President Xi Jinping’s just-concluded 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 mold and become a more global power.
Xi has now embarked on connecting China’s restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea through a 3,000 km overland transportation corridor to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port. Known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, this $46 billion project through Pakistan-held Kashmir will hook up China’s maritime and overland Silk Roads and increase Pakistan’s pivotal importance for Beijing.
When an Indian prime minister visits the Myanmar-bordering Arunachal Pradesh (a large Himalayan territory whose control by India only China questions), or India and Vietnam jointly explore for offshore oil in the South China Sea, China protests loudly, claiming it is “disputed territory.” But the Xi-pushed corridor will traverse an internationally recognized disputed region — Pakistan-held Kashmir — where China has been enlarging its military footprint.
An influx of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into the Pakistani Kashmir’s Shiite-majority Gilgit-Baltistan region in recent years, to supposedly guard Chinese strategic projects there, has resulted in Chinese military presence close to Pakistan’s line of control with India in Kashmir.
The scenario presents India with a two-front theater in Kashmir in the event of a war with either country. This threat is being highlighted by PLA officers conducting field exercises close to Pakistan’s line of control with India to train Pakistani army troops in the use of Chinese-supplied weapons.
More fundamentally, India is contained geopolitically by the long-standing 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.
China’s nexus with Pakistan has long been likened to the closeness between lips and teeth, with Beijing recently calling Pakistan its “irreplaceable all-weather friend.” The two often boast of being “iron brothers.” Of late, though, their description of their relationship has become more flowery — “taller than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”
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 “No Exit From Pakistan.” Weapon transfers, loans and infrastructure projects allow China to use Pakistan as a cost-effective counterweight to India.
Pakistan, for example, developed its nuclear-weapons capability with Chinese aid and U.S. indulgence, highlighting the fact that no other state has received Chinese and American support in parallel over decades. 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 both China and Pakistan stake claims to substantial swaths of Indian land and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction.
Significantly, as China’s involvement in strategic projects in Pakistan-held Kashmir has grown, it has openly started needling India on Kashmir, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation. It has employed innovative ways to question India’s sovereignty over Kashmir and stepped up military incursions into Indian Kashmir’s Buddhist Ladakh region.
China is clearly signaling that Kashmir is where the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India. Its military pressure on Arunachal Pradesh, located at the other end of the Himalayas, seems more intended to distract from its Kashmir designs.
Xi’s visit indeed was a reminder that Pakistan-held Kashmir serves as the artery of the Sino-Pakistan nexus.
Xi, who has articulated a more expansive role for China in the world than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong, showed how high-visibility infrastructure projects drive China’s promotion of commercial and strategic interests.
Much of the Chinese funding unveiled during Xi’s visit will be for power projects, including the $1.4-billion Karot Dam, located on the Pakistan-held Kashmir’s border with the Punjab province. 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 puppet-puppeteer equation and the risk of Pakistan turning into a Chinistan, Islamabad has given Beijing 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 a 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 to escape Beijing’s clutches. In return for the contracts and other concessions, China will offer Pakistan protection, including diplomatic cover at the United Nations.
However, Pakistan’s insurrection-torn sprawling province of Baluchistan — home to Gwadar — 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.
China thinks in the long term. Pakistan — set to get delivery of eight Chinese attack submarines — is now China’s launch pad for playing a bigger role in the Indian Ocean and Middle East, besides serving as a linchpin of its India-containment strategy. China’s land corridor to the Arabian Sea will extend India’s encirclement by the PLA from the Kashmir land borders to the Indian Ocean sea lanes.
No country in the world other than India faces a strengthening nexus between two revisionist nuclear-armed neighbors 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 realizing the danger until it is too late — can stay silent and passive at its own peril.
Brahma Chellaney, a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award. His latest book is “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”