Updated: May 13, 2015 12:46:42 am
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to visit China, he cannot be oblivious to the implications of the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor for Indian interests. President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan last month was an occasion to finalise the commitment to the project, which will link Pakistan’s Gwadar port to Kashgar in Xinjiang. The corridor will add a new and enduring pillar to the Sino-Pak relationship, which has so far rested only on a foundation of common negativity and hostility towards India.
China and Pakistan hold that their “all-weather” friendship is deeper than the oceans, higher than the mountains, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel. But there have been no direct bilateral interests per se to anchor the relationship. Pakistan has not been a significant economic or commercial factor for China, nor has there been the cement of common faith, ostensibly important for an Islamic country, or culture or ideology. The alignment of their strategic interests is because of India. This process of alignment began in the late 1950s. Despite its alliance with the US and the adversarial nature of Sino-US ties, Pakistan reached out to China. It ceded territory to China in Kashmir (a fact that has almost passed out of India’s foreign policy discourse), even as the Swaran Singh-Bhutto talks on J&K were going on in 1963.
Over the decades, the alignment has prompted China to give critical strategic nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan and become its conventional weapons supplier. Where China has refused to go is opening a front against India during hostilities between the latter and Pakistan. That Pakistan or any ally could not realistically expect.
If the alignment of strategic Sino-Pak interests has hitherto been because of the India factor, the corridor will provide a positive and direct binding force that will remain even if that factor is removed. China will defend it at all costs. The corridor, which is to be constructed at a cost of $46 billion, will consist of road and rail transport as well as communication links. Existing road links between the two countries, such as the Karakoram Highway, as well as roads and railways within Pakistan will be upgraded to connect to the corridor. An airport will be constructed at Gwadar and the port there is being developed into a major one. Energy projects to generate over 10,000 MW of power at a cost of $33 billion will be constructed in Pakistan.
China is determined to quicken the pace of economic development in the relatively backward Xinjiang region, which is the base of significant internal threat for the country, because of the Uighur insurgency. The corridor will reduce the distance between Xinjiang and the sea by 7,000 km and provide a bypass to the potential maritime choke points for China. This is especially important for energy flows.
There are political and security challenges to the corridor in Pakistan, including inter-provincial tensions and the Baluch insurgency. To handle the latter, Pakistan will raise a security force. Given the “game changing” nature of the corridor for Pakistan’s economy and strategic interests, there is no doubt that it will do its utmost to remove all obstacles.
The development of Gwadar by China will give its naval assets access to the port, which will in itself have adverse implications for India.
Besides, Pakistan will not allow India use of the corridor. It has consistently denied India use of the land route through the Punjab to access Afghanistan. That shows its intentions. If Modi were to indicate interest in the corridor during his visit to China, his hosts would perhaps make polite noises but, realistically, nothing would come out of it. There is also the legal difficulty over using the Karakoram Highway.
As India’s security planners study responses, one immediate focus should be on efforts to ensure that the Chabahar port development in Iran gets under way with renewed purpose. The impending Iran nuclear deal will remove the impediment of sanctions, which led to delays in the project.
The writer is a former diplomat
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