In Pakistan, most discussions about the geopolitical implications of the CPEC or the overall Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have centred on the country’s bilateral relations with India.
There are several visible indications that CPEC has intensified tensions between Pakistan and India. It has not only exacerbated ties between both countries, but there is also a growing perception (read evidence) that India is in cahoots with elements in Iran and Afghanistan and is making concerted efforts to sabotage and derail the multibillion multi-year investment plan.
A report prepared by researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) provides some insights in this regard. It states that: “the region of Balochistan is being geopolitically instrumentalised by these various players”.
The document adds that there is a strong “evidence that CPEC has contributed to political and security bloc formation, [although] the bloc rivalry between the US-India and China-Pakistan exists regardless of CPEC...Balochistan is receiving new geopolitical impetus through CPEC implementation”.
It was in this context that Lu Shu Lin, China’s former ambassador to Pakistan, minced no words when he wrote in an article that external factors and actors are “a matter to be closely watched, because not all the countries are willing to see the completion of CPEC”. In recent times, unabated target killings and attacks on law-enforcement agencies in the province has much to do with this so-called ‘Great Game’.
However, India and various regional and global powers have different perceptions about the Belt and Road Initiative. Besides its implications for South Asia, the initiative and its key artery in the form of CPEC and the accompanying visible Chinese footprint in the region could have wider geopolitical implications beyond South Asia, particularly for the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, there is no doubt that CPEC has the potential to exacerbate two faultlines in the security and geopolitical landscape of South Asia and the region beyond.
The first is between China and India themselves. India has openly denounced the project, citing its reservations over the corridor passing through Gilgit-Baltistan, which India considers to be part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Numerous analysts have argued that there is no law that prohibits development work in a disputed territory. And the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) by China and Pakistan in the 1960s is an example of this.
The current corridor is also an extension and expansion of the KKH passing through the same region. Therefore, the Indian narrative, which is also implicitly supported by some powers, needs an appropriate response at the regional and international levels. At the same time, there is a dominant perception that India is only using this issue as a pretext. But the reality is that India considers CPEC to be China’s geopolitical gambit and security project to cement its footprint in its backyard.
In contrast to the India-Pakistan geopolitical scenario, China and India have mostly remained calm. Although in their recent meetings, leaders of both countries have expressed their intention to resolve border disputes and further expand bilateral ties, “Indian security elites view China as their number-one strategic challenge”.
Besides aggravating the already tenuous ties between Pakistan and India on the one hand, and affecting relations between China and India on the other; there is another faultline: China (and to a lesser magnitude Pakistan) on one side and India and its partners – Japan, Australia, the US and, to a lesser degree, Vietnam – on the other. In this context, a conspicuous implication of the Belt and Road Initiative was that officials from Australia, India, Japan and the US held a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila in November 2017. They stated that it was an appropriate time to reestablish the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad).
These countries had originally joined hands as the ‘Core Group’ to provide humanitarian assistance following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. However, they only met once at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2007. Since then, the Quad mostly remained dormant. Under the China-led Belt and Road Initiative, including the creation of the Maritime Silk Road, the need to reestablish the Quad is a sign of “tectonic shifts in the geopolitics of the region and in the Asia policies of the members of the original Quad”.
The report also asserts that while there is an increasing convergence of strategic goals regarding the Indo-Pacific region among the countries participating in the Quad, there are also discernible divergences in the members concerning “strategic geography, threat perceptions, and dynamics vis-a-vis China”.
It is also interesting to note that India has been the most active proponent of the Quad in contrast to other members that have somewhat divergent security perceptions. Whether its Indian security establishment and think-tanks within India or researchers of Indian origin who are co-authors for some of the reports prepared by research organisations outside India, they have been vehemently advocating for the restoration of the Quad.
Although there are still some constraints in restoring the Quad due to different geopolitical interests and security perceptions of the participating countries, the Belt and Road Initiative and the growing Chinese influence could function as a catalyst to revive and reinvigorate the forum. This could also have additional geopolitical implications for other countries in the larger Indo-Pacific region. In view of this, CPEC and the Belt and Road Initiative not only have geopolitical implications for Pak-India relations or within the South Asian region but also for the broader Indo-Pacific region.
In an atmosphere of distrust, the proper dividend of infrastructure projects and greater integration and connectivity could remain elusive. Both China and Pakistan need to take the US and other powers into confidence and emphasise the fact that CPEC and the overarching Belt and Road Initiative bear enormous potential to open new vistas of trade and connectivity for landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asian States. The perception that Gwadar Port is going to be utilised for military purposes by China should be rebuffed.
In order to remove any such doubts, Pakistan must ensure that only its military personnel will be stationed at the port to protect the Chinese and Pakistani workers. Enough time and resources have been consumed by unabated mistrust by both Pakistan and India, resulting in the overall lack of integration of South Asia.
The region cannot afford to continue on the same trajectory of confrontation and hostility. In order to accrue the true potential of bilateral trade and regional connectivity, it is the primary responsibility of regional players, particularly India and Pakistan, to think about the betterment of their future generations. External powers, which have vested interests in persistent conflicts, would never help resolve our disputes.
The writer is a postdoctoral researchfellow at the German Development Institute at Bonn, Germany.