President Xi Jinping’s recent Islamabad visit, by unveiling agreements valued at $28 billion, shows that China has made Pakistan the central link between its dual Silk Road initiatives.
While the maritime Silk Road is the meretriciously benign name for China’s “string of pearls” strategy, the overland Silk Road project has been designed to advance Chinese interests in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and beyond. These initiatives are part of China’s larger strategy to break out of the East Asia mould and become a more global power.
Xi has embarked on connecting China’s restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea through a 3,000-kilometre overland transportation corridor to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port.
The $46-billion corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) will hook up China’s maritime and overland Silk Roads and increase Pakistan’s pivotal importance for Beijing.
When an Indian prime minister visits Arunachal Pradesh (whose control by India only China questions) or India and Vietnam jointly explore for offshore oil, China protests loudly, claiming it is “disputed territory.”
But the Xi-pushed corridor will traverse an internationally recognised disputed region — PoK — where China has been enlarging its military footprint.
An influx of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into PoK’s Shia-majority Gilgit-Baltistan region has resulted in Chinese military presence close to Pakistan’s line of control (LoC) with India, presenting New Delhi with a two-front theatre in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the event of war with either country.
This threat is also being highlighted by PLA officers conducting field exercises close to the LoC to train Pakistani army troops in the use of Chinese-supplied weapons.
More fundamentally, India is contained geopolitically by the longstanding axis between China and Pakistan, involving, among other things, covert nuclear, missile and intelligence cooperation.
With serious strains emerging in Beijing’s relationship with North Korea, Pakistan is now clearly China’s only real ally.
It is set to get delivery of eight Chinese attack submarines. Paradoxically, China and Pakistan have little in common, yet boast one of the closest relationships in international diplomacy.
Their axis has been built on a shared objective to tie India down, as former state department official Daniel Markey says in his 2013 book.
Weapon transfers, loans and infrastructure projects allow China to use Pakistan as a cost-effective counterweight to India. Pakistan, for example, developed nuclear weapons with Chinese aid and US indulgence.
Indeed, the more Pakistan has become a jihadist snake pit, the greater has been China’s leeway to increase its strategic penetration of that country.
For India, the implications of the growing nexus are particularly stark because China and Pakistan are hostile, non-status-quo powers bent upon seizing additional Indian territory.
Significantly, as China’s strategic intervention in PoK has grown, it has started needling India on J&K, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation.
It has employed innovative ways to question India’s sovereignty over J&K and stepped up incursions into Ladakh. China is clearly signalling that J&K is where the China-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India. Its military pressure on Arunachal Pradesh appears aimed at distracting from its other designs.
Xi’s visit indeed was a reminder that PoK serves as the artery of the China-Pakistan nexus. Much of the Chinese funding will be for power projects, including the $1.4-billion Karot Dam, located on the so-called Azad Kashmir’s border with Pakistani Punjab.
This dam is the first project to be financed by China’s new $40-billion Silk Road Fund.
As if to highlight that China treats Pakistan as its newest colony, Xi’s package of power projects will be Chinese-owned, including the Karot Dam station, with the Pakistani government committed to buying power at a preset rate.
The power projects, in essence, are to use Pakistan’s resources for Chinese State-run companies to generate profits for repatriation. In another example of the risk Pakistan faces of turning into a Chinistan, Islamabad has given China 40-year exclusive rights to run the port at Gwadar, which is likely to double up as a key outpost for the Chinese navy and serve as China’s first overseas naval station.
The Xi-launched corridor — a network of roads, railway and pipelines — will give China access to the Indian Ocean, thus challenging India in its maritime backyard and opening a new threat for it.
The corridor’s transportation links will also allow China to rapidly come to Pakistan’s aid in the event of war with India. Moreover, by transforming Pakistan into a client state of the Chinese economy, the corridor will tighten China’s grip over that country, thus preventing it from emulating the example of Myanmar or Sri Lanka in escaping Beijing’s clutches. In return for the contracts and other concessions, China will offer Pakistan protection, including diplomatic cover at the UN.
China thinks in the long term. Pakistan is now becoming China’s launch-pad for playing a bigger role in the Indian Ocean and West Asia.
It will also serve as the lynchpin of China’s India-containment strategy. China’s land corridor to the Arabian Sea will extend India’s encirclement by the PLA from the J&K land borders to the Indian Ocean sea lanes.
Insurrection-torn Baluchistan, however, stands out as the Achilles heel of China’s corridor initiative, despite the Pakistani decision during Xi’s visit to create a special security force to protect Chinese projects.
Strikingly, India is still struggling to devise a credible counter-strategy. Its silence on China’s expanding footprint in PoK, in what New Delhi considers Indian territory, is hardly in sync with a professedly proactive foreign policy.
No other country in the world faces a strengthening nexus between two expansionist nuclear-armed neighbours with a proven track record of covert actions in breach of international norms.
The corridor constitutes China’s new pincer strategy. India — like the proverbial frog in a gradually heating pot of water not realising the danger until it is too late — can stay mum and passive at its own peril.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and an author
The views expressed by the author are personal