Xi Jinping’s just completed visit to Pakistan is a big deal for China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and the United States. China has pledged $46 billion to develop the port, road, and pipeline infrastructure linking the Pakistani port at Gwadar to Western China’s Xinjiang province, to construct badly needed power plants, and to upgrade Pakistan’s submarines, presumable to carry nuclear weapons. In return, Pakistan is giving China essentially full access to the Gwadar port.
Everyone should wish for economic development in Pakistan, and it would be great if at least a significant portion of this Chinese aid and loans goes toward activities, like badly-needed infrastructure and energy-generating capacity, that benefits the ordinary Pakistani people. US aid to Pakistan over past decades has spectacularly failed in this regard.
If the Gwadar project continues as planned, China will have an Indian Ocean access that will allow it to receive Persian Gulf oil and gas less expensively and without needing its ships to pass through the Malacca Strait, a narrow passage that could easily be controlled by the US Navy in times of potential conflict. This is a huge strategic gain for Beijing. China will also hope for Pakistan’s efforts to crack down on Xinjiang rebels and jihadis unhappy with China’s iron-fisted rule in Xinjiang and for Pakistan’s help negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Further, China, concerned by the growing love-fest between Indian and the United States, will be able to ramp up or down its military and other association with Pakistan as leverage with India.
Pakistan is a challenging place, however, as the United States has learned painfully over past decades. One complicating factor is that the Gwadar port is located in Baluchistan, a Pakistani province with an active rebel and secessionist movement. Many Baluchi people are already aggrieved by their perception that Pakistan’s government takes the province’s ample resources and provides little back in return. China will have big problems if its initiative exacerbates that perception. Inversely, Chine could strengthen its position immeasurably, and demonstrate an impressive political maturity, if it ensured that this new investment disproportionately benefitted the people of Baluchistan. This cannot be done through the traditional Chinese propaganda aid of building cricket fields, but through the hard work of ensuring that long-term development aid enhances the quality of life of ordinary people in sustainable ways. The China-Pakistan relationship could also come under strain if jihadis in Pakistan take up the cause of their oppressed brethren in Xinjiang.
Lots has been said about the topic, but I thought you might enjoy this link to my recent CNN interview on China-Pakistan, linked here.