Thinking China-Pakistan Economic Corridor beyond Pakistan


While broaching his “One Belt One Road” initiative in a speech to Pakistani Parliament, President Xi Jinping had said in April 2015 that “South Asia is where the land and maritime Silk Roads meet.” He added that therefore “[A] peaceful and stable South Asia that enjoys development and prosperity serves China’s interest.” The first observation stands right. Pakistan, a South Asian country, is home to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has started investing billions of dollars ($46billion-$51 billion) in various projects across the country. CPEC is proclaimed as the “flagship project” of OBOR and is envisaged to play the role of a bridge between the land and maritime routes of modern Silk Road. It is the second proposition from Presidents Xi’s speech about stability in South Asia that is far from reality.

Since the very idea of OBOR is based on cooperation and development for the purpose of economic gains through trade, countries and regions encompassing this grand design are required to be trouble free. After all, economic ties can hardly flourish in a politically hostile environment. OBOR is no exception to this rule. In this regard, the fact that Pakistan is going through troubled relations with neighboring countries does not bode well for the future of this project. It’s fraying relations, specifically with India and Afghanistan in recent times, and in general with Iran, are anything but conducive to stability in South Asia.

Indo-Pakistani relations have been in the doldrums since the Uri attack in which at least 18 Indian soldiers were killed by assailants in Indian-held Kashmir. India pinned the blame on Islamabad and claimed that “Pakistan is a terrorist state and should be identified and isolated as such.” Bilateral relations have spiraled for worse. In addition to the expulsion of diplomatic personnel of each other, scores of civilians and soldiers have been killed in an exchange of shelling between the armies of two countries. So much so that the cross-border firing has become a new standard. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also threatened Pakistan that “[W]e will isolate you. I will work for that.” Whether it can be credited to New Delhi’s efforts or not, the fact is that Pakistan has faced increasing isolation at a time of its tensions with India. Postponement of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit that was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November was a clear manifestation of this effect. After India’s decision to boycott the summit, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Bhutan also followed suit (though for their reasons) and the conference had to be shelved.

The state of Pak-Afghan relations is no better than that. For years, Kabul has lamented that Pakistan-based groups are behind the unrelenting militancy in Afghanistan. Lately, the ties have seen a new low. President Ashraf Ghani, as reported by daily Dawn, came even to the extent of saying that managing “relations with Pakistan are a bigger challenge for Afghanistan than the existence of terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and Taliban.” In June 2016, relations were further strained as a result of a dispute over the border management at Torkham Border. Moreover, Islamabad’s decision to force thousands of Afghan refugees to leave Pakistan has baffled both the Afghan government and people. A rather harsh treatment of global-famed Afghan refugee girl Sharbat Gulla has drawn international attention and criticism of Pakistan.

Ties between Pakistan and Iran have historically been marked by antipathy and lack of trust. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to Pakistan in March 2016 ended in acrimony. He was upset by the claim of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) that Army Chief General Raheel Sharif had raised with Iranian President the issue of India’s interference in Baluchistan by using Iran’s territory. He claimed that “whenever Iran comes closer to Pakistan such rumors are spread.” Pakistan also looks at Iran’s Chabahar port with suspicion and as a challenge to Pakistan’s Gwadar port. The signing of Chabahar transit agreement between Iran, India, and Afghanistan was termed as ‘[A] security threat’ for Pakistan by former top-level defense officials.

Amidst all these inauspicious circumstances, China has stood by its ‘all-weather’ friend. Beijing has adopted an explicit position against the Indian policy of isolating Pakistan. Indian PM Modi’s remarks of branding Pakistan as a “mothership of terrorism” at BRICS summit in October, was chided by Beijing. China said that it opposes “the linking of terrorism to any particular country, ethnicity or religion” and added that “Pakistan has made enormous efforts and great sacrifices in fighting terrorism. I think the international community should respect this.” China has also blocked New Delhi’s efforts to ban Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed Chief Masood Azhar. Even on the issue of India’s membership of Non-Supplier Group (NSG), China has dragged its feet to the disappointment of New Delhi.

By taking sides with Pakistan, vis-a-vis India, China is playing a balancing game that is understandable by conventional standards of national interests in world politics. Historically, relation amongst these three countries has formulated a triangular relationship characterized by friendship and rivalry. It is not a new story. However, this is part of the picture. Islamabad’s problems run deeper than its assertive neighbor India. Pakistan’s foreign policy has put the country on a course where it is increasingly becoming isolated from its neighbors. This scenario is incompatible with China’s ambitious goals of CPEC and OBOR. If such state of affairs prevails for a longer time, certain undesirable eventualities may not be avoidable in the future.

With Pakistan’s indifference towards Iran and tensions with Afghanistan, India is better positioned to play these two cards to the disadvantage of Pakistan. Kabul and Tehran will further incline on New Delhi. The coming together of these three countries for Chabahar agreement (with India’s central role to invest $500 million) can be hardly lost on any keen observer. Unfortunately, Pakistan has done little to seize on the interests and offers of both Iran and Afghanistan to become part of CPEC. Under these circumstances, even if CPEC project is implemented successfully at a practical level, it will be largely a mutual undertaking between China and Pakistan. The broader dream of getting connected to more and more markets will go to pieces in the long run.

A pertinent question arises against this whole backdrop: How can China maintain its decade-old friendship with Pakistan without compromising its newfound global aspirations in the form of CPEC and OBOR?

The answer lies with both Pakistan and China. The two countries need to adapt their policies in accordance with the local conditions required for the broader accomplishment of CPEC. China can be the only cataclysm behind such change for the better. The reason is, Islamabad suffers from what the renowned scholar T. V. Paul (in his book The Warrior State) has called as “the trap of warrior state.” Islamabad doesn’t seem to overcome this malady anytime soon, but Beijing can help assuage this problem to an extent. Pakistan and China can and should play the balancing game against India but only within the conventional norms of realpolitik. It shouldn’t degenerate into the state of affairs that has currently prevailed between India and Pakistan.

To this end, China will have to impress upon Pakistan that relations with India should be guided by the principles of stability, normalcy and possibly transaction (trade). The case of China’s growing trade ties with India is a perfect illustration. Such a volte-face on the part of Pakistan will not lead to changes in India’s reservations regarding CPEC. Nor is India expected to become part of this project. But this approach can be helpful for other reasons. First, it can allay Pakistan’s security and economic hardships in the long run. Pakistan can hardly afford two wars at the same time (it has been waging against militancy internally). With the passage of time, economic resources can be channelized for social and economic progress. Above all, normalization of Indo-Pak relations is also important for the overall stability in South Asia region. And this is the second reason. President Xi was fully cognizant of this fact and had therefore noted that South Asia is “a focal area and important partner for advancing the Belt and Road Initiative.” OBOR is not comprised of CPEC solely. However, it is a crucial test for, and the first step towards, the implementation of OBOR dream. A war-like situation on Line of Control (LoC) can hardly allow CPEC achieve its optimal scope and goals.

More or less the same approach should guide Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan and Iran. Harmonious ties with the two neighbors will help Pakistan come out of its isolation on the one hand and on the other, there will be a fair chance that CPEC can be further extended to these two strategic countries. Additionally, if Iran and Afghanistan join CPEC somehow, India’s position vis-a-vis Pakistan at the regional level would adversely be undermined.

It is time for Pakistan to let the geo-economics agenda of CPEC prevail over its parochial geostrategic calculations.