With the region’s focus returning to internal affairs after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, China offers Pakistan a hefty $46 billion investment to build the Gwadar port. The most significant undertaking of this project is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which will connect the Chinese city of Kashgar to the Arabian Sea through a series of highways, railways and pipelines.
Following this announcement, India immediately followed up on a 12-year-old MoU with Iran by signing a new agreement to construct the Chabahar Port. The CPEC, if allowed to develop as planned, is bound to have huge ramifications within the region. Gwadar is the only port in the region that can accept 200,000 tonnes of supertankers. Chabahar, in contrast, has a maximum capacity of 20,000 tonnes. Gwadar also benefits from being conveniently situated on the mouth of the Persian Gulf, along the path of a major international oil and shipping route.
The connectivity of the port for domestic needs and Chinese trade means that crude oil can be pumped to refineries near the port for widespread transportation. In addition, there is a potential for $60 billion trade along the newly developed road and rail networks. Such a volume of trade has an impetus of its own. For instance, the crude oil would be processed at refineries, which require skilled workers, who will need homes, and so on. The trade would throw up an infrastructure all the way from the north to the south while providing a stable source of fuel for desperately needed energy. Pakistan is poised to benefit in immeasurable ways from this major investment.
However, expansion of the port and development of the corridor is yet to begin and politicians are up to their usual shenanigans. The route of the economic corridor remained under heavy dispute until recently, with many arguing that the western route, which goes through Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, be built first instead of prioritising the more accommodating eastern route through the already developed Punjab and Sindh provinces.
It is also important to realise that the relationship between China and Pakistan is far from equal. For instance, in a Pew survey conducted in 2014, 78 per cent of Pakistanis had a favourable view of China whereas only 30 per cent of Chinese felt the same way about Pakistan. China undoubtedly understands that its security depends on a prosperous Pakistan and the Gwadar port will enable China to import oil more efficiently all year round.
With large investment and trade within the country, a large defence structure could eventually become superfluous. Pakistan has an opportunity to evolve from a garrison state towards having more focus on open trade and welfare. However, there are substantial challenges to such a happy ending, such as poor governance, corruption, religious bigotry and militancy. The next ‘great game’ may very well be the struggle between the possibilities of an economic corridor pitted against such obstacles. Is China’s investment enough to persuade the nation to become a society free of bigotry, intolerance and corruption? Or, will Pakistan fall victim to influences, real and created, lost in the confusion of the ummah, state and sovereignty as it once again succumbs to another opportunity lost?
Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2015.