Understanding Beijing’s Thinking Behind The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
In view of threats along its regular route through the Malacca Straits, China has planned CPEC as the alternative route to the Indian Ocean.
A land route, a new version of the ancient Silk Route – dubbed the maritime Silk Route, has been a strategic goal for the Chinese since the 1950s.
However, geo-political pressures on multiple levels ensure there are strong headwinds against this project.
In this first part of two articles, the authors analyse how an ostensible geopolitical coup – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, terminating in the port of Gwadar – is a potential quagmire in terms of geopolitics.
A world conqueror returns
When Alexander returned from India, he was misled into marching back to Persia through the Makran desert. This is a narrow coastal plain abutting high mountain ranges. Temperatures rise to 50 C during the summer.
Hemmed in by the narrow plain and harried by Malloi tribesmen, the world conqueror's army, which had fought across most of the known world, perished in large numbers like cornered rats.
The eventual insubordination of his army and ill health finally did Alexander in, a few years later.
These Malloi were the forefathers of today’s Bugti and Marri. They probably spoke some distant Iranic ancestor of Balochi, or probably of Brahui, a Dravidian language that survives in this inhospitable waste, far from the subcontinental peninsula.
The Islamic juggernaut takes a detour
The Rashidun Caliph Umar, after a few skirmishes on the eastern borders of what had been the Sassanian Persian Empire, enquired about the nature of Makran, and when informed, “O Commander of the faithful! It’s a land where the plains are stony; Where water is scanty; Where the fruits are unsavoury; Where men are known for treachery; Where plenty is unknown; Where virtue is held of little account; And where evil is dominant. A large army is less for there; And a less army is useless there,” instructed the Governor of Bahrain to leave the region alone.
And thus it stayed, a nominal vassal territory to Umayyads, Abbasids, the Mongol Ilkhanate and various Turkic dynasties that swept out of inner Asia into Persia and the Indian subcontinent.
Throughout the British ascendancy in the subcontinent, the port city of Gwadar was held by the Sultan of Oman, until it was added to Pakistan as part of the annexation of the Khan of Kalat’s territory.
The Middle Kingdom seeks an outlet to the Indian Ocean
The Chinese government initiated the development of a deep water harbour at Gwadar in 2002, and completed it in 2006.
After this port was constructed, expansion and further development was halted due to the political instability in Pakistan.
This port has been touted by Pakistan’s army as a competitor to Hong Kong. However, nearly a decade after completion, the port is still not fully operational. Also, the Special Economic Zone designated adjacent to the port has come unstuck, due to strategic difficulties expressed by Pakistan’s navy.
In the meantime, the expansion and development of Chabahar, an existing port 100 miles to the west, in Iran, has effectively curtailed the need for any such port.
After the deal with the United States (US), it is expected that thawing trade relations for Iran will squeeze any traffic being routed to Gwadar.
One Belt One Road – The Chinese case for the CPEC
China’s strategic shifts are two-fold:
1. Integration with Africa
a) Chinese government-backed firms are investing for the long-term in natural resources – land, agriculture and minerals – in Africa.
b) Africa, after the larger Islamic world, is the region with the fastest growing population and will, therefore, become a large market for finished goods.
c) In the long-term, Africa must move from basic resource extraction to manufacturing. Chinese-funded infrastructure development in Africa is made with this end in mind; for example, the Djibouti-Ethiopia electrified railway line.
d) From a geo-strategic perspective, the Chinese naval facility in Djibouti is a point of military leverage for the Chinese in the Western and Southern Indian Ocean.
2. Tensions in East and South East Asia – a rising China is increasingly seen as a regional hegemon
a) East Asian countries – notably Taiwan, Japan and South Korea – are understandably wary of the Chinese rise.
b) Countries such as Vietnam and Philippines, which have large and growing populations, would view a China hungry for the resources of the South China Sea with caution.
c) Vietnam is building strategic partnerships with the US and India. From the Indian viewpoint, granting the Indian Navy access to key naval bases is one aspect. The Vietnamese army has received military aid from India and is looking at possibly acquiring the BrahMos missile system.
d) Indonesia, despite President Jokowi’s early bonhomie with China, is beginning to strengthen its naval position, particularly in waters around the strategic and resource-rich Natuna islands.
e) Prior to the lifting of sanctions, China was Myanmar’s most important economic partner. This resulted in the oil and gas pipeline project which connects the Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar to the city of Kunming in China. However, as sanctions were lifted and Myanmar began engaging the world for foreign direct investment, resentment towards China has increased. Native Myanmarese resent extraction of resources for China.
- Myitsone hydroelectric dam project, with 100 per cent of its electricity meant for China, was suspended.
- Kyaukpyu to Kunming pipelines go through restive regions with ongoing insurgencies.
- The Myanmar government also accuses Beijing of backing ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels in their northeast.
- A Myanmar air force strike in 2015 on these rebels resulted in casualties on the Chinese side of the border.
Traditional Chinese trade routes have been through the Malacca Straits and around the Indian subcontinent. Currently, this is the primary route to the partners of the future in Africa. On this route, the Chinese can expect the following threats:
- Restrictions on the sea route through the Malacca Straits due to recalcitrant East and South East Asian neighbours.
- A naval blockade by the Indian Navy is a clear and present danger for the Chinese. The possibility of such an action being backed by Indonesia is also there. After all, from Indira Point in the Andamans to Banda Aceh is a mere 115 nautical miles.
- There is historical precedent – 1,000 years ago, Rajendra Chola I’s establishment of a forward base at Nakkavaram (Nicobar) or the Sack of Kadaram (Kedah) were in response to the Sri Vijayan thalassocracy raising the tool for cargo passing through the Malacca Straits.
- The earlier advantage the Chinese had in Sri Lanka viz the naval port of Hambantota, which would stay far from the Indian peninsula, is now being eroded. After the successful execution of the war against separatist Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan government will see more value in aligning with its immediate northern neighbour. Also, without the Achilles heel of antagonising the native Tamil population, the Indian government will be free to pursue its strategic interests in Sri Lanka. The growth of the Indian economy will mean that the port will be better off meeting Indian market requirements. Additionally, existing oil storage facilities have insufficient capacity to hold crude destined for the Chinese markets.
- Change in the political landscape of Sri Lanka means that the current government will not want to antagonise India by granting too much access to Chinese vessels, both commercial and naval.
The CPEC – China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – is planned as the alternative route to the Indian Ocean. A land route, a new version of the ancient Silk Route – dubbed the maritime Silk Route, has been a strategic goal for the Chinese since the 1950s. President Xi Jinping, faced with a slowing economy and worsening relations with the US, has embarked upon this project as one of his ambitious attempts to leave a lasting legacy for the Han.
The intention is to have a land route starting from Gwadar and cutting across to Kashgar, and then across the Karakoram through Xinjiang and onto the bustling cities of China.
This also ties in with the Chinese plan to decongest the coastal plains and populate the languishing Western Regions.
From a political perspective, there are certain strong headwinds against the project:
- Iran, which looks upon China in purely economic terms and as a distant player, will definitely be negatively disposed to this project for the following reasons:
- The projection of Chinese influence in an area that Iran has traditionally looked upon as a civilisational extension. An Eastern force of this nature is unprecedented in Iran’s history.
- Iran has reason for alarm over the increased Wahhabization of Pakistan. From a relatively multi-confessional Indian brand of Islam, Pakistan has morphed into the premier Wahhabi force in Asia. Iran would scarcely be interested in the strengthening of a Sunni force to its east, even as it is grapples with and has slowly reached a détente with the major Wahhabi powers to its west.
- Afghanistan, which is today an American proxy, would not be keen on any Chinese influence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or the FATA regions of Pakistan; these have been a buffer between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia for centuries.
- India, of course, which seeks space for its growth as a regional economic power would be very negative towards a strong Chinese-Pakistani partnership.
- Additionally, the highway itself passes through regions of Kashmir claimed by India as its own territory. India would see building this highway as an act of aggression against it.
- The US would not relish the prospect of Pakistan building a deeper relationship with its worldwide rival. The primary reason would be that the US would have to up the ante in the concessions it gives Pakistan in order to retain its influence over Pakistan’s policy makers. As the relative success of Trump’s presidential campaign has shown, the American public is less in favour of engagement with faraway nations, especially Pakistan, which has been a proliferator of terror and nuclear weapons.
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