Pakistan in China’s Long-Term Scheme of Things – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 13 Aug 2008 0 Comment

American Conundrum in Pakistan


In analyzing China’s relationship with Pakistan, one cannot help but address the presence of the other major world power in Pakistan — the United States — and note how the two relationships differ.


The US presence in Pakistan is decades-old, and there is no question that the Pakistani Army, the guardian-ruler of Pakistan for more than 30 years since the country’s birth in 1947, has all along been very close to both Britain and the United States, but to the US in particular.  Though American presence in Pakistan is widespread, its influence among the poorer majority of its 160-million population is scant, despite the fact that Pakistan has depended heavily on the United States for arms as well as financial aid in general for many, many decades. Why, having done so much for Pakistan, has the US failed to “win the hearts and minds” of the average Pakistanis — and what might China do to achieve what the Americans have visibly failed to achieve?


Perhaps the most concise answer is that the United States’ policy toward Pakistan has been erratic to the point of being insensitive. Many in Washington would point out that US policies toward Pakistan have more to do with the nature of Washington’s policymaking than anything else. Looking at the history of the relationship, the observer first notes that American interest in Pakistan has waxed and waned from year to year throughout the last few decades.


During the Cold War, Pakistan, a Muslim nation that was America-friendly and both anti-Soviet and anti-“Hindu India” was important for Washington in keeping the pot boiling against the Soviet Union. According to American geo-politicians of that era, the Soviets were considered highly vulnerable to the religious cutting-edge that Islam provided. What is now considered Central Asia was then a group of reluctant collaborating nations under the Godless Bolsheviks; then as now, the majority of inhabitants were followers of Islam (though not dominated by fundamentalists by any stretch of imagination).


Since the Bolsheviks came to power in Moscow in the early 20th century, British intelligence, armed with their public school-educated academics trotted about as “experts on Islam,” had tried to find a way to exploit this particular Soviet vulnerability. Their efforts finally came to fruition when the Russian army marched pell-mell into Afghanistan in the winter of 1979. Caught in the mousetrap the British Raj had painful, firsthand experience of a century earlier, the Red Army trudged back home, bedraggled and defeated, a decade later, in 1989, a virtual spent force.


Pakistan, its army and intelligence in particular, as well as China, played a key role in this. As soon the Red Army showed up in Afghanistan, Washington began utilizing Pakistan’s geographical proximity to Afghanistan and the willingness of its devout military leader of the day. Afraid of the punch-drunk Red Army moving eastward, Islamabad provided splendid support to the Americans to bring about a regime-changing defeat of Russia in 1989.


America’s Pakistan policy of that period had a serious affect on its broader foreign policy in the region. To begin with, Washington’s India policy got tangled up with its Pakistan policy. This was not inevitable: it was, in fact, critically facilitated by the Indian obsession over Pakistan and ongoing resentment over its formation, its brazen anti-India policy since birth, and the Pakistani invasions of India in 1965 and 1971. Much of the bitterness between the two neighbours is a by-product of the vicious way the British Raj cut up the subcontinent in 1947, playing “God” to create two nation-states out of one and affect hundreds of millions of people in a most adverse way.


Pakistan benefitted by US endorsement of the arrangement and, over the years, brought a whole bunch of American diplomats, policymakers and “academics” into its fold who were ready to claim that Pakistan was ruled by “trustworthy” leaders, while India was not. The Pakistani leaders were keen to defeat Soviet communism, while the Indian were not, these Americans would argue.


The American obsession to destroy the Bolsheviks in Russia drove them to make friends with the Chinese communists through Pakistan’s good offices. In the 1980s, when the Russians were mindlessly going through their “taming the Afghan” campaign to establish a “communist regime” (a regime-change crowd that preceded present-day American neo-cons) there, China came in handy: Beijing supplied billions of dollars worth of arms to the Afghan mujahideen battling the Russians. The Chinese delivered their arms through US intelligence operators overseeing logistics and the Pakistani army.


Once the Bolsheviks became history, American interest in Pakistan waned. In Washington, pro-India voices, led by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, began to emerge. Pakistan was becoming in the eyes of American policymakers and academics, who find it extremely convenient to tow the line drawn by policymakers on matters relating to Pakistan,  a nation where nothing but Islamic fundamentalists thrive and grow. Pakistan’s acquiring nuclear weapons made it the most dangerous nation on earth to some Washington policymakers.


The events of 9/11 changed things once more; Pakistan again became an important operational base for the Americans. According to the Bush administration, the United States is in Afghanistan/Pakistan to eradicate the despicable Taliban in Afghanistan; foreign Islamic terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri; and also to plan and execute the eventual taming of the region’s Islamic extremists.


Some in Washington believe that maintaining friendly relations with Pakistan will help in the long run to protect US access to the oil- and gas-rich Central Asian region. If that sounds too ambitious, others claim American presence in Pakistan will allow the US to act as an effective “spoiler” in case Russia, China and India ever consider ganging up against Washington.  In truth, however, American policy toward Pakistan became vague and out-of-focus once the Soviets were gone from the world scene, and has remained that way to date.


Presently, from discussions and debates that take place in Washington around the clock, it is not clear how Washington really wants to “utilize” Islamabad’s strengths and weaknesses to fit into America’s long-term future, and whether Washington will be at all able, over the coming decades, to maintain its present high level of visibility in Pakistan.


KKH and Gwadar Port: Two Anchors in China’s Pakistan Policy


One of the first indications of China’s long-term interest in Pakistan was construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the “Friendship Highway”, jointly by the governments of Pakistan and China; it was completed in 1986. It connects the Northern Areas of Pakistan to the ancient Silk Road.  It runs approximately 1,300 km from Kashgar in Xinjiang region to Havelian in the Abbottabad District of Pakistan. An extension of the highway meets the Grand Trunk Road at Hasan Abdal, west of Islamabad. The highway cuts through the collision zone between the Asian and Indian continents, where China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India come within 250 kms. of each other.


On June 30, 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Pakistani Highway Administration and China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) to rebuild and upgrade the KKH. According to SASAC, the width of the highway will be expanded from 10 meters to 30 meters, and its transport capacity increased three times. The road will be upgraded to accommodate heavy-laden vehicles and extreme weather conditions.


Upgradation of the KKH should not be seen solely in the context of Pakistan’s efforts to become a “Trade and Energy Corridor” (TEC). In the past few years, Pakistan’s leadership has focused primarily on China and other neighbouring countries to join its endeavors to create such a corridor. S. Fredrick Starr, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and chairman of the Central Asia–Caucasus Institute there, points out that while all the major powers on the Eurasian landmass and others further afield are engaged in this renewal of infrastructure and revival of commerce, China’s participation reflects its generation-long commitment to develop a major north–south route linking Xinjiang and the Arabian Sea.


According to Starr, a new North-South phase of the corridor is underway. The rebuilding of the KKH; the new route running from south-west Xinjiang across Tajik Badakhshan; the planned US highway bridge over Pansh, linking Tajikistan with Afghanistan’s main north–south routes; the improvement of existing highways from the Urals and western Siberia to Central Asia and their extension to Afghanistan; and developing road and rail routes from Iran’s port of Bandar-Abbas, north across Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to Russia, are all examples of this thrust.


China, meanwhile, has integrated its western and central regions and is now in a position to use the KKH and other links for expanding trade with west and south Asia. To further strengthen the KKH, a railway line alongside it, connecting Pakistan and western China, is now under consideration as an integral part of the TEC project. The railroad is intended not only for trade but also to transport oil and gas by tankers, in case a pipeline is not a viable option. This rail track will be linked to Gwadar, where oil-refining and storage facilities are now under construction. (Source: Prospects of Pakistan becoming a trade and energy corridor for China: Fazal-ur-Rahman)


In Pakistan, the 750 kilometre railroad track starts from Havelian in the NWFP and will pass through the Karakoram Mountains and over the Pakistan–China border at Khunjerab. The second part, consisting of a 250 kilometre-long track, will be constructed inside the Chinese province of Xinjiang. According to experts, construction of this railroad may take as long as 10 years because of the difficult terrain. The project calls for construction of a number of tunnels and soil stabilization in some areas through extensive applications of concrete. The cost will be similar to the recently concluded railroad in Tibet, which cost China about US $5 million per kilometre. Reports indicate that Pakistan Railway authorities have invited tenders from interested companies to prepare a feasibility study for the project.


The second leg of China’s Pakistan policy is the development of Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Makran coast in Baluchistan, a stone’s throw from the Strait of Hormuz. The Gwadar port project got under way soon after 9/11. On March 22, 2002, China flew in Vice Premier Wu Bangguo to lay the foundation stone, and the first phase of the project was completed in 2005. The overall cost is estimated at $1.16 billion; the Chinese contribution to finance the first phase was $198 million and Pakistan’s $50 million.


Since the completion of Phase I, Pakistan has taken some interesting decisions. On Feb 1, 2007, Islamabad allowed the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) to sign a 40-year agreement with the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) and its subsidiary, Concessional Holding Company (CHC), for development and operation of the tax-free port and duty-free trade zone. The concessions given to the operators had already been approved by Shaukat Aziz, former prime minister of Pakistan, on 23 January 2007. 


In addition to these incentives, the provincial government of Baluchistan has been asked to exempt the CHC from the levy of provincial and district taxes. According to the agreement, the Gwadar Port Authority will get a fixed share of 9 percent of the revenue from cargo and maritime services and 15 percent of the revenue earned from the free-trade zone. PSA is expected to invest US $550 million in the next five to 10 years on creating the operational facilities in a highly competitive environment.


Gwadar’s second phase, which will cost US$600 million, will include: four container berths; one bulk cargo terminal (to handle 100,000 DWT ships); one grain terminal; one Ro-Ro (Roll On- Roll Off) terminal; and two oil terminals (to handle 200,000 DWT ships).  It has been said China will finance the second phase entirely. China has reportedly invested another $200 million into building a coastal highway that will connect Gwadar port with Pakistan’s premier port, Karachi, located to the east at the mouth of River Indus.


In the first half of 2006, China and Pakistan opened four new cargo and passenger road links.  The two cargo routes that run from Kashi in southern Xinjiang to the Pakistani ports of Karachi, Qasim and Gwadar opened in summer 2007. The passenger roads from Kashi and Taxkorgan, also in southern Xinjiang, to Pakistan’s northern Gilgit and Sust Pass have been opened as well.  The new roads increase the number of transport links between Pakistan and China to eight. (Source: Gwadar and Chabahar: Competition or Complement: Rizwan Zeb 10/22/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)


Addressing a ceremony marking the inauguration of a dry port in the border town of Sust, 200 km north of Gilgit, in the summer of 2007, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said that a rail link between Pakistan and China would be another landmark in the Pakistan-China friendship. Stressing the importance of the 10,000-foot-high Sust Dry Port, he said the state-of-the-art facility, an elaborate network of infrastructure being put in place across Pakistan, and improvement in the KKH would provide China the shortest access to the Middle East and other world markets through Pakistani deep sea ports, including Gwadar. Musharraf also said that an oil pipeline from the Middle East to western China will be laid via Baluchistan, and that a gas pipeline from Central Asia to Pakistan through the Northern Areas was under consideration.


News reports indicate Beijing has signalled its approval of the Pakistani proposal for construction of a trans-Himalayan pipeline that will carry crude oil from the Middle East to western China. The pipeline, when complete, will connect the deep-sea Gwadar port to China's remote regions, from where oil will be shipped thousands of kilometres to the coastal areas where most of the energy demand is centred.


In the Chinese scheme of things the key to the success of its Pakistan policy lies with the Gwadar port. In choosing a port site to link up with the KKH, Gwadar’s location is ideal. It is on the Arabian Sea coast in the southwestern tip of Pakistan’s strife-torn province of Baluchistan, and faces the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz.


Pakistan’s National Highway Authority (NHA) and the Frontier Works Organization (FWO) were tasked to build a 700-km coastal superhighway, which will link Gwadar with the rest of Pakistan, from Karachi on the east to Jiwani on the west, close to the border of Iran. Goods shipped into Gwadar will be taken by road to Afghanistan via either the eastern route over the Punjab or, in future, through a highway to Quetta and Kandahar. Once in Afghanistan, a road network currently under construction will take the goods to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and deeper into Central Asia. (Source: SILK ROAD PAPER Sébastien Peyrouse, the Economic Aspects of the Chinese-Central Asia Rapprochement, September 2007)


What China could Offer to the Central Asian Nations


In coming decades, depending on Islamabad’s ability to maintain law and order inside Pakistan, inside Afghanistan and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas (such as the provinces of Baluchistan, North West Frontier Province, Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and Northern Areas), China has plans to implement wide-ranging infrastructure development in the area that would tie the Central Asian nations into the road-and-railroad infrastructure that links Gwadar port and the KKH.


The China Metallurgical Group has agreed to invest billions of dollars in the project and related infrastructure development — including construction of a coal-fired electric power plant in Afghanistan and what would be the country’s first freight railway. By the estimates of some geologists, deposits at Afghanistan’s Aynak copper field in Logar Province make it the world’s largest undeveloped copper field. The deal would allow China Metallurgical Group the right to extract high-quality copper from the area south of Kabul.


China’s presence is also growing in neighbouring Kazakhstan. There more business is done on regional and global energy markets than in makeshift market stalls. But for the ambitious urban middle class, Chinese is still the language to learn. China and the rest of the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (CAREC) forum—an eight-member grouping that includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—have seen big increases in trade. (Source: China and Central Asia: Go west, young man: The Economist: Jan. 4, 2007)


Recently, Pakistan’s Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the feasibility study for developing a rail link between China and Pakistan was being conducted and would be completed this year. This link would provide Pakistan and China ample opportunity to explore vistas in economic and social sectors with European countries and Central Asian states. Work on Quetta-Kandahar (Pakistan-Afghanistan) and Taftan-Zahidan (Pakistan-Iran) sections was already underway, Sheikh Rashid said talking to a delegation of a Chinese firm M/s China Industry Railways at Islamabad; this would ultimately boost economic ventures in this part of the South Asia and rest of the world.


In dealing with the landlocked Central Asian nations, China and Pakistan have developed some very interesting options. One is to provide Central Asian nations access to the Arabian Sea through Gwadar port, or Karachi or Port Qasim. This will be available only when the road-railroad infrastructure that China plans becomes operational, but this is a massive lure.


For nearly two centuries, the Central Asian nations, a part of Russia and the Soviet Union, had unsuccessfully sought access to warm seawaters near the Indus Delta. As early as March 1995, China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement to construct the Almaty-Karachi road connecting Central Asia with the Arabian Sea. In addition to the north-south route via Iran, a new road link via Chinese Xinjiang and Pakistan’s Karakoram was proposed. Prospects for a route via Kandahar appear remote in the short term. However, a rail and road network connecting Almaty, Bishkek, and Kashgar to Islamabad and the Pakistani seaports of Karachi and Gwadar offered a relatively viable alternate. Economic and political concerns about the politics of regional passage, road construction, Karakoram renovation and individual country traffic permits delayed the project, but these issues have been resolved.


In addition, the TEC could bring produce and products from Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan, etc. to western China and Pakistan. Such a facility would be extremely lucrative to the countries in Central Asia who have no opportunity to carry out bulk trade with China, or even with the nations of the Indian subcontinent. This infrastructure development could ensure the Central Asian nations access to the populated landmass to the east of them.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc. 

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top