CPEC — China’s Sinew for ‘Great Power’ Status

China has unambiguously signalled in recent times that it wants to block India’s rise; not only has she been unrelenting in thwarting India at successive international forums, she supports Pakistan’s anti-India jihad

Issue: 2 / 2017By Lt General P. C. Katoch (Retd)Photo(s): By cpec.gov.pk
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif unveiling the plaque of CEPC pilot project at Gwadar in 2016

In her quest for ‘Great Power’ status, China wants a China-centric Asia and a multipolar world. It is already going full hog in inducing gravitational pull in Asian states to align with Chinese national interests. If North Korea, Laos and Cambodia are under Chinese influence in Asia-Pacific, in South Asia it is Pakistan and Sri Lanka, even as China is exerting similar pressures on Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Maldives. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undergoing major modernisation and getting equipped with high-tech weaponry coupled with rapid capacity building in cyberspace, space, nuclear and force projection. She has begun to display military will and capability to contain, coerce and discipline any rival.

China-Pak Economic Corridor

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is 3,000-km-long running along alignment Kashgar-Khunjerab-Gilgit-Islamabad-Balochistan-Gwadar, replete with rail and road links, pipelines, industrial parks and special economic zones (SEZ). There are some 100 tunnels along the CPEC. These are in addition to tunnels purportedly for hydel projects being dug by the Chinese. The rigged elections in Gilgit-Baltistan during 2016 and continuing Pakistani genocide in Balochistan have aggravated instability in these regions. There are reports of alternative alignments for the CPEC being looked into but going West in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is equally dangerous if it goes close to FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). Factually, Pakistan signed its own death warrant by ushering Wahabism, which peaked under Zia-ul-Haq and fundamentalist Islam continues to gradually devour Pakistan. While China announced an investment of $46 billion in the CPEC, Pakistan has been trumpeting this will create 7,00,000 jobs in Pakistan. But whether these tall claims of 7,00,000 jobs are all for Pakistanis and what jobs these will be is unclear because as per ground reports of the Chinese projects underway in PoK, locals are not permitted to come in their close vicinity. The best part of the $46 billion investment is that China appears to have taken Pakistan for a royal ride. It is also possible that Pakistani hierarchy was bought over considering their past record of having bought over a former UN General Assembly President.

More significantly, a cost benefit analysis of the $46 billion CPEC reveals that the Chinese Government is investing only $11 billion for construction of roads and rail links. Pakistan is required to pay 80 per cent of this investment to China, so in actual term this Chinese investment will only be to the extent of 20 per cent. At the moment the terms of repayment are not publicised but if China is charging interest and in case of default repayment, China is capable of extracting all $11 billion repayment back from Pakistan, if not more. The worst part for Pakistan is that bulk of the construction force and labourers are coming from China despite Pakistan footing 80 per cent or more of costs. Pakistani army is to provide security for the CPEC, for which naturally Pakistan bears all costs. The balance $35 billion investment is to be borne by Chinese private companies are to construct of coal-based power plants. Here too China has scored because coal for these plants will come from China under pretext of less ash environment pollution, not using cheaper coal available in Pakistan. On top of this, Pakistani consumers of these coal-based power plants will have to pay 27 per cent extra costs for the electricity they purchase.

Operationalisation of CPEC

On November 13, 2016, the under development China-Pakistan Economic Corridor became operational in the sense that the first convoy of trucks laden with Chinese goods traversing the CPEC’s 3,000-km journey from Kashgar in China arrived at Gwadar and was further seen off in a Chinese ship from Gwadar to Middle East 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 best possible security to foreign investors to enable them to use Gwadar for international trade. There is no denying that Chinese infrastructure development is very fast, be it the railway to Lhasa, rail line to Hariatan on Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border (inaugurated on September 7, 2016), One Border, One Road (OBOR), communications in Tibet, multiple gas and oil pipelines, or the CPEC. 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 PLA) without valid ID card. Pakistan is responsible for the security of the CPEC with all costs to be borne by Pakistan. Pakistan has raised additional forces for specifically guarding the CPEC, with major portion of this special security force deployed in Balochistan.

China’s Strategic Agenda

As per analysts, economically it is 11 times cheaper to transport the same goods by sea even to and from China than through the CPEC, even though the sea journey is longer. Of course, the CPEC is significant alterative to the Malacca Dilemma of China should the Strait of Malacca get choked. The question here is whether the Malacca Dilemma is created by China on purpose and hyped for the consumption of the Chinese people? If China’s intentions are ‘peaceful’ as bandied perpetually and the world is for freedom of navigation and global commons, under what circumstances would the Strait of Malacca, and even Sunda Straits, be blocked for Chinese commercial ships and navy, and for what duration? Besides, how the blocking of these straits, especially the Strait of Malacca will adversely impact international trade of most countries of the world is another issue. A closer examination would indicate that such eventuality is highly unlikely, even with the Indian Ocean becoming the centre of gravity of future conflict, given the lethality and reach of modern era weaponry.

Highway of Terror

History is replete with China’s obsession for creating ‘depth’ to whatever she considers vital for her in strategic terms. Immediately, on ousting the Kuomintang regime, Mao Zedong announced, “Tibet is the palm of China and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA are its fingers”. Tibet was annexed by China also because it comprises 26 per cent land of China, is the heartland, and is the water tower. Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia were captured to give buffer to the mainland. China captured 38,000 sq km of the state of J&K 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 north-south through Pakistan 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 Baluchistan where insurgency simmers because of Pakistani genocide. While the CPEC can become subject to terror attacks, China-Pakistan are providing depth to the CPEC indirectly by projecting more terror into India and Afghanistan through subconventional operations. China has deep links with Taliban, Pakistan has hold on both Taliban through the Haqqani network, ISIS in Af-Pak is the creation of Pakistan, and most importantly all Pakistani proxies also are Chinese proxies. That is why with the strategic though covert lodgement of PLA in PoK and Pakistan, terror attacks in Afghanistan and violence in J&K including ceasefire violations by Pakistan have shot up exponentially.

Pakistani objective of carving out more Afghan territory as strategic depth (implying more influence at subconventional level) is in sync with China’s strategic designs. Pakistan’s growing hostility towards India suits China similarly.

Implications for India

The CPEC running close to the line of control (LoC) and India-Pak international border has strategic implications for India. The lodgement of PLA in PoK and tunneling for deployment of strategic weapons are developments that impinge on security of the region, as does the Chinese naval deployment in Gwadar. The Chinese objective is quite clear — box India within South Asia. Both China and Pakistan have been calling for India to join the CPEC, which actually is a trap. India should never join the CPEC because: one, it does not give land access to India to Afghanistan and Central Asia through Pakistan, which India has always wanted; two, it may increase India-China trade but with the existing bilateral imbalance heavily in favour of China (according to information provided in Parliament, it stood at close to $45 billion in 2015-16 with India’s exports amounting to only around $8 billion), it would result in increased imbalance manifold.


China’s excessive trumpeting of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) for ‘developing the regions’ through which OBOR passes belies the fact that it has little money in her kitty for such massive projects, what with her outstanding debt, interests repayment and state of global market. But at the same time, some 800 Chinese companies are ready to invest and provide employment to millions of Chinese waiting in the wings — all at the cost the country hosting OBOR. However, if the strategic US-China competition on water is being played out in the South China Sea (SCS), on land this could well unfold in the Af-Pak region at the subconventional level. Indian policy makers need to work in close concert with US, Afghanistan and other strategic partners in order to secure own national interests.