China Invests Billions in Its ‘All-Weather Friendship’ With Pakistan
New energy and infrastructure deals with Islamabad are starting to flesh out both pillars of Beijing’s Silk Road plans. That may not be a bad thing after all.
The two prongs of China’s “Go West” strategy, an overland route across Central Asia and a maritime belt across the Indian Ocean, appear to be converging in the deep waters of the port of Gwadar in Pakistan.
Just as Washington is straining to flesh out its pivot to Asia, provoked in part by worries over Chinese aggression, Beijing seems to be accelerating both the economic and security aspects of its own lurch west, with potentially big implications for India, South Asia, and the Middle East.
Chinese president Xi Jinping will visit Pakistan next week bearing gifts, some $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investment deals, Reuters and other media reported Thursday. The two countries enjoy close relations, often touted as an “all-weather friendship,” and Beijing and Islamabad have talked up multi-billion dollar projects for years, involving everything from hydroelectric plants to highways. But bilateral ties are intensifying due to Pakistan’s need to short-circuit public unrest at acute energy shortages, and China’s desire to bolster the economic prospects of its own underdeveloped western provinces and find fresh opportunities as its domestic economy slams on the brakes.
At the same time, roads, rails, ports, and pipelines form the sinews of China’s plan to link the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and the Middle Kingdom via the so-called “New Silk Road,” one of Xi’s signature, if yet-to-be-crystallized, initiatives. A fully operational and connected port in Gwadar would allow China to import oil and natural gas from the nearby Middle East while bypassing thousands of miles of potentially vulnerable sea lanes.
“This is a vastly ambitious effort to reshape the strategic economic geography of Eurasia and beyond,” said Andrew Small, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund and author of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.
China’s embrace of Pakistan goes further than investment deals. Media reports suggest that the two countries could finalize a long-discussed, $5 billion sale of Chinese submarines to Pakistan at a time when Islamabad and New Delhi are trying to bulk up their navies to ensure control of the Indian Ocean. Defense analysts suggest that the sub sale could include plans to upgrade Gwadar’s commercial port to serve as a logistics hub for Chinese navy ships in the region, which would go some way to fulfilling Beijing’s plans for a “Maritime Silk Road” that connects China to the Middle East by sea. The maritime route is at the heart of Chinese courtship of Sri Lanka and its own deep-water ports.
To be sure, Pakistan and China have been trying to fully develop the container port in Gwadar for more than a decade. After helping build the first phase of the port, China Overseas Port Holding Company took operational control of the port in 2013 for 40 years, but a lot of work remains to be done to turn it into a true shipping hub, including building road and rail links to Islamabad and beyond. Pakistani officials said that the port should formally open later this month.
Complicating matters is the port’s location in the southwestern corner of Pakistan, in the often restive Baluchistan, where Islamabad has long battled local unrest. That’s also a concern for a planned, $2 billion, Chinese-financed natural gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan. Additionally, terrorism clouds the end point of the Gwadar-China route; Uighur separatists have launched a series of deadly attacks in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang.
“The big question is, can they actually make connecting Gwadar to Xinjiang work? Given the logistical difficulties, and the insurgency, it’s a very tough thing to achieve,” said Nilanthi Samaranayake, a strategic studies analyst at the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research organization in Arlington, Virginia.
While China’s deepening relationship with Pakistan, as well as efforts to build a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean, make India and even Washington nervous, it could end up being a good thing for the broader region. Just as the launch of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank sparked concern in the United States that Beijing would turn its financial muscle into a stranglehold on the rest of the continent, bilateral investment deals create concern about potential Chinese dominance.
But just like the AIIB, China’s double-barreled Silk Road project also promises to bring much-needed investment to a region starving for it. Pakistan’s two existing ports are close to capacity; Sri Lanka’s ports could use an upgrade. All that limits possible economic growth in the region.
“There’s this need for better maritime infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, and China seems to be making a concerted effort to try to meet the demand,” Samaranayake said.
By bringing much-needed investment, whether it’s for Pakistani power plants or new highways and modern port facilities, China’s deep pockets could actually help stabilize a part of the world where the lack of economic opportunity has contributed to radicalization and violence.
Unlike China’s big and destabilizing push in its own backyard, especially the South China Sea, “China’s growing economic and political role [on the Silk Road] doesn’t have self-evidently problematic security ramifications,” said the Marshall Fund’s Small.
“In Central and South Asia, these efforts may actually be constructive contributions in dealing with some of the obvious, serious stability issues that still exist.”
Photo credit: KENZABURO FUKUHARA/AFP/Getty