“This will be my first trip to Pakistan,” Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote in an op-ed for The Pakistani Daily Times, “but I feel as if I am going to visit the home of my own brother.” According to Xi, his fraternal affection is rooted in the stories he heard growing up about the friendship between the two countries, which new Chinese-sponsored billboards in Pakistan describe as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel.”
But Xi did not announce a new $46 billion investment — equivalent of one-fifth of Pakistan’s GDP — because he considers the country a long lost brother. Rather, China has decided that its road to becoming a great power runs directly through Pakistan.
History since 9/11 hasn’t been kind to Central Asia, which missed out on China’s economic boom for political reasons, including U.S. military incursions. But now that the U.S. has technically withdrawn from Afghanistan, China has presented itself as a the new regional power, capable of mediating between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This is just one way that the Chinese are trying to knit together a fragmented and troubled region with arbitration, trade and long-term development.
At the center of China’s strategy is an ambitious plan for an intercontinental silk road, starting with the construction of a China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), connecting the city of Kashgar in western China with the Pakistani deep sea port of Gwadar. The majority of the investment focuses on energy and infrastructure construction, which should help with Pakistan’s chronic blackout problem. The CPEC corridor would also provide an alternative to China’s current route for importing energy from the Middle East, which runs between Indonesia and Malaysia through the Strait of Malacca. The Xi administration is caught up in several territorial disputes in this region, and the CPEC corridor would provide a backup in case the strait is closed because of tension or war.
But Pakistan has its own security issues. The all-important Gwadar port is in Balochistan province, where separatists are keen to disrupt development. China’s aggressive investment is meant in part to address this threat, since instability in Pakistan is thought to embolden Uighur separatists just across the border in China’s Xinjiang province.
The contrast with U.S. strategy is stark. The U.S. spent $31 billion from 2002 to 2014 in military funding to Pakistan, without much to show for it. The Pakistani army took the aid while maintaining open channels with militants who they hoped could act as a buffer against India, Pakistan’s chief rival. Though China has experienced its domestic terrorism, its investment has not focused on military aid. China hopes that more long-term investment will prompt the Pakistani army to pursue more peaceful measures in its regional policy (especially in Afghanistan) and weaken extremist influences in the area.
Pakistan has been plagued by systemic corruption since its founding as an independent country in 1947. Though the ink is now dry on the CPEC deals, incompetence and a lack of transparency could stand in the way of timely completion. Pakistan is devoting 12,000 soldiers to protect Chinese workers in Balochistan, but the country’s struggle with extremism is far from complete.
But if the plan succeeds, China may very well succeed the beleaguered United States as the dominant influence in Central Asia. China and Pakistan can wax poetic about their fraternal bonds, but the relationship is far from equal. One index of this inequality is that while 78 percent of surveyed Pakistanis view China in a positive light, only 30 percent of Chinese people return the admiration. (Many in China view Pakistan as a lawless country with a serious Muslim extremist problem.) But the Communist Party understands that China’s national security depends on a secure, prosperous Pakistan. The U.S. couldn’t achieve stability with drone strikes. The Chinese seem determined to learn from American mistakes and try it their way: with lots of money.