When it comes to Sino-Pak relations, the Indians hardly ever look favourably at the coziness of this relation between the two countries. Whenever in dire need, Pakistan has always looked up to China and the friendly country has almost always responded positively to Pakistan’s needs. The continuity of Pakistan’s favourable policy by China has, of course, meant a much difficult and thorny Chinese relationship with India. The ‘Beijing bend’ towards Pakistan has a history and so do the Indian protests that follow the consequential outcomes of this relationship which India thinks are mostly against its national interests. If the pursuit of friendship and cooperation between China and Pakistan has been a never-ending goal, so have Indian concerns which have been equally well-sustained and unrelenting. Whether it was the Pak-China demarcation and border agreement signed in 1963 or the construction of the Karakoram Highway in 1970s, India has never looked at such developments constructively and has always objected to their undertaking to be against Indian interests.
Sino-Pakistan relations are viewed by India not merely as a relationship between two neighbourly countries but as a relationship that is more anti-Indian and ‘military and strategic oriented’. The military-to-military contacts between the two countries, India believes, are too deep. Little doubt that such a belief is based on some solid and incrementing evidence. Had it not been for China’s military assistance, Pakistan would never have been able to militarily match Indian conventional capability. It was China that became the largest supplier of military hardware to Pakistan when the Americans imposed sanctions in the 1990s. Since then, Pakistan’s missile programme took an upward surge and the present missile-and-nuclear-capable Pakistan has a lot to do with Chinese technological assistance. Add to this the handing over of the control of Gwadar port by Pakistan to the China and the tremendous strategic leverage it gives to China vis-a-vis India, one is tempted to side with Indian concerns. Not only does the port provide an opening to China towards the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf it also gives China a view into India’s Western coast including Gujarat and Maharashtra.
It is with this backdrop that one should view the reported ‘preliminary research study’ undertaken by China to build an international rail link connecting Chinese border province of Xinjiang to Pakistan.
From India’s perspective since the railway line passes through Azad Kashmir it would promote the political and economic power status of China and Pakistan in a disputed territory and will undermine Indian standing as a party that claims the Azad Kashmir territory. Technically the construction of this railway line is considered difficult as it passes through mountains of very high altitude.
Will the construction of such a railway line usher a new era of economic resurgence and prosperity in the region? How far would the functioning of this railway line damage Indian interest? These are some of the pertinent and essential questions that are being asked by those who consider the commissioning of this railway line as an important game-changer in future.
The few Chinese ‘Kashmir-specific actions’ in the past are the reason that Indians feel little assured about the true nature of Chinese intentions in the construction of this railway line. China, to the utter dislike of the Indians in 2008, started giving stapled visas to the people from Jammu and Kashmir clearly suggesting that it considered Kashmir to be under Indian occupation as a disputed territory. In September 2010, it even refused visa to Lt Gen Jaswal, the commander of Indian Army’s Northern Command, on the grounds that the officer was commanding troops in a disputed area. Lately, it has shown Arunchal Pradesh as its own territory in the latest published maps to which the government of India has officially protested. China even extended an invitation to Mirwaiz Farooq to visit China in a cold reminder to India of what China can also do if the Indians don’t abstain from interfering in matters related to Tibet.
After the American announcement of the ‘Asia-Pacific Pivot’ the linkage of Northern China with the Pakistani port city of Gwadar through this railway line is of immense strategic and military importance to China. It enhances the great power status of China which, through the Gwadar port seeks direct access to the Arabian Sea and resultant strategic upper hand against both the US and Indian navies in the Indian Ocean. Currently, 80 per cent of the Chinese imported oil travels through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Considering that China is world’s second largest oil consumer and the largest oil importer it needs to ensure that the oil supply from Gulf continues into mainland China without going around India and even if its enemies carry out a naval blockade of its oil supplies at the sea. More than anything else the rail link through the Gwadar port to mainland China is a loss of strategic upper hand to the Indians and the Americans in the Arabian Sea.
For Pakistan, both the military and economic benefits of this railway line are tremendous. It can construct and logistically support defence structures all along the railway line in Azad Kashmir. It will create thousands of jobs and economic activity and will go a long way in accommodating the aggrieved Baloch nationalists in the mainstream Pakistan. Islamabad after the commissioning of this railway line could actually emerge as the regional hub of economic activity.
There will also be huge obstacles and challenges for both Beijing and Islamabad to materialise this mega project. Security challenges to the line infrastructure and the personal security of Chinese construction engineers will be the most important concern. The Baloch separatists opposition with the support of their external benefactors may also not want its commissioning in Balochistan. India would not want the military leverage this railway line will give to Pakistan in quick mobilisation and transportation of its military along the border between India and Pakistan.
We know that Asia-Pacific region is on the threshold of a change. The China-Pakistan railway line in the end with all its known and unknown challenges and uncertainties is a project the completion of which will enhance Pakistan’s economic stature in the coming wave of Asia-Pacific future of which Pakistan must figure out as an essential part.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2014.
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