Spearhead Analysis – 24.11.2017
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Last year, an agreement between two longstanding allies in Asia, led to the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Both countries expect CPEC to usher in an era of economic and geopolitical partnership, that can not only reinvigorate Pakistan’s ailing economy, but also advance China’s ambitious plans to reach previously untapped markets and resources in the Arabian Gulf, Africa and ultimately Europe.
For this purpose, the government in Beijing has sanctioned an overall investment of almost $50 Billion. This includes building a highway connecting their province of Xinjiang with Baluchistan. In addition, the deep sea port of Gwadar will receive a significant part of the investment, as well as the city of Gwadar itself and various other projects have already gotten underway, benefiting industries like energy, manufacturing, transportation, construction etc.
CPEC is a highly ambitious undertaking that is by no means an easy feat to accomplish, no matter which country is at its helm. However, under China’s supervision, this monumental task seems increasingly more attainable and in Pakistan they have found an ally that is willing to stake their entire future on the success of this formidable enterprise. Yet, like any other task of this magnitude, it comes with its own unique set of problems, both from within and outside Pakistan.
Complications with Security
While there were countless factors that needed to be considered, security was perhaps the most essential issue that needed to be resolved before CPEC could progress any further. For years Pakistan has been plagued by terrorism and it wasn’t till military incursions like Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad that various militant and terrorist factions are finally being captured and/or eliminated.
While the rate of terrorist activities went down significantly as a result of these offensives, there still remain quite a few internationally designated terrorist organizations that have set up bases around Pakistan and pose a threat to its cultural and economic development.
Baluchistan will take center stage once CPEC is operational and it is imperative that all conceivable security threats to CPEC be contained before any work can begin. Notwithstanding terrorism, the province has long been the battle ground for various separatist movements that have targeted government workers and buildings, gas fields, and transport vehicles as a way of bringing attention to their struggle for independence. Many people believe that organizations like the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Baluch Republican Army (BRA), and the Baluch Liberation Front (BLF) might attempt to do the same with CPEC, and target Chinese officials as a way to get the attention of international news outlets and agencies.
Moreover, Gwadar and its surrounding areas have long been used by smugglers, money launderers and even human traffickers as a route to Iran or the Middle East, while there have also been incidents of piracy in the waters surrounding the port. These threats need to be considered as well before the dream of CPEC can become a reality.
Resolving the Security Problem
While unfortunately almost every country has had some experience with terrorism, Pakistan has been dealing with this nuisance for over twenty years now, and it is only in the past year that the rate of terrorist attacks has started to finally shrink. This is in large part due to the various military operations initiated by the Pak Army, as well as a shift in the public support of many terrorist organizations.
Safety measures have also been taken in order to curtail the movement of terrorists across the Pakistan and Afghanistan border, which both countries blame for the unrest in their country, as well as for their failure to capture the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.
In order to ensure the safety of all Chinese officials and workers moving to Pakistan to start work on the various CPEC projects, the Pakistan Army announced plans to form a Special Security Division (SSD). This division will not only be in charge of providing security to Chinese nationals living in Pakistan, but also protect the several CPEC projects underway right now, which includes the around 3000 km network of highways being built between China and Pakistan.
Even though initially the SSD was a cause of dissent between the military and the civil establishment, these differences were resolved eventually, and in January the government made it official by announcing it to the public as well. According to them, the SSD will be made up of about fourteen thousand personnel, who will be divided into nine army battalions and six civil wings. Experienced retired army officers will also be hired to be part of this team, while a new division for the police will be created as well, specifically aimed at protecting CPEC and its many related projects.
In order to protect their interests in Gwadar, Pakistan and China have recently increased their cooperation on maritime security. Both countries recognized the innumerable potential threats that the region posed and have acted swiftly to contain them by increasing the defenses around the port, and conducting several joint naval exercises. The Pak Navy has also announced plans to build a naval base right next to Gwadar Port, and the formation of the Task Force-88 – a new naval unit consisting of over five hundred marines. Their task will be to monitor and safeguard the surrounding coastline and the sea lanes, and they will be provided with ships, helicopters, planes, Fast Attack Crafts, drones and advanced surveillance equipment to facilitate their job.
The Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA) also announced that they would be inducting six Chinese made maritime patrol ships to their existing fleet of crafts. These include four 600 tons, and two 1500 ton, Maritime Patrol Ships, of which four will be made in China, while the rest will be built by Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works Limited. To date, three of these ships have already arrived all the way from China, and have been named PMSS Dasht, Hingol and Basol, after the popular rivers in Baluchistan.
Even though it seems more than inevitable that security will remain the biggest issue facing CPEC in the future, there are many other factors that need to be addressed before this momentous project can be considered a success.
The increasingly strengthening bond between India, Iran and Afghanistan, and the development of the Chabahar Port, are fast emerging as the biggest threat to Gwadar Ports’ expected hegemony in the Arabian Sea. Additionally, the US has expressed their own reservations about CPEC and have endorsed India’s claim that, since some of the routes go through Gilgit, a territory India claims is part of disputed Kashmir, the whole project is devoid of any credibility.
While these elements continue to shape the dynamics of the region, and CPEC by extension, it is important to note that the governments in Beijing and Islamabad have generally ignored these interesting developments, and have instead selected to focus on the task at hand. Work for CPEC is well underway and support for the project is generally high among the citizens of both countries. However, only time will tell whether this state of affairs continues or, as in the case of so many similar initiatives in the past, it ends up dead and buried in the sand.