The China Pakistan Economic Corridor: Impact on Peace and Security in the Region
| IOP Desk - 14 Jun 2019

By Riddhi Samarth

New Delhi, June 14, 2019: Recently, the world has witnessed a seismic shift in the global power dynamics, with the focus of the international debate moving increasingly to the East. As the economic, social and political spheres evolve to accommodate new structures, the rise of one Asian powerhouse towards regional and global supremacy cannot be disregarded. The Chinese policy of “peaceful development” emerges in contrast to the Western order, as it employs mutual benefit and non-interference while engaging with players in the Central, Western and South Asian network. At the core of this grand strategy, China aims to facilitate development, cooperation, growth and accessibility in the region.

Determining that a military approach to encouraging friendly ties in the South Asia would hamper the peace and security of the area; China launched the historic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to secure regional harmony through beneficial economic, social, and cultural exchanges. For this purpose, as well as to safeguard itself against the energy politics developing in the South China Sea, China opened its avenues through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)- a flagship project that engages the geostrategically significant Pakistan state to allow economic integration and trade routes in the region to flourish. Even as the initiative emphasises peace and security, several regional dynamics raise the question of whether a cross-border corridor involving strategic ports and outlays greater than $60 billion, could possibly have no impact on the status quo in the region.

The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping as the key to elevating the Asian economy, aims at increasing the interconnectivity of Eurasia through a series of roads, belts and other infrastructure.The OBOR envisages two international trade connections- the land based ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the oceangoing ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’. As part of the former, the CPEC engages Pakistan to create a network of roads, railway tracks, oil and gas pipelines, ports, airports and special economic zones linking Xinjiang (China) to the Gwadar Port in Balochistan (Pakistan), passing through the Khunjerab Pass in northern Pakistan. By allowing China direct access to the Indian Ocean, the CPEC reduces the energy supply strain in the Asia-Pacific region. Considering that China transports 80% of its oil and energy requirements through the Strait of Malacca, an increasingly contested waterway, the Gwadar Port in Balochistan offers significant strategic and economic benefit, by reducing maritime transportation cost and distance.

Although the Chinese Premier highlights the fact that the CPEC isn’t a bilateral undertaking, and that it will have multilateral implications that will integrate the economies of the region; the project draws attention to the economic and strategic windfall that China and Pakistan stand to gain. While the corridor paves the way for China into the Middle East and Africa on one hand, it also offers a solution to Pakistan’s energy crisis, faltering economy, and obsolete infrastructure. As the CPEC brings together the world’s second largest economy with a state whose military operations have been flagged as an international security concern in the past, the project has invited several critical interpretations from global players. With the CPEC extending beyond national territory, it has the potential to reorder the status of regional peace and security.

Historically, the China-Pakistan relations have been characterised by a military orientation, though the CPEC marks a new era of economic interdependence and energy cooperation, which threatens the geopolitics of Asia. Although Pakistan’s internal and external security is a concern for large-scale developmental projects, its location makes it the most suitable choice for transit and trade, opening up pathways to Central, South, East and West Asia. However, Pakistan hasn’t been able to tap into the potential of its location and can thus benefit greatly in terms of access to the resource rich region of Central Asia and the economic boost. Pakistan’s internal security situation involving militants, as well as its antagonising external conflict with India, poses the threat of disruption to the CPEC building process, leading to severe economic losses. In response to this, a special security force has been formed to protect the CPEC, particularly in the difficult terrains around the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This step, however, has inevitably led to the Pakistani military assuming an increasingly powerful role in the execution of the plan.

This power has made the process of development highly undemocratic, reducing the authority of the civilian government. Under the guise of security concerns, the military has exonerated the state from making the CPEC transparent and open to public scrutiny. This problem is exacerbated in the turbulent and terror-prone Balochistan province of Pakistan. Militant presence of nationalist forces and Islamic extremists makes Balochistan a very contentious space. Although Balochistan is evidently dangerous for state actors involved in the CPEC, the regional problem exceeds its boundaries. Regionalist forces oppose the project either by demanding greater share in the project or through an outright rejection. Despite the assurance of connectivity, integration, and widespread development, the CPEC has consequently mobilised a new wave of regional politics.

Adding to the peace and security issues created by the long-lasting insurgency in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, the alarming state of national security in Afghanistan is also a roadblock to the CPEC’s development and outcome. The Taliban’s refusal to come to the negotiating table as suggested by the quadrilateral of China, Pakistan, United States, and Afghanistan, as well as the withdrawal of NATO forces has placed Afghanistan and the porous international boundary it shares with Pakistan, in jeopardy. Politically unstable territories, where the disruption stems from terrorist operations, tend to provide hostile environments for multilateral projects like the CPEC, as any act of the stakeholders can incite violence that destabilises the entire region.

One of the most significant aspects of the CPEC’s multilateral spillover, is that of India and its exclusion. Besides the fact that the exclusion of the second largest economy in the region after China could hardly lack political motive, another issue comes to light- India has always desired access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through trade routes passing via Pakistan, however, the rivalry between the two countries has led to a complete denial of this privilege. Further, the route of the CPEC has become the hub of controversy, as it passes through the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. As a disputed territory that both countries claim as their own, the region has been carefully avoided by China in the past. However, with China’s investment in the CPEC and their approval of the corridor passing through Gilgit-Baltistan, the international community has made fair assumptions about the Chinese stance on the issue.

India’s concerns regarding the CPEC do not end with the Kashmir conflict. Since the commencement of infrastructure for the project, there has been a marked increase in the presence of Chinese and Pakistani military in the regions surrounding India. With the Gwadar Port being under the control of China, India’s apprehensions that the increasing access of China to the Indian Ocean would allow them to make India a landlocked nation, seem increasingly possible.

The threat of eight modified diesel-attack submarines being delivered to Pakistan by the Chinese, further endangers India’s economic and energy security, as China’s influence and naval network over the Indian Ocean is expanding rapidly. Encircling India from all sides, China has greater access to inland Asia, because the Gwadar Port lies on the conduit of the three most commercially significant areas in the continent- West, Central and South Asia. One may compare this with the trilateral investment (India, Iran and Afghanistan) in the Chabahar Port, but the Gwadar Port wins in terms of strategy, access, as well as economy. Though recognised as China’s closest rival in the East, India’s restricted political and economic access owing to the CPEC, is enough to raise insecurity within the nation.

While analysts may dismiss regional security concerns as objection to the growing economic and political influence of the state actors, the CPEC’s potential to usher in a new era of geopolitical tension and competition is a threat. Indo-US talks of rebalancing the Asia-Pacific by gaining sole access to the Middle East and the Indian Ocean persist even as the CPEC begins to materialise, particularly as the growing reach of China serves as a common cause for concern with the two nations.

On one hand it may be argued that elevating the global status of Pakistan and the bordering terror-prone region will help achieve peaceful coexistence and integration in the Asian continent; while on the other hand it is suggested that the economic and political success of a few, will hamper commercial trade-ties with neighbors, thus damaging peaceful relations and security standards irreversibly. The success of the CPEC, therefore, hinges on the ability of nations to differentiate between economic and strategic advantage; thereby truly accepting a “peaceful rise” without perceiving the development and growing influence of two nations as a threat.

Imagecredit: pakistanpolitico

(Ridhi is student of Jai Hind College, (University of Mumbai) and also Intern with FPRC, a Delhi based Think Tank.)


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