Saurav Sarkar, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies
Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa went to China on September 16 on a three day visit to discuss issues of bilateral and regional significance. Prior to this visit, the Imran Khan government sent mixed signals on the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The visit was a gesture on the part of Pakistan to try and contain the fallout of the statements reportedly made by senior officials in the Pakistani government. President Xi in his meeting with General Bajwa pledged China’s continued support to Pakistan as a ‘strategic partner’ and said that opponents of CPEC and BRI will ‘never succeed.’ General Bajwa reciprocated by saying that Pakistan is committed to thwart any plan by other parties to sabotage CPEC.
Despite minor resentments the core basis of the CPEC in particular, and China-Pakistan relations in general, would continue to persevere. Even the risks associated with Chinese nationals in Pakistan such as terrorist attacks and kidnapping are something that China seems willing to put up with. CPEC in China-Pakistan ties is a product of the relationship and not the relationship.
CPEC – more than just economics
China and Pakistan have continued to expand their security ties ever since the opening of the Karakoram Highway in 1963-64. CPEC also utilises this highway in traversing from Gilgit-Baltistan to Xinjiang. The southern tip of CPEC lay at Gwadar, a deep water port in Baluchistan province, which is significantly closer to Iran than to Karachi in Pakistan.
The port’s strategic value cannot be stated enough. It is good for submarine operations due to its unique bathymetries and it also provides China with a beachhead in the Arabian Sea and Pakistan with an alternate fall-back port in crisis situations. Gwadar is located close to a busy shipping route and thus it makes it easier for submarines to disguise their movements in the noise of the North Arabian Sea. Additionally, in 2015 China had also agreed to sell Pakistan eight Yuan-class (Type 041) attack submarines over a span of ten years. At an estimated $5 billion price tag it is one of Pakistan’s most expensive defence deals. These submarines are stealthy and use air-independent propulsion systems (which increases their endurance). In a deep water port like Gwadar these submarines would have a tactical edge in anti-surface warfare.
On terrorism – finding common ground
The China-Pakistan relationship’s endurance was expressed in no uncertain terms when President Xi referred to themselves as ‘iron friends’ and said they continue to be ‘highly aligned’ on major international and regional issues. General Bajwa had also met General Zhang Youxia, one of the Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission. During his meeting with General Zhang he stressed the importance Pakistan prioritizes in its strategic and security cooperation with China. He expressed Pakistan’s commitment to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) in Counter Terrorism by Afghanistan-China-Pakistan-Tajikistan Armed Forces. The QCCM was formalised during the tenure of General Raheel Shareef, Bajwa’s predecessor, in Urumqi with the military chiefs of the other member countries. China has depended on Pakistan to take action against Uyghur militants in the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) who often join other Islamist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic State (IS).
The Pakistani military’s ongoing operations in the tribal areas against the TIP, Al Qaeda, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, IMU, etc. eliminated many Uyghur militants under the patronage of these militant groups. Insurgents continue to pose major security threats which has led to the Pakistani government deploying additional security forces just to protect assets associated with CPEC. This is important to note because Baluchistan has been riddled with insurgent groups since the inception of the Pakistani state and has always had a huge security presence. The deployment of additional troops means two things – the threat level remains high and the security and speeding up of CPEC is paramount. Just last month a suicide bomber from a separatist group and injured three Chinese workers in Dalbandin, Baluchistan.
Pakistan is China’s gateway to the Persian Gulf, something that the Russians have been trying to achieve since the Afghan Great Game of the 1800s till the withdrawal of the Soviet Red Army across the Oxus in 1989. Former Pakistan ISI chief Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani had referred to the present geopolitics of the region as the ‘New Great Game’. For China’s two largest hinterland provinces – Xinjiang and Tibet – Gwadar is much closer than ports in eastern China. Even for the US, Gwadar would be more effective in getting supplies to Afghanistan via the border crossing at Chaman and onwards to Kandahar. This would cut down the time taken to transport supplies to Afghanistan to 24 hours but at a higher security risk as southern Afghanistan has a strong insurgent presence.
Washington has reportedly shown an interest in this. However, the Trump administration’s critical approach towards Islamabad on terrorism and towards Beijing on the South China Sea, trade, and economic sanctions due to purchase of Russian fighter jets makes such a scenario unlikely. Baluchistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan so for the foreseeable future it will continue to be an important area for all major powers. Recently Saudi Arabia had accepted Pakistan’s offer to be a part of CPEC. How Iran reacts to this development remains to be seen, but it would certainly be alarmed by Saudi presence right across its border, since Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan and Pakistan’s Baluchistan provinces are involved in low-intensity conflict with various Sunni insurgent groups in the region.
 Sinha, Aditya, A. S. Dulat and Asad Durrani. 2018. ‘Kulbushan Jadav’, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace. India: Harper Collins, 190.