Over $60 billion is the billing for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as on date. The road will run from Kashgar, China through the disputed regions of Gilgit-Baltistan, across the length of Pakistan's troubled provinces to the warm water sea port of Gwadar in Baluchistan.
The CPEC is the showpiece and crown jewel of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative, Chinese expect, will pirouette them into a more proximate comparison with the USA in geopolitics and economics. However, the highway could also provide access to China's soft-underbelly, the restive Xinjiang province where an insurgency with an Islamist flavour is already going on.
Notwithstanding the raging debate in Pakistan about the likelihood of its stepping into a debt trap, becoming a vassal state, losing its strategic sovereignty and risking its already strained domestic social cohesion, very little can be predicted about how perilous the Chinese may find the long journey to Gwadar port. Are they investing in a project that will fetch a strategic bonanza or will their container traffic run repeatedly into ambushes? Is it a grand extension of geo political objectives or an economic minefield? More importantly, will the project also accentuate the Uighur problem in their Xinjiang province?
For starters, the road runs through one of the most volatile stretches in the world. Every other reckonable global terrorist group has a foothold if not an established base in Pakistan. It's the home of al Qaeda; a group that has displayed enough resilience even after the Americans having successfully wiped out most of the top leadership including its founder Osama bin Laden. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has also established itself in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and gathered enough strength to undertake major operations in Afghanistan.
President Trump, in his speech on August 21 about the new Afghan policy said, "Today 20 US-designated foreign terrorist organisations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The highest concentration in any region, anywhere in the world. For its part, Pakistan has for long been providing safe havens to agents of chaos, violence, and terror."
The resistance movements in Gilgit-Baltistan and Baluchistan also have capacities to use violence. Will the Chinese container trains be able to steam across this terrain in their run to the port at Gwadar and back without running through fusillades!
Pakistan has raised an over 10,000 strong division for protection of the CPEC route and other assets. However, with the military looking at the jihadist as its strategic partner, to what extent can this force be relied upon?
Pakistan is also a nuclear state. The stakes for global jihad are extremely high in Pakistan. Its armed forces that guard these weapon systems are also considerably radicalised. These weapons are invaluable for terrorist groups. It's unlikely that they will move out even if Pakistan were to deploy its military in strength. In fact, they have no other option that is even half as good.
The strains in Pakistan-China relationship will surface when the Chinese investments do not fetch the anticipated returns.
The strains in Pakistan-China relationship will surface when the Chinese investments do not fetch the anticipated returns. Hopes of such returns may also ride a downward curve, as violence and instability put paid to initial projections. The Chinese, if they go by the models they are using in Sri Lanka and also elsewhere, may take over the assets on long-term lease thus further constraining Pakistan's sovereignty. But, will Chinese businesses be ready to invest in such an unpredictable scenario?
It would be relevant for the Chinese to study how Pakistan ensured American aid keeps flowing over the years. It needs to be granted to Pakistan that in spite of being the global nursery of terrorism, it retained the status of being the frontline state in the US-led global war on terror.
To quote president Trump again, "Pakistan has also sheltered the same organisations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars. At the same time, they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting... No partnership can survive a country's harbouring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials."
Chinese Xinjiang province with its Uyghur problem already has the separatist Turkestan Islamic Party movement to deal with. If the Pakistanis can calibrate the Uyghur insurgency, by playing a game similar to what they have run against the US in Afghanistan, they might be able to keep the Chinese purse strings open longer. The Pakistani establishment is extensively experienced in both exporting and providing sustained support to insurgencies in its bordering countries. It would be advisable for the Chinese to study the American experience in
Afghanistan in detail. Once they commit adequate funds to the project, the initiative will have passed to Pakistan.
A slew of infrastructure, power, pipeline projects will dot the landscape in proximity of the CPEC corridor. There will be an influx of Chinese workforce to push the pace of construction initially and for running these facilities, thereafter. They are not known to very adaptable to local cultures. It's unlikely that these business establishments will herald the flourishing of a great people to people relationship between the two countries. In fact, it could well be the other way round. The Chinese must care for casualties their workforce could suffer in Pakistan and the reaction back home that is bound to be shrill.
Communities in Gilgit-Baltistan to the North of Pakistan and Baluchistan to the south are already sceptic; even hostile to the project. Over a period of time, as they feel that the spinoffs, if at all, have passed them by and been garnered by the province of Punjab that dominates Pakistani political and military establishments, the response would be more volatile.
Saner voices in Beijing have started warning its policy-makers to go slow on CPEC. It's important for the Chinese to study the American experience with Pakistan before they commit their funds to create a high risk corridor that also threatens their soft underbelly in Xinjiang.
The Chinese must realise that even divergent Islamist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS converge in identifying China as an enemy. Both these groups have enough fighters along the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders who would want to join the battle in Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous province.