In 2015, the agreement initiating the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was signed. This was the inception of the billion-dollar infrastructural project that China had to undertake as part of its greater Belt-Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI, the New Silk Road as some call it, had a macro-vision of connecting Eastern Asia all the way to Europe. The project includes multiple economic zones as well as networks of railways, highways, and energy pipelines facilitating economic and traditional exchanges across the continents on a vast level.
It is therefore not surprising that a mega-plan such as this has garnered the attention of many skeptic analysts across the world, particularly in the United States. Many are concerned that the ambitious project is an attempt to extend Chinese influence across East and South East Asia. If so, a bold developmental plan such as this offered to struggling developing countries was sure to be a success.
It is not futile to wonder why the world’s largest economy is pursuing a mega-project that has been projected as primarily bringing economic benefit. The CPEC project is not an easy undertaking and has seen its fair share of problems in the years since its inception. Firstly, the geography provides sufficient resistance, and the CPEC road passes through earthquake zones and mountainous terrain. The area bordering the Xinjiang region is also politically sensitive since the territory is claimed by India and is the point of insurgent movements.
Moreover, the current infrastructure in Pakistan is lacking and requires a large Chinese investment that may have an uncertain future given the country’s record of financial debt repayment. Perhaps the greatest struggle is maintaining security around the sites of infrastructural development. CPEC suffered a setback when 14 people were killed in a terrorist attack near a CPEC site in Gwadar in 2020. Frequent insurgencies and violent outbreaks have also warranted the presence of the Pakistan Army near project sites, further unsettling analysts and the public.
In 2003, President Hu Jintao stated that the main goal of CPEC was to create an alternate route to the South China Sea where essential trade is carried out from China. 40% of global natural gas trade was carried out through the South China Sea in 2017. The route is often under threat of piracy and blockades. In fact, in recent years, China had to deal with US warships that had made way on the sea route, which had become a source of much disharmony between the two.
In reality, sources have said that the turbulence in the South China sea route alone does not warrant the undertaking of a grand infrastructural scheme such as CPEC since the problem does not match the cost of the solution in its magnitude. The logistical and geographical impediments, on the other hand, in constructing a link between Gwadar and China are enormous.
These technical impediments paired with security concerns are enough to declare the project impractical, yet it continues. This demands a probe into the intentions of the two countries in pursuing this ambitious infrastructural endeavor.
As the above analysis suggests, the idea of building a pipeline (and even a railroad) from Gwadar to Kashgar seems impractical. In this case, a few questions need to be answered. First of all, why is China interested in Gwadar? Secondly, what does China expect from CPEC? What is China’s general aim for “all-weather ally” Pakistan? And lastly, what expectations does Pakistan have from China?
A Political Scientist in the UK, Dr. Filippo Bonnie, believes that security, economic and foreign policy are intertwined with respect to the development of relations between Pakistan and China especially, the port of Gwadar.
Several analysts who have interviewed or maintain contacts with Chinese foreign policymakers have noted that according to their sources, China’s long-term priority in Pakistan has been to prioritize security concerns over economic ones. Several analysts who have interviewed or contacted China’s foreign policymakers claim that China’s long-term priority in Pakistan is to prioritize security over economic interests, according to their sources.
American political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer had proposed a US-specific strategy called offshore balancing. It encourages the US allies to prepare their own defense at sea instead of relying on a US naval presence on their shore.
A common ailment from which both Pakistan and China suffer is India. The geographical proximity to a country that holds ill-intention and is engaged in multiple territorial disputes with both Pakistan and China is enough to strengthen the Pak-China friendship.
There is a significant amount of evidence that suggests that the CPEC project is more geopolitical in nature than geo-economic and that while the picture painted by skeptical US analysts is not completely fictional, it may, after all, contain a grain of truth. CPEC’s primary goal seems to be strategic positioning in South East Asia in order to gain a foothold against the regional rival, which is India.
Thinking of China’s participation in the Indian Ocean as a geographical balance allows for a clearer understanding, rather than simply declaring China’s actions as aggression or a hard-balancing act. Basically, instead of directly challenging or threatening India, China plans to create physical assets to strengthen its overall long-term defense security. Face-to-face with India directly at sea is currently impractical in terms of naval projections, especially due to the US military’s continued presence in the Indian Ocean.