With the threat from Pakistan, the Indian military has been largely confined to south Asia, allowing China a free hand in the rest of the continent.
As the aircraft carrying Chinese President Xi Jinping entered Pakistani airspace on April 20, eight Pakistani JF-17 fighter jets—jointly manufactured by the two countries—were dispatched to escort the presidential flight. At the airport in Islamabad, all senior Pakistani leaders were present to receive Xi. And, the road out of the airport had photographs of Xi hanging on every lamp post.
The Pakistanis left no stone unturned to demonstrate the significance of Xi’s visit and the role China is expected to play in the Pakistani scheme of things. “This will be my first trip to Pakistan, but I feel as if I am going to visit the home of my own brother,” wrote Xi in an article published in Pakistani newspapers ahead of his visit.And he did not disappoint. Xi came carrying gifts said to be worth $46 billion, an amount that is thrice the entire foreign direct investment Pakistan received since 2008. During his two-day trip, Xi signed agreements reportedly worth more than $28 billion. The centrepiece of the projects was the new “Silk Road”, a land-and-sea-based economic corridor called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) connecting China to Europe and the Middle East through Pakistan, central Asia and Russia. It will link Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province with the port city of Gwadar in Baluchistan.
Other major projects include reforming the Pakistani energy infrastructure by supporting the proposed gas pipeline from Iran and adding nearly 10,400 megawatts to the national power grid over the next 15 years by building coal and hydropower plants and solar parks. The Chinese motives are not just altruistic. Beijing has been keen on having direct access to the Arabian Sea for quite sometime. The offer to develop the port in Gwadar was a result of this plan. But that is just the primary phase of the project. The fruits of Gwadar can only be enjoyed by linking it to the Chinese mainland, allowing the transport of goods overland. It is part of China’s strategy to overcome the Malacca dilemma, its reliance on the Straits of Malacca, which lies between Malaysia and Indonesia. All of China’s energy imports from the Middle East passes through the Straits of Malacca. Beijing is, in fact, prepared to bear great political and financial costs to open up an alternative route to circumvent the Straits of Malacca.
Second, China is witnessing an economic slump and the proposed investment in Pakistan opens up a new investment destination. Moreover, the entire project is likely to be handled exclusively by the Chinese, with Chinese banks giving loans to Chinese companies to carry out the work and, perhaps, even using Chinese workers, thereby providing a boost to the Chinese economy.
Third, China wants to draw Pakistan into its security calculus. With the imminent departure of the US from Afghanistan, the entire region could slip back to chaos. The presence of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement in the Xinjiang Province, which has the support of its restive Uighurs worries China. The Uighurs complain of cultural and economic repression by the government in Beijing and its Han majority. Some of the Uighur separatists are said to be trained in camps located in the tribal areas near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, particularly in North Waziristan. By playing a greater role in Pakistan’s affairs, Beijing hopes to keep such separatist tendencies under check.
Finally, China also intends to keep Pakistan firmly in its camp. The strategy of playing Pakistan against India has paid ample dividends. With the threat from Pakistan, the Indian military has been largely confined to south Asia, allowing China a free hand in the rest of the continent. The Sino-Pak project, however, will be a major challenge for both countries. Security will be the foremost issue as a major chunk of the construction work will take place in and around Gwadar, located in the restive southwestern province of Baluchistan. The Balochs have been waging a war against the Pakistani state for quite some time. Several Chinese workers working on the Gwadar project have faced attack from the Baloch separatists in the past.
Accepting the gravity of the situation, Pakistan has already announced the creation of a special security force of 12,000 men to protect the Chinese workers and the infrastructure projects. The force comprises nine battalions of the Pakistani military and six battalions of paramilitary forces like the Rangers. “Let me assure you, Mr President, Pakistan considers China’s security as our own security,” said Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a speech in parliament on April 21, in the presence of Xi.
Critics, however, point out that China has made such pledges in the past but failed to honour many of them. In 2005, for instance, it had announced a $24 billion investment package for Indonesia, but till the end of last year, it invested only a meagre $1.8 billion there. There are commentators who argue that the figure of $46 billion is not realistic and is nothing more than Sino-Pak propaganda.
China is unlikely to put all its eggs in the Pak basket, keeping in mind the political and economic realities of south Asia. Chinese trade with India is more than six times its trade with Pakistan and China knows there is no comparison between the two countries in terms of growth potential. Moreover, while 78 per cent of Pakistanis have a favourable view of China, only 30 per cent of the Chinese think of Pakistan as an ally, the same number as that for India.No wonder Xi is exercising caution. After Barack Obama sprang a surprise by participating in the Indian Republic Day parade on January 26 as chief guest, the Pakistanis made a similar request to Xi to attend the Pakistan Day parade on March 23. Xi politely declined.