China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is carving out new pathways across the Eurasian continent, signifying Beijing’s ambitions to remake the world around it. This project, if implemented, will fundamentally change China’s role and relationships in South Asia, perhaps in some ways that are not intended.
In the Indian Ocean region, OBOR has two aspects. One is the Maritime Silk Road, a series of linked port projects aimed at facilitating trade and new production chains linked with China by sea. The other is a series of planned north–south pathways from China to the Indian Ocean, including the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Economic Corridor. These projects come with huge price tags and would involve the construction of roads, railways, pipelines and other major infrastructure in corridors stretching for hundreds and even thousands of kilometres.
Beijing has many motivations for these ambitious undertakings. Most immediately, they put to work Chinese infrastructure companies that are facing a tough domestic market. They also promise the development of new regional production chains with China at the centre. These corridors could also drive development in poor and politically unstable parts of Pakistan and Myanmar, potentially helping to stabilise those troubled countries. This reflects Beijing’s views on the transformative impact of state-driven economic development. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reportedly characterised the Chinese projects in Pakistan as a means to ‘wean the populace from fundamentalism’.
But these new overland pathways also have the potential to fundamentally alter China’s role in South Asia and the entire strategic make-up of the region. Geopolitically, South Asia has long functioned more or less as an island rather than as part of a bigger continent. Any overland connections that South Asia has with the rest of the continent are, at best, tenuous and excepting a tiny proportion of trade that is carried overland to and from Eurasia, essentially all of South Asia’s connections with the rest of the world are by sea or air.
These geographic constraints have had considerable political, economic and strategic consequences for the region. One is in underpinning India’s role as South Asia’s predominant power. The relative lack of landward connections into the Eurasian continent also amplifies the importance of control over the maritime trade routes across the northern Indian Ocean.
Geography has also caused Eurasian states, such as China, to have very limited contact with their South Asian neighbours. Sitting on the other side of the Himalayas, China may as well have been on the other side of the world. While it has been a strategic player in South Asia for some time, it has been from far away. China’s virtual remoteness allowed it to keep its hands clean of domestic political and security problems, even while it provided substantial military and diplomatic support to the Pakistani government. This has helped China to project itself as a benevolent partner that does not ‘meddle’ in internal affairs.
But China’s role in the region may be about to fundamentally change. The CPEC will involve many thousands of Chinese engineers and workers building billions of dollars of infrastructure over thousands of kilometres of territory on a scale far exceeding any previous Chinese investments in Pakistan. While the final route is yet to be determined, the corridor will likely traverse the territories of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. These are territories with long-running insurgencies or long histories of violent resistance to meddling foreigners.
Pakistan has sought to address CPEC security risks by forming a special army corps of 12,000 personnel devoted to protecting the project. But, at least until recently, China has been surprisingly sanguine about these risks and its ability to rely on the Pakistan Army.
If separatists or fundamentalist insurgents see benefit in attacking Chinese nationals and assets, then the Pakistan Army may be in for a difficult time. There are already past reports of Chinese security forces providing protection to Chinese workers in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and it is not difficult to contemplate a growing Chinese security element in other Pakistani territories if the Pakistan Army is unable to cope by itself. CPEC also has the potential to enmesh China much more closely in Pakistan for reasons beyond just physical security, making it a key player in the country’s internal political and security affairs.
India is still formulating its views about CPEC, but has already expressed outright opposition to some aspects. India’s Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar called OBOR a ‘national initiative devised with national interest’, stating that it was ‘not incumbent on others to buy it’. Some in Delhi argue that anything that helps Pakistan’s economic development and potentially stabilises the country would be a good thing for India. But one aspect that infuriates Delhi is China’s plans to build infrastructure in Kashmir and Gilgit, territories claimed by India. India has repeatedly presented its strong objections to China without any apparent response.
We are already seeing some indications of a new geopolitical dynamic over CPEC. There is Beijing pushing for the Pakistan Army to be given a leading role—above that of any civilian authorities—in CPEC. Then there is the prospect of China’s much closer involvement in Pakistan’s domestic political affairs, both in Islamabad and regionally. And there is India, a major regional power looking for ways to threaten China’s plans in Pakistan.
In August 2016, in a national Independence Day speech, Indian Prime Minister Modi sent a clear message that India may begin to publicly support Balochistan’s separatist insurgents. This represents a big shift for India and was directed almost as much at Beijing as at Islamabad. A senior and well-connected Chinese scholar responded that China will have ‘to get involved’ if India seeks to disrupt the CPEC. On 21 September, in the wake of the deterioration in Indo–Pakistan relations over Kashmir, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang publicly warned his civilian Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, that he ‘hoped’ Pakistan can continue to provide safety protection to the program construction and Chinese personnel in Pakistan. These may well be the opening moves to a whole new strategic dynamic in South Asia driven by China’s great OBOR ambitions.