Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif has recently invited Central Asian Republics (CARs) to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar for trade with other countries. This is not the first time that Sharif has made such a declaration. Pakistan has been positioning Gwadar as a gateway to sea for landlocked CARs and Afghanistan for quite some time now.
Pakistan has been trying in wane to balance Indian presence in Central Asia since 1991. Its efforts to use religion as a galvanizing force have not gone down well with the CARs, who have a secular outlook. It even interfered in the Tajik Civil War (1992-97). Hence, Pakistan has decided to use geography as leverage with the CARs and is projecting the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a game changer in regional connectivity and economics.
However, there are a number of concerns over the disputed project.
Gwadar port is situated in Balochistan, a restive province which seeks secession from Pakistan. The separatists oppose CPEC arguing it would undermine the development of the indigenous population in Balochistan. They say that Pakistan and China will jointly exploit resources of the province. China has conveyed its security concerns to Pakistan and asked it to make special arrangements for security of Chinese workers. There have been attacks on Chinese engineers in the past in Baluchistan. Further, there is lack of supporting infrastructure of railroad link, industrial capacity, and civic structures at Gwadar which raise questions over its business potential.
Pakistan media reports also suggest that China is seriously mulling a new trade route linking Xinjiang province with Iran’s Chabahar Port bypassing Pakistan. Iran made this offer to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his recent visit to Iran in January 2016. Iranian offer provides complete national unity and harmony unlike Pakistan where trade route is unsafe and it also lacks national unity.
Government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa too has expressed its reservations about the project. There are complaints about lack of transparency in the award of contracts and local labor leaders have expressed reservations over a decision by Chinese contractors to employ Chinese nationals at construction sites.
CPEC is a rival project to India’s Chabahar port in Iran which too will give CARs and Afghanistan access to sea. This is relatively calmer route and India-Iran combo has better historical and cultural relations with CARs than Pakistan-China duo. Iran also wants to increase its presence in Central Asian market after the US-Iran nuclear deal. India needs to hasten completion of the Chabahar-Zaranj-Delaram route so that both India and Iran can make a better pitch for the route to be used by CARs.
Lastly, CARs would need to bypass Afghan territory before accessing the CPEC. Keeping in view Pakistan’s use of Taliban as a proxy to destabilize Kabul, it is unlikely that any government in Kabul will allow CARs to use CPEC in order to allow Pakistan pocket transit revenue, some of which is likely to be used to finance Taliban. Pakistan will have to rein in its proxies and vastly improve its relations with Afghanistan if it wants CARs to use CPEC.
Raj Kumar Sharma is a Research Associate at the USI, New Delhi.