A new “Great Game” is afoot in Asia that could change the balance of power on the world stage. This is the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” project: $60 billion to be invested in highways, railways, ports and oil terminals. It is arousing enthusiasm in the halls of power in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, and concern in Washington, where officials see Chinese President Xi Jinping’s economic strategy as a challenge to their hegemony over the oceanic and energy supply routes.
The leaders involved speak in tones suggesting a crucial turning point. “Pakistan & China are eternal friends. Mutual bilateral trade partnership will elevate national economy. Geo-political & economic potential of CPEC will strengthen Pakistan’s economy!” tweeted Mohammad Sarwar, the governor of Punjab, from the old colonial mansion of the British Raj in Lahore. Sarwar is a successful businessman who used to be a Labour politician and was the first Muslim MP in the London Parliament before renouncing British citizenship.
The governor of Sindh spoke in similar terms, from his seat in Karachi, the birthplace of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, which broke off from India in 1947 after a dramatic series of events.
“Karachi is a strategic town for both the Pakistanis and the Chinese. Sixty percent of the economy and 90 percent of the import-export business passes through here, and Gwadar hosts the Saudi oil and Qatari gas terminals,” stressed Imran Ismail, another businessman appointed by the new Prime Minister Imran Khan, the leader of the Movement for Justice (PTI). The PTI won the July elections and now leads a “government of change,” positioning itself as an alternative to the traditional Bhutto and Sharif dynasties, and in alliance with radical Muslim parties.
He is promising to fight corruption and to establish a kind of Islamic welfare state. “No Muslim can call himself a Muslim unless he believes that the Prophet Mohammed is the last prophet,” the new prime minister proclaimed during the campaign, echoing the words of the most radical Islamist parties.
“My husband is not only a politician, but a leader,” said the third wife of Imran Khan, a kind of Sufi preacher who on official occasions wears the niqab to fully cover the face, but doesn’t hide her grand ambitions.
The few centimeters of the veil correspond to far greater historical distances. “Twenty years ago, in this university with 44,000 students, only 4 percent of women wore the veil,” says Mohammed Ajmal Khan, Vice-Chancellor of the state-sponsored University of Karachi.
“And this change,” he added, “we owe also to the influence of the Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia.” Which, of course, being of the most generous sponsors of Pakistan, was the first country that Imran Khan called on to help with their part in this “project of the century” between Beijing and Islamabad.
“We will strengthen and improve our relations with China. We want to work towards success of CPEC. We also want to send teams to learn poverty alleviation from China. How to lift our most poor who can’t even eat two meals a day”—this was the first tweet sent out, in Chinese, by Imran Khan, the popular captain of the team that won the Cricket World Cup in ’92, after his electoral victory.
It is no coincidence that the former playboy, now a devotee of Islam and in the good graces of the generals—the real power holders in Pakistan—has been stressing the ties with China in such an explicit form.
“It was Pakistan which opened the way for Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, thanks to our good relations with Beijing,” Ahmad Chaudry, the director of the Institute for Strategic Studies, tells us at his Islamabad office. “And now, the Chinese have decided to allocate $46 billion, the largest foreign investment in Pakistan’s history: this is a concrete sign of how the international balances are changing, and also a message to Washington.”
There is bad blood between Pakistan and the US. President Donald Trump is not pleased with the lack of cooperation with Islamabad in Afghanistan and in fighting terrorism, forgetting that it was precisely the United States’ plan for Pakistan to use the jihadists—then called mujahideen—to defeat the Soviet Union in the ‘80s, after it occupied Kabul in 1979. Now, Washington has blocked $300 million in support to the Pakistani armed forces, and is making serious problems for Islamabad, which wants to resort to IMF loans to revive its economy.
The United States opposes this. They say this money will go toward repaying Pakistan’s debts to China. When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on a visit to Islamabad on Sept. 5, his Pakistani counterpart didn’t even go to the airport to welcome him.
Pompeo’s stop was one of the shortest American visits to the country in history: it lasted only two hours, just enough time for a fleeting handshake with the new prime minister.
A crucial element in the background is the two countries’ relationships with India, which has occupied half of the Kashmir province since 1947. In recent years, Washington has clearly favored the Indians, including with military contracts. There is perennial tension between the two nuclear countries in a highly conflict-prone part of the world.
Why are the Americans so nervous about Beijing’s influence in Pakistan? The China-Pakistan corridor is centered on the port of Gwadar, and this is how China intends to bypass the Strait of Malacca, reducing the distance to the strategic maritime oil and gas reserves in the Gulf region by more than 10,000 km and 26 days of travel. With this project, China can evade the power of the US Navy, which today, if it wished to do so, could close off the spigot of China’s energy supply whenever it wanted.
The “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC) is set to build an impressive infrastructure network by 2030, including for energy transport, which will link the Pakistani port of Gwadar with the city of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang region, 3,200 km away.
Gwadar is an Indian Ocean port and part of a maritime route that supplies 44 percent of Beijing’s imports of crude oil (as well as 66 percent of India’s and 75 percent of Japan’s). Beijing has no access to the Arabian Sea, a perennial thorn in the side for the country, since most goods it imports and exports by sea have to cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the Malacca Strait to reach the ports of the South China Sea. Tankers are currently ferrying over 10 million barrels of crude oil through the strait each day.
The rail and road corridor that will connect Kashgar with Gwadar drastically alters this situation: the shipping containers from China could reach the coasts of Pakistan by land, avoiding the Strait altogether. Today, a container ship takes 45 days to go from China to the Middle East, but only 10 if it starts in the port of Gwadar. This initiative is part of the Chinese strategy called the “string of pearls,” which consists in consolidating strategic partnerships with Asian countries, developing outposts along a shipping line that would connect the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal and then the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Beijing has set up a presence in Thai and Burmese ports, in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and in Pakistan’s Gwadar.
The agreements between Pakistan and China are a signal of the deep changes taking place in the world order, which is why for the United States, the new Asian “Great Game” is seen as a direct challenge to America’s status as superpower.