The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is largely viewed as a significant Chinese investment that will infuse a new life into Pakistan’s economy, but this project bears much wider strategic significance and has the potential of uniting the countries of the region in a relationship of mutual economic benefit and thereby creating dependencies that promote peace.
The strategic significance of CPEC lies in the fact that the revival and expansion of the old Silk Road gives more economic choices not only to Pakistan but also to other countries of the region, reducing their dependence on the maritime trade routes controlled by the US.
The British Empire had vigorously built oceanic trade routes and regimes over the two centuries. On replacing the British Empire as the key player, the US did not disturb these routes but took command of all of them. The US’s interest requires that maximum international trade is carried out through the oceans it controls.
China has created an alternative to the existing maritime order for moving goods across continents through its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative. Trade conducted through the Silk Route is likely to reduce the ability of the US to control international trade.
The 3,000-km long CPEC consisting of highways, railways and pipelines connects China’s landlocked north-western province of Xinjiang to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. CPEC is not restricted to Pakistan. It is a project under the Chinese vision of ‘One Belt One Road’ that will link 64 countries including Pakistan.
The warm water port of Gwadar near the Persian Gulf is the entry point to CPEC where Pakistan and China have developed close naval cooperation. On the other end, the Chinese province of Xinjiang is Eurasia’s axle that borders Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi is emerging as a hub for China-Europe cargo trains. During the last two years, more than 328 freight trains left Urumqi to Europe and Central Asia.
This land-link is the outcome of the plan envisaged in the 1950s by Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. They had agreed to build rail bridges between Xinjiang and Central Asia, but after Stalin’s death it was put on the backburner. Under the ‘One-Belt, One Road’ policy, China accelerated the plan and completed the rail link with Central Asia. China also redrew its plans for the ‘One Belt One Road’ to Central Asia to include Pakistan.
China’s Ambassador to Pakistan Sun Weidong said his country “is looking forward to enhancing its cooperation with Iran through CPEC” and welcomed the road joining Gwadar to Chabahar in Iran. Iran wants Gwadar to be a ‘sister’ port to Chabahar. The Chabahar Port will be linked via road to four major cities of Afghanistan – Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. Turkmenistan and other Central Asian states have expressed interest in the Gwadar Port which will be a nodal point for trade through Pakistan to China.
CPEC is the revival and expansion of the ancient Silk Route that was made redundant by the British rulers in India. Traditionally, the Indian Subcontinent had two openings into Xinjiang. The first was the 600-mile-long Ladakh route that runs from Kashgar to Yarkand and then over the Karakoram Pass to Leh. The other was the 460-mile long land route from Kashgar to Gilgit.
After Partition, Gilgit became a part of Azad Kashmir, which cut off Ladakh’s links with Central Asia. Thus, India can trade with Central Asia only through sea routes. If India joins CPEC, as was offered by Commander Southern Command Lt General Amir Riaz on December 20, 2016 the land route between India and Central Asia will be re-established.
Speaking at an awards ceremony at the Balochistan Frontier Constabulary Headquarters in Quetta, General Riaz told India, “Join CPEC and share the fruits of future development by shelving your anti-Pakistan activities and subversion”. General Riaz’s invitation to India to join CPEC is conditional on India abandoning its Afghan proxies launched to disrupt CPEC.
A few days after this offer, the Chinese foreign ministry called the offer a “goodwill gesture”, urging India to accept it. If India joins CPEC, it will facilitate $70 billion worth of bilateral trade between India and China. Not long ago, Saarc had considered Pakistan a “median” territory allowing trade routes.
Afghanistan too is becoming a nodal point for China’s land route to Iran. The Chinese often term Afghanistan as the ‘Heart of Asia’. Trains are already running from China to Uzbekistan and then across the Amu Darya into Afghanistan. China has shown an interest in connecting Afghanistan with Balochistan.
In the words of a noted Chinese academic, Li Xiguang, “CPEC could unlock Kashmir and make it a part of a much grander regional transportation network, with Srinagar as one of its important nodes. Remember, in earlier times, Kashmir used to be the terminal of the Silk Road – it was part of the route pursued by diplomats, connecting Central Asia, Kashgar, Ladakh and Delhi”.
A soft border between the two parts of Kashmir held by Pakistan and India and between Pakistan and Afghanistan will boost trade in the region through CPEC – the new Silk Road. In the days of Gen Pervez Musharraf, cross-border trade was initiated between the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir, but the process did not go beyond initial measures.
If the soft-border approach is fully adopted in the region, it will lead to the emergence of a grand trade route from Central Asia to Afghanistan, from where cargo can go to Iran through Herat. Another route can be developed to Kashgar in China via both parts of Kashmir concluding in Gwadar.
If India, Pakistan and Afghanistan can overcome their differences and agree on establishing soft borders, uniting all of Asia can become possible. The countries will be tied in trade and economic activity, and have more stakes in preventing war and maintaining peace in the region.