In recent months, several insightful analyses have been written about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), raising pertinent questions about the lack of transparency around Chinese investments. Questions were also raised about the patriotism and loyalty of those raising valid issues. An op-ed by a Pakistani minister went so far as to claim that “China has never invaded any country nor harboured any imperial designs”.
The truth is that like any nation with a deep history, China has had numerous imperial successes and failures. Sir Halford Mackinder recognised this fact, albeit in racist terms, in his 1904 article ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’. Mackinder posited that if China were to combine its oceanic access with an ability to dominate its western land mass, it could be “the yellow peril to the world’s freedom” in the modern era.
We can cast aside Mackinder’s racism but the fact is that the Chinese-led Belt and Road initiative, with a focus on the country’s periphery and a total investment outlay of $1.4 trillion, is going to transform China into a great land and sea power.
For the clear majority of its history, China has stood at the top of the international pecking order. States beyond the Chinese realm were expected by imperial Chinese rulers to acknowledge China’s cultural, political and military superiority. While China did not always rely on military dominance to maintain superiority, the country’s experience in the 19th and 20th centuries has led elites to conclude their country must, at the very least, maintain political and military equality with other great powers in the 21st century.
Historically speaking, social chaos and internal fragmentation in China has been accompanied by foreign aggression and intervention. This has led to a belief that a strong, centralised government not only prevents internal chaos but allows China to deter foreign aggression while dominating and influencing other nations on its periphery.
To achieve this, China has historically relied on developing client-patron relations with periphery states, resulting in a pragmatic and benevolent relationship between China and its client states. Even during periods of turbulence, these client states continued to show symbolic respect to Chinese superiority.
China has followed this pattern in expanding its influence with neighbouring states such as Pakistan, where there is broad domestic support for China. CPEC is promoted as a gesture of Chinese benevolence to a strategic and special friend. Chinese interests in CPEC, however, are not benign and are a critical part of China’s emerging grand strategy. These interests are fuelled by China’s imminent need to secure its global energy and food supplies. CPEC and Gwadar are key to this as they will enable the flow of vital energy and food supplies into China through an alternative route while allowing China to have a military and naval presence close to American military assets located in the Gulf. Recent reports suggesting that China may soon establish a naval base in Gwadar indicate that this strategy is in full motion.
A more visible and expanded role by Chinese diplomats in Afghanistan is also part of this strategy as a stable Afghanistan will not only reduce American military presence in the region, but also unlock energy and mineral assets in the landlocked country. The direct outcome of this can be a more confrontational approach with the US in the region like what we have seen in the South China Sea, where the development of artificial islands is already leading to hostility with America.
It is true that the pro-China view within both elite and non-elite circles in Pakistan make this a truly unique relationship. Having said that, Pakistanis have historically not responded well to the development of foreign bases in their country and a Chinese military presence in the country could lead to a decline in China’s standing in Pakistan.
States such as South Korea offer a lesson in how China can use its outsized influence to hurt nations who do not toe the line. The placement of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence in South Korea led to a Chinese backlash against the country, shutting down some of South Korean company Lotte’s retail facilities in China, blocking online trade in South Korean goods, and banning all group travel to the country in a bid to hurt its economy.
Pakistan’s elites have historically cast aside the opinions and views of their citizens in their bid to punch above their weight in the international arena, leading to negative repercussions in the future. Given the outsized role China is playing in Pakistan’s economy, it is important for the government to make Pakistanis aware of what they are signing up for and the leverage China can and will possess in determining Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy positions.