Friends with Benefits: The Future of China and Pakistan’s Alliance

Soon after Pakistan gained independence after the end of British rule over South Asia, it swiftly formed an alliance with China to hedge against the rise of Soviet-aligned India. Since then, China has invested heavily in Pakistan’s infrastructure, most notably with the 1978 construction of the Karakoram Highway, which snakes along China’s remote western frontier and Pakistan’s mountainous north, through some of the most unforgiving terrain on Earth. To be sure, Islamabad and Beijing’s alliance has deepened and will entail higher stakes as the two nations’ global profiles continue to rise.

As U.S. President Donald Trump continues to, for better or for worse, upend the global diplomatic and strategic order and turn the U.S. economy inwards, China has jumped at the chance to become the standard-bearer for globalism and investment in the developing world. In particular, Beijing is drawing on its historical role as a leader of overland global trade to forge a new Silk Road to the Middle East, Europe, and South Asia. This initiative, called One Belt One Road (OBOR), aims to open new trade routes for China and inject much-needed investment into developing nations along the routes.

Pakistan hopes that OBOR can help continue its momentum of economic development. Despite skittish Western investors taking their business elsewhere, Pakistan has enjoyed robust economic growth in recent years. However, it is hamstrung by an energy and transportation infrastructure that cannot meet the demands of a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing nation. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) promises to improve trade logistics between the two nations and facilitate Chinese investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure.

“China has jumped at the chance to become the standard-bearer for globalism and investment in the developing world.”

CPEC began in earnest in 2015, and is proceeding full steam ahead, with China expected to pour more than $44 billion into Pakistan. The Pakistani government touts CPEC as a “win-win” arrangement for China and Pakistan; and on the surface, this appears to be true. CPEC has already set the wheels of infrastructural, educational, and economic development in motion for Pakistan; in return, China is set to reap the benefits of several free trade zones that will, in due course, dot Pakistan’s landscape and provide Chinese investors and traders with increased access to South Asian and Middle Eastern markets.

But within Pakistan, mistrust of China ferments. Trade unionists point to poor working conditions on Chinese-led infrastructure projects in Africa. Denizens of Pakistan’s remote, rural northern provinces such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan worry that Islamabad will direct the OBOR profits and the economic corridor to richer, more urbanized southern provinces. Indeed, the project progress report available on the Pakistani government’s official website on CPEC seems to indicate that the majority of energy and infrastructure projects will focus on the more developed, urban provinces of Sindh and Punjab.

Furthermore, even as Beijing enthusiastically forges ties with a nation many Americans view with suspicion and fear, security concerns linger. According to a report by Foreign Policy, many Chinese view Pakistan as a dangerous backwater, despite decreases in militant attacks and the country’s rapid development. Furthermore, members of northwestern China’s restive Uighur minoritya majority Muslim Turkic people who allege that Beijing’s policies severely circumscribe their religious and cultural freedomhave been accused of traveling to remote, barely-governed regions of northern Pakistan close to the border with China to radicalize or to train for attacks in China. Uighurs in exile have expressed concern that Islamabad, despite its ostensible support for Muslims’ religious freedom, is aiding Beijing in its efforts to clamp down on Uighur dissent under the guise of anti-terrorism initiatives.

“As Trump turns the United States inwards, China’s role in broader engagement with the Muslim world will likely grow, facilitated by its relationship with Pakistan.”

As Trump turns the United States inwards, China’s role in broader engagement with the Muslim world will likely grow, facilitated by its relationship with Pakistan. A report by Al Jazeera surmises that China, due to its deep economic interests in Pakistan and other Asian nations (and perhaps its willingness to overlook certain human rights issues), may be more qualified than the United States to play international policeman in South and Central Asia. Muslim countries may not remain silent for long about China’s policies in Xinjiang; forging more peacefulor at least less fraughtengagements with Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East could be an uphill battle if China is perceived to be antagonistic toward Muslims, and potentially driving more down the path of radicalization.

In addition, as evident in the concerns expressed by leaders in northwestern Pakistan, CPEP carries with it another socio-political issue that plagues globalization: the urban-rural divide. In both China and Pakistan (as well as elsewhere in the world), large cities hum with economic activity and prosperity, while rural areas struggle to survive, and hemorrhage workers in search of something more concrete. While dams on mighty rivers and tunnels through mountains might bring much-needed jobs to remote Xinjiang and Gilgit-Baltistan, it remains to be seen if the jobs and subsequent infrastructural development will stay after the projects are complete. If they do not, the cracks in the “iron-clad” partnership between Pakistan and China will grow and likely cause wider damage across the new Silk Road China hopes to forge through OBOR.   

China and Pakistan must take care to heed the hard lessons the world has learned from globalization. If CPEC is only a boon to Karachi and Guangzhou while leaving behind the two nations’ restive hinterlands, through which the corridor passes, the economic benefits China and Pakistan reap from their alliance may not be enough to improve security or national unity.

Image: The Khunjerab Pass, in China on the border with Pakistan, is the world’s highest paved international border and the highest point on the Karakoram Highway. (Johannes Zielcke, Flickr, Creative Commons)


Jocelyn Spencer is a graduate of Wesleyan University and University College London, Institute of Education. She specializes academically in Chinese history and politics and in language education policy. While studying for her MA in London, she was a project leader and intern for the think tank Project for the Study of the 21st Century, for which she continues to volunteer in the United States. She currently works for a private equity firm in New York City.

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