China tries to legitimise Pak control over PoK

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with China President Xi Jinping at an event in this file photo
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with China President Xi Jinping at an event in this file photo

The highly ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, to be completed by 2030, will start showing results by 2017-18 when its first phase will be over. Though there has been very little discussion on it in India, it will be there for all to see how the $46 billion project, announced last year, will bring about a drastic change in the geopolitical situation in the region by 2020 when work on its second phase will be finished.

The project will pass through all the provinces and regions in Pakistan, including Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK), which is obviously a matter of concern for India. China will automatically come into the picture whenever issues related to PoK are discussed. It will amount to Pakistan having legitimised its control over parts of PoK with the help of its all-weather friend China. Though China’s argument is that “the sovereignty of the Kashmir region has been a historical problem between India and Pakistan and should be appropriately settled through bilateral talks and negotiations,” the CPEC will be another factor in any future discussion between India and Pakistan which may change China’s approach in the matter.

This is the reason why India has been raising its concerns with China off and on. Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue during his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in eastern China. However, this has had little impact on China’s involvement in the CPEC project, being implemented under its One Belt and One Road initiative. “It is unlikely that China will change its supportive attitude on the CPEC in the short term, but the increasing cost of security is becoming a big problem in efficiently pushing forward the project,” commented China’s Global Times, an official publication of that country.

The CPEC will link Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located in Baluchistan, to Kasgarh in Uyghur-dominated Xinjiang province of China, covering a distance of around 3,200 km. This multi-sector project, involving the setting up of not only special economic zones but also building of oil pipelines and rail and road networks, is seen as being beneficial to all the provinces of Pakistan. Initially, the people in Balochistan and Sindh were upset as it was believed that Punjab will be the major beneficiary of the CPEC project which led to protests in the disgruntled regions. There were widespread demonstrations in the regions which felt let down by the federal government. As a result, the project’s design was reviewed and altered to ensure that no region felt to have been given a short-shrift.

As the situation prevails today, of the $46 billion initial investment budgeted for the CPEC, $11.6 billion will be spent in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, $11.5 in Sindh, $7.1 in Balochistan and $6.9 in Punjab. However, it is difficult to believe that Punjab will get the minimum investment as part of implementation of the CPEC. It seems all aspects of the project are not being revealed. The official figures show that around $38 billion will go into energy generation and the rest of the funds will be used for the development of other kinds of infrastructure. All the schemes to be started under the project will be implemented through China-Pakistan bilateral agreements.

Interestingly, all major political parties are in favour of the CPEC becoming a reality though this will mean China’s strong and visible presence all over Pakistan. These parties appear to be convinced that the project will transform Pakistan into a major economic hub in the South Asian region. The Pakistan Army has offered to provide foolproof security to the Chinese engineers and workers engaged with the project by constituting a Special Security Division (SSD) for the purpose. The SSD will comprise nine army battalions and six wings of the civil armed forces, commanded by a major-general. Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif is reported to have declared in unequivocal terms, “We are totally aware of all campaigns against the corridor and I vow that the security forces are ready to pay any price to turn this longcherished dream into reality.” The tribal people and others who fear a major threat to their culture and are not sure of any gain accruing to them are being called “traitors”. The army has threatened to deal with them sternly.

However, security to the CPEC still remains a major area of concern for the Chinese. According to reports, Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Sun Weidong called on Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff on 7 June. Their meeting led to an official statement released in this regard, saying that “Matters of mutual interest, including regional security and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, came under discussion.”

China is fully focused on implementing the CPEC project as it will help push their trade with West Asia, Central Asia, Europe and other regions

According to Hu Shisheng, Director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, “the corridor could be a major pillar of Sino-Pakistan relations. Nearly all our bilateral resources are more focused on guaranteeing the success of CPEC. So, this will include all the areas. (We are) also dealing with the relationship between the Central government and local provinces.”

The Chinese are fully focused on implementing the project as it will help push their trade with West Asia,
Central Asia, Europe and other regions. At present China’s nearly 80 per cent oil import is shipped from the Straits of Malacca to Shanghai. This takes between two and three months as the distance to be covered is more than 16,000 km. But China’s access to Gwadar through the CPEC will reduce the distance to around 5,000 km.

Besides economic advantages, China hopes to increase influence in South Asia and Central Asia, using its access to Gwadar and the advantages to be available from the CPEC. One pro-CPEC view is that India too can be a gainer as the cost of exports from its western states via Gwadar can get reduced considerably once India-Pakistan relations improve. This is nothing but hoping against hope. In any case, India cannot approve of the CPEC as will legitmise Pakistan’s control of the Gilgit-Baltistan region in PoK.

According to MK Narayanan, a former National Security Adviser, the CPEC poses a “major threat” to India’s interests. In his view, China’s “One Belt One Road” development strategy, with the CPEC as its most significant economic and strategic project, can have “the most degrading impact” on India’s relations with China. This is a clear case of China trying to help Pakistan to tell India that it should forget about the large territory of Kashmir under Pakistan’s illegal control.