China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: ‘Highway of Terror’ turns operational at last

On 13 November, the under-development China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) became operational in the sense that the first convoy of trucks laden with Chinese goods traversing the CPEC’s 3,000-kilometre journey from Kashgar in China arrived at Gwadar and was further seen off in a Chinese ship from Gwadar to West Asia and Africa. Pakistan’s top civilian and military leaders were reportedly present at Gwadar to see off the Chinese ship.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated that Pakistan will provide the best possible security to foreign investors to enable them to use Gwadar for international trade. As per current plans, the CPEC is to absorb $46 billion of Chinese investment — $11 billion from the Chinese government and the remaining $35 billion from private companies in China. Pakistan expects its GDP to rise because of the CPEC and for 700,000 jobs to be created for Pakistanis

There is no denying that Chinese infrastructure development is very quick, whether in terms of the railway line to Lhasa and to Hairatan on the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border (inaugurated on 7 September), the One-Belt-One-Road system, communications in Tibet, multiple gas and oil pipelines or the CPEC itself. Gwadar Port has been developed in record time by a Chinese company with China bearing the complete cost for its development; gratis to Pakistan. The road link from Karachi to Gwadar too was developed speedily. No Pakistani can enter Gwadar Port (guarded by the PLA) without a valid ID card. Pakistan is responsible for the security of the CPEC with all costs to be borne by Islamabad. The country has in fact has raised additional forces specifically to guard the CPEC, with a major portion of this special security force deployed in Balochistan.

There was commotion in Pakistan when then minister of Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan announced in 2011 that the US had been asked to vacate the Shamsi airbase even though the US had already ceased all operations from Shamsi three months earlier, after the Raymond Davis affair. Calls of national pride getting hurt were raised in letting a foreign power use Pakistani soil. But it finally emerged that Shamsi was built by Arab sheikhs for falcon-hunting in the early 1990s but had been occupied by the CIA since at least 2004, when Google Earth images showed Predator drones parked on the runway.

Confirmation came during the 13 May, 2011 joint session of Pakistan’s Parliament (held in camera) that the Shamsi airbase was under the purview of the UAE and not under the control of the Pakistani Air Force. Obviously, the civil-military hierarchy received hefty sums for handing over Shamsi to the UAE, as would have Nawaz and Raheel Sharif for bartering Pakistan’s sovereignty to China in exchange for Gwadar and the CPEC. Interestingly, Nawaz was also Prime Minister of Pakistan in the early 1990s.

According to analysts, economically it is 11 times cheaper to transport the same goods by sea even to and from China than through the CPEC, although the sea journey is longer. Of course, the CPEC is the alternative to China’s Malacca Dilemma should the Straits of Malacca be choked. The question here is whether the Malacca Dilemma is created by China on purpose and hyped for consumption by the Chinese people? If China’s intentions are ‘peaceful’ as bandied about perpetually and the world is for freedom of navigation and global commons, under what circumstances would the Straits of Malacca, and even Sunda Straits, be blocked for Chinese commercial ships and its navy, and for what

A closer examination would indicate that such an eventuality is highly unlikely, even with the Indian Ocean veering towards becoming the centre of gravity for future conflict, given the lethality and reach of modern era weaponry.

Under cover of economic activity for “mutual benefit” and “good for the region”, what China will never admit is that the CPEC is China’s Strategic Highway to the Indian Ocean. The Chinese are masters at strategic deception: Talk peace, prepare for war and conceal true intentions. The CPEC became even more important when Myanmar denied China the use of its territory for a similar strategic purpose. China keeps harping for India to join the CPEC but on the question of land access for India to Afghanistan and Central Asia, Beijing responds that the CPEC is only a bilateral arrangement with Pakistan.

The obvious intention is to keep India restrained, plus if the CPEC is only a ‘bilateral’ arrangement then why the façade of asking India to join it? Clearly, Gwadar is a future Chinese ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) base, which together with the Pakistani naval bases of Karachi and Omari to which China has access, would challenge India at sea.

File image of Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

File image of Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

But what should also be of most concern is the Chinese history of creating ‘depth’ to whatever it considers vital in strategic terms. Immediately, on ousting the Kuomintang regime, Mao Tse Tung announced, “Tibet is the palm of China and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and North East Frontier Agency are its fingers”. Tibet was annexed by China also because it comprises 26 percent of China’s land and is the country’s water tower. Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia were captured to provide a buffer to the mainland. China captured 38,000 square kilometres of Jammu and Kashmir to give adequate depth to its Western Highway.

Going by the same analogy, what would be the Chinese strategy for providing ‘depth’ to the CPEC running through Pakistan (from North to South), which itself is obsessed about strategic depth? Moreover, the CPEC is running through Gilgit-Baltistan that is afflicted with public dissatisfaction and shifting it West is not possible because of the highly volatile FATA region. But most of the CPEC can’t avoid Balochistan where insurgency simmers because of the Pakistani genocide.

Under the circumstances, the CPEC can become the target of terror attacks. So what better strategy to provide depth to the CPEC but through sub-conventional operations (read terror attacks)? And precisely this appears to have been operationalised. China has deep links with Taliban even the membership based in Qatar, while Pakistan has a hold on both Talibans (through the Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani). The Islamic State in Afghanistan-Pakistan is the creation of Pakistan, and most importantly, all Pakistani proxies are also Chinese proxies. That is why with the strategic-yet-covert lodgment of the PLA in PoK and Pakistan, terror attacks in Afghanistan and violence in Jammu and Kashmir (including ceasefire violations by Pakistan) have shot up exponentially.

The Pakistani objective of carving out more Afghan territory for strategic depth (implying influence at sub-conventional level) is in sync with China’s strategic designs. Pakistan’s growing hostility towards India suits China similarly. Repeated terror attacks in Balochistan aids Pakistani designs to subdue the Balochi population and eliminate as many non-Sunnis as possible.

Terror attacks against Balochis suit China very well too as it discourages Balochi insurgents from any feeble attempts to disrupt the CPEC which is guarded by the Pakistani Army.

On balance, the CPEC has by default or design become a “Highway of Terror” – more for exporting terror than being subjected to terror attacks.

The author is a veteran Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army


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