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China Goes to Islamabad: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

11/06/2015 15:16 BST | Updated 07/06/2016 10:59 BST

Apparently, China is beginning to have forsaken its vigilant approach to ties with Pakistan and has pursued a policy of active and deep engagement. In recent years, the relationship between Beijing and Islamabad has expanded beyond diplomatic and political domains. One most recent development was the announcement of the US$46 billion worth mega-project, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), last April which intends to connect China's landlocked Kashgar to Pakistan's port of Gwadar through a linkage of roads.

The fact that the announcement came amidst Pakistan's ongoing political instability and increasing terrorism threats demonstrates China's strong interests in the country. One solid explanation is China's geopolitical interests. In recent decades, China has exerted a number of efforts to increase its political and economic clouts around the world. The most recent endeavor is the newly revealed Silk Road Initiatives which aim to connect Asia with the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

In order to realise the initiatives, it is difficult for China to ignore the significance of Pakistan. In spite of unstable political and economic environments, Pakistan has a relatively strategic location. For Beijing, Pakistan is a gateway to the Central Asia and the Arab world, where it has attempted to expand its soft-power, and is expected to depend heavily on their natural resources in the coming years. China has become increasingly reliant on Middle East energy resources and does not have a short-term alternative source. Therefore, Beijing's energy imports will increase exponentially, and oil and natural from the Middle East will account for much of that increase.

Switching access to the Middle East from a tedious sea line to a much shorter road journey is therefore considerably important for China. The CPEC will run from China's city Kashgar to Pakistan's Gwadar port, which would enable China's naval barges and traders to bypass the long and pirates-dominated Malacca Straits. With regards to energy security, oil pipelines through Pakistan would cut out sea travel through South East Asia. Simultaneously, the highways and railways to be built under the CPEC plan will give merchants from China an overland bypass between China, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, and could slash travelling time and costs significantly. This is probably why the Chinese have had their eyes on Gwadar since many years ago even though little progress has been made. In fact, China offered financial and technical assistance in the construction of the port which started in 2003 and has also helped develop and upgrade the port in the subsequent years.

But today, with deals inked and budgets admeasured, the long-held Chinese dream will soon become reality. However, both China and Pakistan have several hurdles in front of them. There are several insurgent movements operating along the planned CPEC. Gwadar is also situated not far from Balochistan, a region that is facing tremendous security issues. At the same time, China is afraid that Pakistani radical movements might infiltrate China's western Xinjiang, which has its own insurgency, and may be considering greater oaths from the Pakistani government on that matter. In addition, a number of Pakistani political parties have already asserted strong criticisms about the CPEC, asserting that Islamabad is working in favor of its own political interests.

Though it may be true that these security issues have previously caused several Chinese endeavors in Pakistan unsuccessful, I tend to believe that CPEC is different given the commitment by the government in Beijing to the success of Silk Road Initiatives. China would exert any effort to jump over any hurdle that come in the way of the realisation of those initiatives.

If successful, the plan would greatly help Pakistan's fledging economy and would enable China to implement its powerful Silk Road plans, which could elevate China's leverage in the region and ultimately challenge the United States as a dominant regional power.