If connectivity is becoming the basis of a new geopolitics, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) should be rated the year’s most potent symbol of this 21st century version of the Great Game. A Great Game whose outwards manifestations are multi-lane highways, pipelines and container traffic. The $46 billion CPEC is the flagship project within the even more ambitious Belt-Road programme of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a transcontinental infrastructure project that would effectively convert the Middle Kingdom into the logistics hub of Eurasia and, potentially, the centre of the global economy.
The CPEC functions on a number of different levels. Symbolically it would be potent evidence of what economic benefits a country that allies with Beijing can expect. A rough comparison would be the Marshall Fund, the programme by which the United States rebuilt war-torn Europe, reworked the very economic structure of that continent and showcased its arrival as a superpower. Chinese officials themselves speak of how the CPEC will not be just about trade and transit, it will be about bringing stability to Pakistan. Taming, as it were, a rogue state with poured concrete. And, if successful, Beijing would be able to argue it succeeded where Washington had failed.
On another level, CPEC would also be a sign of the ability of the Chinese government to act strategically on a grand scale. This is not something that comes naturally to Beijing. Even the all-powerful Communist Party is known to be nervous about domestic reaction to its foreign ventures. One reason China’s foreign aid has been grants rather than loans has been the negative social media reaction it gets at home to the gifting of money to foreigners. The Belt-Road has also received criticism. Completing the CPEC would be evidence its public will support an expensive project of questionable economic benefits but great strategic consequence. Beijing’s recent imposition of capital controls is therefore not a good sign. It signals economic indigestion at the amount of capital flowing out of China.
The CPEC, finally, will be a test of China’s ability to work holistically in a foreign land. The China and Pakistan relationship has so far been military-to-military. Building CPEC will mean working with almost every stakeholder in Pakistani society, not traditionally a strong point of Chinese foreign policy. The recent report by the Federation of Pakistani Chambers of Commerce complaining that the flood of Chinese capital and firms in the country was marginalising local business is a case in point. And Beijing is rightly nervous about the vulnerability of its workers to Balochi insurgents and Taliban militants. That the CPEC has also become a major thorn in Sino-Indian relations is almost beside the point. In the coming years the corridor will be a test not of Chinese engineering, but of that country’s ability to use its influence on a whole host of fronts – and how ready it is to be rules-making superpower.