In Pakistan, the significance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is poorly understood. The Straits of Malacca connect China with global trade through an expansive 12,000km sea route. Then, to transport their goods to the Xingjiang region, the Chinese must travel another 3,500km over land. A quarter of the world’s, and most of China’s oil, passes through the Straits, whose control is continually challenged for domination by the US Navy and Indian pretensions giving rise to the ‘Malacca Dilemma’. The CPEC reduces China’s route from the Indian Ocean to 3,000km across Pakistani territory from the Gwadar Port and avoids the Straits altogether. It facilitates trade by road and rail, while at the same time boosting oil and gas pipelines through infrastructure enhancement. Gwadar has a 200,000 tonne tanker capacity, which presents unmatched opportunities for boosting global economic interactivity within Pakistan. Located strategically at the tail of the Corridor, yet at the confluence of most of the world’s oil-producing states, Gwadar automatically becomes one of the largest transshipment ports. It is envisaged to have an international airport, crude oil refineries and the ability to dock larger ships, turning it into a robust trade and transportation hub.
Apprehensions about interdiction and disruption of the CPEC are understandable, with India, the Middle East and the US, all likely to be affected by the deal. Pakistan can expect to find itself targeted by those focused intently on containing China. Afghanistan has already threatened to block energy pipelines from Central Asia, quid pro quo for Pakistan blocking land access to India. Fortunately, China has reincarnated the Silk Route through Kyrgyzstan via Kashgar as a way to circumvent Afghanistan. Encouraged by Indian instigation, Afghanistan has now rejected the Durand Line with new vigour, negatively impacting the CPEC by inciting Pakhtun sentiment.
India, too, has rediscovered new urgency to integrate Gilgit-Baltistan into Indian-occupied Kashmir. It envisages severing a Pak-China land connection and is at pains to present new maps to the world, which project Gilgit as Indian territory, a shameless attempt to shape international opinion. Also, with its huge coal reserves, the Thar desert in southern Pakistan is another hotspot due to being instrumental in energy generation projects integrated into the CPEC. This area could be uniquely vulnerable to Indian interference. A potential for future conflict looms ominously and puts Pakistan in a dangerous situation, with there being threats at its extremities, i.e., at Gilgit, Thar, as well as the western border.
Pakistan is likely to suffer even more political instability, insurgency, terrorism, ideological conflicts and separatist movements as the CPEC progresses. For its part, Pakistan must become more adept at diplomacy and supplement those efforts with political reforms at home. If the CPEC is to be a success, the military will play a key role in balancing dynamic responses to repel hostile activity at the limbs while also protecting China’s projects from terrorism. The CPEC’s security would further benefit by integrating more stakeholders, especially the Balochis, who could significantly benefit from the success of the Gwadar Port but currently feel neglected. Of the possible foreign partners, Russia is positioned to be a beneficiary of the new trade route and thus makes a natural target for support. Its involvement would be a way to counter the Indo-US nexus. The competitive nature of the US may even inspire Russia to jump into the fray at some point. No matter how you cut it, the global implications of the CPEC can’t be ignored and Pakistan must be prepared to fight on all fronts to achieve success.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2016.