The multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will deepen China’s already formidable presence in the South Asian nation, and “aggravate” tension between India and Pakistan, a US think-tank said on Wednesday.
“CPEC will deepen China’s already formidable presence in the country and clearly aggravate India-Pakistan tensions. In addition, real questions persist about Pakistan’s ability to finance its share of new energy investment,” Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia Program at the Wilson Center said in a report published on Wednesday.
According to him, even though the CPEC may enable Pakistan to generate more power, it will not solve the country’s broader energy crisis, which is rooted in factors that go well beyond supply shortages. “Stability in Pakistan’s security situation and economic performance is increasingly in critical interest for Beijing because it is a precondition for CPEC’s success. Given New Delhi’s strenuous opposition, CPEC will exacerbate India-Pakistan tensions,” Kugelman wrote.
Among other things, CPEC cements the already deep presence of Washington’s top strategic competitor in a region where the US has a much lighter footprint, he said. “The project also generates additional obstacles for the Indian efforts to access markets and natural gas reserves in Central Asia — a region that India cannot reach directly by land because Pakistan denies its transit rights on Pakistani soil,” he said.
According to Kugelman, Beijing’s messaging is very similar to Islamabad’s — it uses only the most positive of rhetoric and with a triumphant and confident tone. Like Pakistan, China has much at stake, he said. As per the report, CPEC is in some ways a test case of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) because it includes some of the initiative’s first projects to become fully operational.
“Privately, however, China worries about the security risks to CPEC, even as terrorist violence has subsided in Pakistan since 2014, when the Pakistani military launched a major counterterrorism offensive,” the report said, adding that many of the attacks that have taken place since then have occurred along or on envisioned CPEC routes in Baluchistan.
Separatist rebels have targeted energy infrastructure in the province for a number of years and remain an active threat. “Furthermore, criminal gangs pose threats to CPEC projects in Punjab Province. One such outfit, known as the Chotu Gang, abducted 12 Chinese engineers working on a highway project in Punjab back in 2005,” he wrote.
Kugelman said in private conversations, Pakistani officials and analysts offer a sobering appraisal of the project. “Privately, Pakistanis also express concern about the country’s ability to pay back loans in the coming years, as well as about the security threats ranging from terrorism and separatist insurgency to organized crime that threaten CPEC construction,” he said.
Referring to India’s reaction to CPEC, Kugelman said New Delhi’s biggest objection to CPEC is that it entails building projects in Gilgit-Baltistan. “New Delhi does not formally oppose BRI as a whole; rather, its stated concerns are restricted to CPEC, which it has described as a violation of Indian sovereignty, he noted.