Pakistan’s new tryst with Chinese power has evidently made India worried. This has led to a barrage of statements from both sides that is now working as fodder to fuel the historic tensions and acrimonies between the two countries. Much as the two sides pay lip service to the ideas of regional cooperation, the power of narrowly-defined nationalism and security override bilateral perceptions.
The $46 billion Pakistan-China Economic Corridor aims to connect the two countries through road and rail infrastructure and energy pipelines. India has objected to the corridor as it runs through a part of the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir that is administered by Pakistan. New Delhi calculates that the economic corridor may strengthen Pakistan's position on the dispute; and bring Chinese presence closer to an unstable border with Pakistan.
To this end, India summoned the Chinese envoy in Delhi and expressed its concerns about China routing the corridor through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, in particular the Gilgit-Baltistan region. According to Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to China raised the issue and termed the idea "unacceptable". This has been a self-fulfilling prophecy for hawks in Pakistan who have taken the Indian statements as confirmation of India’s hostility to the progress of Pakistan.
Notwithstanding the bilateral shenanigans, China maintains that the economic corridor project will "not target any third party". A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson reportedly said that the corridor was "not only of great significance for promoting the development of China and Pakistan but also of great significance to the stability and development of the whole region". China has been projecting economic cooperation with Pakistan as a catalyst for "enhancement of regional connectivity, as well as regional peace, stability and development".
A significant feature of the Chinese position remains that of neutrality in bilateral disputes and even recently, its officials have said that the "Kashmir issue is primarily an issue left over by history between India and Pakistan" and "should be properly settled by the two countries through dialogue and consultation". China views its growing influence and especially investment in Pakistan as an impetus for local development and is not meant to influence, undermine or threaten any party’s official position. Historically, Beijing has always called for resolving the Kashmir dispute through bilateral engagement between India and Pakistan. During all Indo-Pakistan conflicts of the past, Beijing had exercised restraint and remained neutral.
Should the expanding Chinese footprint in Pakistan worry India? Given the state of affairs in Pakistan over the last decade, for India, Chinese investment in Pakistan might be a blessing in disguise. Such investment competing in the scale with the Marshall Plan - a US initiative to reconstruct European economies following the Second World War - will surely lead to intended and unintended dividends for Pakistan, the region and most importantly, for Indo-Pakistan relations. Not unlike the Marshall Plan, it will strengthen stakeholders with an interest in stability and regional peace.
For development to take centerstage, Pakistan needs to dismantle the jihadi infrastructure and terrorist groups within the country. Domestic and foreign investment has stymied owing to insecurity. In June, 2014, Pakistan launched "Operation Zarb-e-Azb" against local and foreign terrorist groups. One of the primary targets of this military operation was the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Uzbek groups, which had been targeting Chinese interests and citizens in recent years. Significant progress made by Pakistan has led to the degradation of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)and ETIM. To root out terrorism, Pakistan is gradually moving to combating terrorist networks in urban centres. Thousands of suspects have been rounded up since December, 2014 and the distinction between "good" and "bad" extremists is waning. If this process continues, a dismantling of the jihadi infrastructure within the country is not a remote possibility.
Beijing is dependent on Pakistan to ensure the security of its citizens and investments, if the economic corridor project is to materialise. For this, Pakistan has to contain home-grown jihadi groups. In turn, India will benefit because time and again, it has called on the international community to pressurise Pakistan for reining in jihadists and curbing their activities. Now pushed by its ally, Pakistan is compelled to undertake such measures. New Delhi, though, is skeptical of Pakistan's efforts. But Beijing would not have committed $46 billion if it was not satisfied with the security prospects and the progress of the military operation that has made crucial gains in the fight against terrorism.
As a country aiming to increase its economic muscle, India is likely to benefit from a stable Pakistan. Economic stagnation within Pakistan during last decade has only helped terrorist networks that find foot soldiers from its impoverished regions such as the tribal areas and south Punjab. By connecting all provinces of Pakistan, the economic corridor project intends to benefit the country as a whole. A population ravaged by regional and internal conflict for more than a decade desperately needs stability and economic opportunities.
The objections raised by India concerning a part of corridor passing through the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan are more hyped than real. The project will not change the political position or the territorial status quo of the disputed territory. These are plain commercial ventures likely to expand the India-Pakistan trade, especially in the energy sector. India is an energy-deficient economy and with a stabilised Afghanistan, energy trade is far more likely to happen.
The fear of Chinese security personnel being stationed in Pakistan are unfounded. The Pakistan military has already announced that it will create a dedicated force to provide security to Chinese personnel and facilities in Pakistan as part of the project. Furthermore, Sino-Pakistan security cooperation is over five-decades-old now. At the same time, China trades far more with India and an expansion of economic relations is likely. For the Chinese, economic expansion is high on agenda and it is highly unlikely that through Pakistan, it wants to encircle India. This is not to say that the Chinese don’t have strategic ambitions, but their concerns are more economic given the goal to develop poorer regions in the west and containing extremism in the Xinjiang province of China.
Another concern resonating in India is that Pakistan’s military will further consolidate its hold over the economy through the economic corridor project. This is a rather simplistic view given that all the political forces in Pakistan view the corridor as a means of reaping future political dividends. There is intense competition between the provinces for investment; and they have been deliberating over the potential route so that it covers all the provinces without benefiting any region in particular.
As Pakistan and China proceed with the project, an unintended, but vital, consequence could be the potential transformation in the character of Pakistani state itself. At present, security overshadows the development agenda. As China gains more leverage in the country’s decision-making structures, the development goals are likely to receive more traction within Pakistan’s civil and military establishment. The economy-centric agenda of political elites, supported by China, could, in the medium to long run, improve the civil-military imbalance. These shifts within the Pakistani state should be welcome in New Delhi.
The US has welcomed the Chinese role in mediating between the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a convergence between the US and Chinese interests as both wish to see regional jihadi networks contained and tamed by Pakistan. Ironically, Indian and Chinese interests also converge on this point. This should prompt a rethink in policy by New Delhi’s policy elites. Old school narratives on regional security emanate from bureaucratic inertia and are at odds with the dynamic approach that Narendra Modi had promised to his country.