‘Dragon’ Xi visits Pakistan
President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Pakistan has been dubbed a highly significant and momentous one. Pakistan is China’s oldest and closest ally in South East Asia and their partnership has often been viewed in New Delhi as Beijing’s tool to keep India in check. In fact the promised $45 billion investment into Pakistan is supposedly being given with the implicit intention of giving China access to the former’s ports on the Arabian sea.
Aside from building much-needed infrastructure, China also seeks to make Pakistan a key partner under their grand economic and strategic ambitions. Under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor plan, the Chinese government and banks will lend to Chinese companies, so that they can invest in commercial ventures.
Some US $15.5 billion worth of Chinese supplied coal, wind, solar and hydro energy projects will come online by 2017. This sum will add 10,400 megawatts of energy to Pakistan’s national grid. A $44 million optical fibre cable between the two countries is also due to be built. Under the proposed China-Pakistan economic corridor, strengthened rail and road networks will allow Chinese goods to flow the length of Pakistan: from its northern mountains to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.
For China it would provide a shorter, alternative route to major oil-producing countries than the Strait of Malacca, which is an overcrowded and relatively shallow sea lane frequented by pirates. However, is this humongous infrastructure-building really going to happen? Is this big donation suitable for an unstable nation that is battling terror groups and has struggled to attract significant foreign investment?
The huge sums offered by China dwarf the billions spent over the last decade by the US in its attempts to stabilize the fragile nuclear power and enlist its support for the war against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Was that effort successful?
The United States generosity to Pakistan, including payments of $1.5 billion a year since 2010 under the so-called “Kerry-Lugar” act, has failed to elicit anything akin to a warm relationship. Even though much of the cash was funneled to the Pakistani army, the country’s most powerful institution, relations between the two nations were often tense and the US polled among the least loved nations in local opinion polls.
American officials ultimately concluded and admitted that the payments were too scattered and failed to dissuade Pakistan from secretly backing its old allies, the Taliban. Yes, the China-Pakistan case is different; China has long regarded Pakistan as an unflinchingly loyal ally, rewarding it with arms sales and assistance with its nuclear programme. For its part, Pakistan puts enormous store by its relationship with a giant neighbor with which it has little in common.
In fact the plans to link China to the waters of the Arabian Sea via Pakistani territory have been around for decades, and engineers began the task of carving a road through one of world’s toughest mountain ranges in the 1960s. Traffic and trade, however, remained light on this route and in recent years a large section of the Karakorum Highway has been submerged under a lake formed when a landslide blocked a river.
With this new source of funding the route will run some 3,000 km (1,800 miles) from Gwadar in Pakistan to China’s western Xinjiang region. However, the security of the route will be one of the biggest challenges, not least in Balochistan, home of the Gwadar seaport and a decade-old separatist insurgency. Should we believe the Pakistani army’s statement that it has plans to raise a special force to protect the large numbers of Chinese engineers and workers, who will help to build up the province’s infrastructure?
China is worried about violence from ethnic Uighurs in its mostly Muslim north-western Xinjiang region and fears hard-line separatists could team up with Uighur militants fighting alongside members of Pakistan’s Taliban. On the other hand, China, also wants to see Pakistan tackle Jihadi militants and help end the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, given the links they have with Muslim separatists in China’s westernmost Xinjiang region.
Given this, why is China investing in Pakistan? Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan had all the marks of a diplomatic show to keep India and its allies on their toes. For instance, a fleet of eight JF-17 Thunder fighter jets jointly made by China and Pakistan had escorted the Chinese president once his plane entered Pakistani airspace. A red-carpet welcome was accorded to Xi who has chosen Pakistan as his first foreign destination in 2015 after cancelling his previous trips to Pakistan.
If we closely analyse all the agreements done between China and Pakistan during Xi Jinping’s previous visit we will understand the Chinese game plan. A defence agreement worth $4-5 billion to provide eight latest submarines was signed. This will amount to more than double of Pakistan Navy’s fleet. India’s Navy may find this cause for concern if Pak and Chinese submarines team up at the Indian Ocean waters. As a hypothetical war scenario, Japanese, American and Indian Navies will be obligated to team up leading to a perpetual war like situation.
The author is a senior journalist