the Port of Singapore Authority to China Overseas Port Holdings in 2013, after Singapore decided to pull out of a 40-year management contract signed in 2007.
The Gwadar port on the Makran coast rests on the Arabian Sea. It is 100-km from the border with Iran, 400-km from Straits of Hormuz (the busiest passage for the oil trade) and 586-km along the inland route from the Indian supported port of Chabahar in Iran.
The CPEC is the culmination of a comprehensive strategy beginning with Gwadar in 2002, when President Pervez Musharraf signed the agreement with Premier Wu Bangguo in 2002, with China financing $198 million for the phase-1 cost of $248 million, four times Pakistan’s contribution, of which $50 million was outright grant, $50 million commercial credit, and $98 million Chinese state credit.
In conjunction, it is estimated that China committed $750 million for rail modernisation in 2001 and 2003, and $198 million for Gwadar phase-2 in 2005, adding up $1.15 billion.
Other projects that China helped are the Makran Coastal Highway that runs parallel to the coastline linking Gwadar-Quetta-Karachi. The up-gradation of the Karakoram Highway (Sino-Pakistan Friendship Highway) also took place in the mid 2000s. The latter links Xinjiang Autonomous Region (hereafter referred to as the province) with Pakistan through the high-altitude Khunjerab Pass (about 5,000 metres above sea level) implemented under the supervision of the Chinese Roads and Bridges Construction Corporation. In 2014, China committed $297 million for a four-lane highway, which will connect Islamabad through the Karakoram Highway.
Kashgar, the end point, is in China’s restive Xinjiang province, famously described as geographically and culturally closer to New Delhi than to Beijing. Xinjiang’s demographic profile indicates that the Uyghurs (Turkic Muslims) have gone from an estimated 80% of the population to less than 50% in the last five decades, which has caused considerable heartburn.
Northern Xinjiang (where capital Urumqi is located) faces Beijing and Southern Xinjiang, Central Asia (Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan). Simply understood, the demographic profile of Northern Xinjiang is predominantly ethnic Han or Mongol with the Uyghur as minority; but the case of Southern Xinjiang is the opposite. In Southern Xinjiang, Khotan, Aksu, Kizilsu Kyrgyz and the most important Kashgar are the Uyghur stronghold.
The proposed transportation corridor begins at the “gateway” in Gwadar and runs 3,000-km (1,800 miles) touching Quetta (Balochistan), Islamabad, through Pakistan Administered Kashmir to reach Kashgar. Simply understood, it links one hotbed (in Pakistan) to another hotbed (in China)—through other hotbeds.
Take the case of Gwadar, Balochistan, which is the largest but the most sparsely populated province in Pakistan, bordering both Iran and Afghanistan. It is an arid region populated by Baloch, Pushtuns and Brahui, described as “ethnically and linguistically Pakistan’s most diverse province.” Adding to the population mix are the Hazara who came from Afghanistan (and who are Shia Muslims) and the Punjabis, both of whom are viewed as the “outsiders” by the locals.
Balochistan has seen “five separate insurgencies” in the last decades. To add to woes, the bungling of land for development in Gwadar, simmering Shia-Sunni divide exacerbated by the proselytising hand of Iran, the fall-out of civil strife in Afghanistan is further topped by allegations that Balochistan has become a haven both for Deobandi revivalism and the Taliban.
Xinjiang is a hotbed of issues. The Tiananmen Square attacks in October 2013, and a spate of attacks in Kunming and Urumqi in 2014 were attributed to a section of the Uyghurs. China alleges that Uyghur “jihadists” are being trained in Pakistan; it is alleged that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) uses Pakistan as a base.
Today, as China increasingly opens its doors to Central Asia, South Asia and beyond, it has to incomprehensibly factor in the larger implications. How does China balance its Janus-faced policy—slamming its own people as “jihadists” and yet seeking integration and cooperation in the neighbouring Muslim world?
This is challenging, as China makes Pakistan a destination for its labour-force and imports its “dormitory regime” model (which has backfired in Africa and in Pakistan in the past). Besides, due to ground realities, past projects have been underutilised or delayed.
The CPEC offers potential opportunity for Chinese companies to pitch on road works, train tracks, gas & oil pipelines and infrastructure. Though the corridor bypasses Baloch and Pashtun areas, there have been cases of kidnapping, ambushing and bombing Chinese personnel, convoys and companies in Pakistan, resulting in deaths. In 2011, one of China’s largest private coal mining companies, Kingho Group, pulled out of the Thar coal mining project, Sindh, from a $19 billion deal citing security concerns. This has undoubtedly necessitated a 12,000-strong Pakistan army unit being specially created for the security of the Chinese personnel working on the current project.
Indeed, the ambitious mega project panning China’s “Belt and Road” footprints across Central and South Asia revives allegories ingrained in China’s own 16th century classic Journey to the West—only that the current times resonate with demons, monsters and sand spirits of another kind, with no modern-day Sun Wukong (China’s Hanuman, the hero of the classic) to brave obstacles away.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and currently adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi