An FP special report from the front lines of Beijing's aggressive push into Pakistan and beyond.
LAHORE, Pakistan — Moments after landing at Lahore’s international airport one ordinary day in September, crowds of Chinese professionals jockeyed for position in an immigration line that was as long as it was slow. For airport officials in Pakistan’s second-largest city, the sudden influx of Chinese nationals was unremarkable: The same thing is happening in cities and towns across the country.
In the southwestern town of Gwadar, Chinese nationals run a deep-sea port offering direct access to the Indian Ocean. In the Gilgit-Baltistan region near Kashmir, Chinese laborers just finished the restoration of five tunnels on a critical 500-mile highway that connects Pakistan to China. And at a hill town resort near the capital of Islamabad, Chinese diplomats recently dove headfirst into the kind of messy internal politics they’ve long sought to avoid, rolling up their sleeves and taking part in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Both economically and diplomatically, Pakistan has become the focal point of China’s ambitious plan to expand its influence westward in a policy known as One Belt, One Road. Through the initiative, Beijing has pledged tens of billions of dollars in investments for new roads, pipelines, power stations, rail lines, and ports to create a network of trade routes that link China to South and Central Asia, and then on to Europe. The flagship project is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $46 billion endeavor that will link northwest China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar.
The effort is seen by many as Beijing’s response to the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” and a challenge to America’s status as the dominant political power in the region. But in stark contrast to the Asia-Pacific, where an aggressive and resurgent China has sparked concern and resistance from the United States, American officials welcome and champion Beijing’s Western push both publicly and privately. This sudden, surprising convergence of U.S. and Chinese interests, according to U.S. officials, boils down to one mutual goal: security.
As U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of President Barack Obama’s presidency, Washington is desperately looking for stable governments in the region to share the burden of trying to contain terrorist groups. If China wants to play that role to advance its regional ambitions, the United States says it won’t get in the way.
“We welcome China’s engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which we see not as competitive but complementary to our own efforts,” Dan Feldman, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told an audience in Washington last month.
Privately, other senior U.S. officials overseeing the administration’s policy in South Asia relayed similar messages. “We see China’s expanded role in the region as a net positive for the [United States],” said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Neighboring powers such as India and Russia are suspicious and, in some cases, alarmed at Beijing’s growing presence in the region. But for U.S. officials, China’s Silk Road ambitions promise to put some flesh on the bones of Washington’s own long-sought — but ultimately doomed — plans to link underdeveloped but resource-rich parts of South and Central Asia with points west and east.
In other words, China’s grand vision of an interconnected trade network for South and Central Asia represents the realization of an older U.S. policy initiative. For the last four years, the U.S. State Department has been trying to foster a similar regional trade network through its “New Silk Road Initiative,” a policy unveiled in 2011 to foster economic cooperation, trade liberalization, and better ties across South and Central Asia. The economic initiative had a clear security goal: helping set the conditions for a stable Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a point outlined by Bob Hormats, who was then the undersecretary of state for economic, agricultural and energy affairs.
“The basis of the New Silk Road vision is that if Afghanistan is firmly embedded in the economic life of the region, it will be better able to attract new investment, benefit from its resource potential, and provide increasing economic opportunity and hope for its people,” Hormats said in remarks at Johns Hopkins University in 2011.
The crucial element of the initiative was to integrate key pieces of infrastructure in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, such as telecom networks, railways, and highways. But the plan was easier said than done.
“This initiative [was] undermined almost from the start by the administration’s shifting priorities, the lack of economic integration amongst the Central Asian states themselves, and the administration’s broader ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific,” Michael Clarke, an associate professor at Australian National University’s National Security College, wrote in a recent essay in the Diplomat.
The United States also wasn’t prepared to pony up billions of dollars for infrastructure projects that China has already promised to Central and South Asian governments. The most eye-popping figure so far is the pledge of $46 billion in infrastructure spending to Pakistan that Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled in April. For Islamabad, where foreign investment is scarce, but whose “all-weather” friendship with China offers a potential lifeline, the project can’t materialize soon enough.
Sitting in a conference room at the Prime Minister Secretariat, a palatial white-bricked office building that also serves as the residence of the prime minister, Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Planning Ahsan Iqbal praised Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
“This is a very strong manifestation of the visions of both our countries,” he told Foreign Policy in an interview. “Promoting regional connectivity is Pakistan’s agenda, and integrating with Asia, Europe, and Africa is China’s leadership vision.”
It’s no surprise that Islamabad is excited about the initiative. In contrast to the roughly $2 billion it receives annually from the U.S. government in foreign and security aid, Beijing’s promise of $46 billion in infrastructure projects over six years could significantly boost the country’s economic prospects if realized. The project involves the construction of hydroelectric and coal-fired power plants, which could help Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tackle the country’s energy crisis. In the electricity-starved country, blackouts are a constant source of frustration and are seen by Pakistani officials as a direct security threat. Beyond power plants, China is also promising to invest billions in pipelines, rail links, and roads.
Iqbal noted that China’s goal to make its northwestern region of Xinjiang a regional trade hub could have both positive economic and security implications for Beijing.
Xinjiang is thousands of miles from the Chinese coast, the hub of industrial activity and trade. A 2,000-mile economic corridor between Gwadar and northwestern China would cut the cost of transporting goods to Xinjiang by one-quarter, essentially linking the landlocked region to the global economy for the first time. But economic interest in Xinjiang isn’t purely mercantile. The region, which is home to a sizable Muslim Uighur community, has become a security headache for Beijing following a slew of brutal knife and bombing attacks carried out by extremists. One of Beijing’s goals is to more fully integrate Xinjiang’s population into the still-thriving Chinese economy and create new job opportunities in an effort to dampen some of the drivers of extremism.
Still, Beijing knows growth alone won’t be enough to combat extremism. A small number of Uighur militants operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and receive support from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. With U.S. forces scheduled to pack up in 2016, Beijing worries that could leave space for the extremist threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan to metastasize. That’s one big reason Beijing is throwing itself into U.S.-led efforts to forge a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“Chinese officials see a political settlement in Afghanistan as the only surefire way to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for Uighur militants and a destabilizing force across the wider region,” said Andrew Small, a China-Pakistan expert at the German Marshall Fund. Fear of such destabilization has suddenly awakened Beijing’s interest in diplomacy. “No country has been a more active and enthusiastic supporter of reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government than China,” said Small.
For U.S. officials, it’s about time. Since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, U.S. officials have tried to bring China into discussions about Afghanistan’s future, only to be jilted by a Beijing that saw little value in taking part in America’s arduous nation-building project. (China’s lack of interest in the Bonn talks, a series of international agreements in 2001 and 2002 aimed at recreating the state of Afghanistan, is often cited as an example.) According to Feldman, that indifference remained the day he started at the State Department’s Af-Pak office in 2009 under the late ambassador Richard Holbrooke. “In 2009, on my first official trip to engage the Chinese, my colleagues in Beijing refused to even have the words ‘Afghanistan’ or ‘Pakistan’ on our agenda,” he said.
But that posture began to shift last year amid Beijing’s mounting concerns that instability in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan was spilling into China’s predominantly Muslim northwest. In July 2014, China appointed veteran diplomat Sun Yuxi as special envoy for Afghanistan. Following Sun’s appointment, China hosted secret talks with Taliban and Afghan officials in December and, in July, attended the first official peace talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban in the resort town of Murree outside of Islamabad.
“That was a real about-face from where they were,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
China matters in those talks because Beijing has unique leverage over Islamabad. For years, Kabul has argued that the biggest obstacle to an Afghan settlement has been Pakistan’s willingness to play with fire, first by backing militant groups inside Afghanistan and later by offering safe havens in Pakistani territory to violent groups. That includes the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that operates on both sides of the border.
While Islamabad denies those charges, most observers agree that Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is a critical factor for the peace talks, giving Beijing an important role to play in exerting pressure. “China’s influence isn’t simply that they’ve been willing to play host,” said Markey. “It’s their willingness to push the Pakistanis to play the reconciliation game.”
Optimism over a deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government peaked in early July following the breakthrough talks in Murree, Pakistan. But much of that enthusiasm faded on July 29 with the news of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death. The next round of peace talks scheduled for July 31 were postponed indefinitely as an internal power struggle ensued between Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, and rivals such as Omar’s son, Yaqub, and Abdul Qayum Zakir.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the talks acknowledged the challenges posed by Taliban infighting, but spoke glowingly about China’s efforts in the reconciliation negotiations. “That the Murree meeting happened was pretty remarkable and a positive step in itself,” said the official.
Still, he cautioned against drawing too much from the July gathering in Pakistan. “That doesn’t mean it was ultimately successful or that it will be the process that leads to results, but an important first step.”
To be sure, while the United States has welcomed Beijing’s more expansive role, other countries look warily at China. Indian officials, for example, have complained that Beijing is only pressing Pakistan to crack down on members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group of militant Uighur Islamists operating in North Waziristan, and neglecting the other extremist militants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group that opposes India’s presence in Kashmir and which both Washington and Delhi consider a terrorist organization.
“Beijing restricts its demands to action against terrorists that threaten China’s interests,” wrote Sudha Ramachandran in the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst last month. “It ignores and even appeases Islamabad’s support of anti-India terrorist groups and has rushed to Pakistan’s defense in international forums.”
Officials in the United States are less worried about that aspect, as they believe that the Uighurs and other extremists operating in North Waziristan are so closely intertwined that it’s essentially impossible to target the Uighurs without disrupting the operations of the Haqqani network or other extremists, such as the LeT.
As for Russia, its concerns have long been that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor represents the southern flank of Beijing’s takeover of all of Central Asia, an increasingly important energy market for Moscow since the Ukraine crisis disrupted ties with Eastern Europe. While that’s bad for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it fits squarely into American objectives to break the Kremlin’s grip on the Central Asian economies.
“It’s been a long-term U.S. objective to wean Central Asia off its dependence on Russia and give the Central Asian states a wider set of security and economic relationships,” said Small in an interview. “Preferably that would’ve been the Europeans and Americans, but the specific objective of balancing Russia’s role in Central Asia is something China is doing to the benefit of the autonomy of some of the states of the region.”