China’s International Partnerships: Pakistan, CPEC, and Central Asia

China’s International Partnerships: Pakistan, CPEC, and Central Asia

China is redrawing the global security map beyond Asia-Pacific. This article, the second in a four-part series, examines how Beijing’s ‘march West’ strategy is impacting regional security architecture in Pakistan and Central Asia. 

Part one of the series focused on the strategic logic of China’s western expansion, the growth of security ties with Bangladesh, and new China-brokered integration platforms linking Bangladesh with Southeast Asia.

Part Two: Pakistan, CPEC, and Central Asia

China’s deep relationship with Pakistan is anchored by security. PRC officials Wang Qishan and Guo Shengkun have recently met with Pakistan counterparts, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee chair Gen. Zubair Mahmood Hayat in late July 2019, to discuss anti-terrorism and security cooperation. At stake is the protection of its headline-grabbing 60 billion dollar investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other One Belt, One Road-related projects. The discussion highlights that CPEC has grown from a connectivity-focused initiative to link the port of Gwadar with China through infrastructure into a sprawling web of investment and construction involving at least 10,000 PRC nationals living abroad in Pakistan.

During the meeting, Wang Qishan reiterated that Pakistan is China’s only ‘all-weather strategic partner’. Since the most recent meeting between Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan and PRC top leader Xi Jinping during the Second Belt and Road Forum in April, high-level exchanges and cooperation intended to ‘enhance’ this partnership, including law enforcement and political advising, have been evident in the scope and participation of discussions.

Beijing places particular emphasis on its unique relationship with Pakistan, owing to what leaders refer to as the ‘changing international situation’. This stock phrase refers to slowing economic growth, the rise of anti-globalization and populist forces, and increasingly strained relations with the West – and particularly the United States – over the past decade. There is a track record of cooperation between the two militaries, which China views as an essential goal in ensuring regional stability. Pakistan is Beijing’s top arms destination, followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar. All of these Asian countries are in the immediate neighbourhood of Pakistan’s greatest rival, India. Pakistan, however, represents the ‘flagship’ of the One Belt, One Road plan within South Asia. The Indian Ocean, in turn, represents trade and energy routes of critical importance to China’s economy and growth. Linking Gwadar with China’s inland city of Kashgar via CPEC also provides more direct access to the Persian Gulf.

China-Pakistan Security Ties

The depth of China’s relations with Pakistan is increasing due in part to a proliferation of agreements and commitments which have joined the two countries at multiple levels. In April 2019 the two countries ended the second phase of free trade agreement negotiations and signed a protocol for upgrading the original agreement signed in 2006. Pakistan is committed to CPEC as the country’s main driver of foreign-aided growth and development and views China as a supporter of its sovereign claims, which extend into contested Jammu and Kashmir. India, by contrast, sees China as supporting and investing in Pakistan’s illegitimate occupation of the Kashmir region, despite signs that Beijing is taking a moderate, non-committal role in the dispute. As a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Pakistan has signed an additional declaration in support of the One Belt, One Road plan and pledging to ‘dock’ its economy with China’s development agenda; India has abstained.

Strategic ties between China and Pakistan show signs of increasing coordination between the two militaries. Pakistan is China’s largest defence customer and transfer recipient. Frequent joint military and counterterrorism exercises add further ballast to the bilateral security relationship. Both countries share a mutual strategic rival in India: Pakistan views India as an existential threat, while China sees India as a regional rival in the Indian Ocean and Himalayas, albeit one which also potentially poses a direct nuclear challenge. Allegations persist, despite outward denials, that Pakistan has exclusive military use of China’s Beidou satellite information system. Since 2018 Pakistan news sources have nonetheless hinted that Beidou will ‘reduce’ military reliance on the US-owned Global Positioning System by 2020 or earlier.

The two countries also share maritime interests in the Arabian Sea, where China has aided Pakistan in conducting oceanographic and geological research. Pakistan (along with Iran and Peru) has also been a recipient of telescopes for space surveillance as part of China’s Asia-Pacific Ground-Based Optical Space Object Observation System.

CPEC in the String of Pearls

The crown jewel of CPEC, Pakistan’s Gwadar deep-sea port is also the centrepiece of China’s plans to create a network of commercial port investments with potential military value – dubbed the ‘string of pearls’ by foreign analysts – spanning the Indian Ocean. Gwadar provides China with a shorter land-and-sea gateway to the Middle East and eastern Africa, and an alternative to the crowded and potentially blockade-prone Strait of Malacca, through which 80 percent of crude and much of China’s natural gas imports must pass. While doubts persist concerning the economic viability of Gwadar and the Gwadar-Kashgar link, the port still has strategic significance as a potential naval base and logistical support point linked to other port facilities encircling the Indo-Pacific. Other rumoured plans for CPEC include linking the transport corridor to Afghanistan and countries in Central Asia.

Pakistan’s security infrastructure is being further transformed by agreements to create telecommunications and monitoring systems, including the involvement of PRC companies in digital projects. Tentative steps were already taken toward large-scale regional coordination, information flow, and merged operations directed at terrorist activities. Other projects are concentrated in the real estate, technology, agriculture, finance, and utility sectors; energy and transport, however, remain the key focal points.

China’s interests in Pakistan are now manifold, though Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has shown new signs of life at a time when internal opposition to CPEC seems to be rising among quarters ranging from Baloch rebels to the Pakistan military. China has fully funded construction of the New Gwadar International Airport, a new project undertaken by the China Airport Construction Group. Other projects are concentrated in the real estate, technology, agriculture, finance, and utility sectors; energy and transport, however, remain the key focal points.

Meetings between the China International Trust and Investment Corporation and Pakistan’s advisor to the prime minister on finance, Miftah Ismail, held in early 2019, further highlighted China’s keenness to continue investing in Pakistan. Along with financial ties, China has also focused on cultivating closer relationships with Pakistan’s senators and ambassadors via the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which has acquired new significance as a tool of political lobbying under Xi Jinping.

Reconfiguring Post-Soviet Space

China’s growing interests in and security ties with Pakistan underscore efforts to play a more influential role in adjacent Eurasia. The political and economic sensitivity of China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang makes border security and preventing incursions by new political-military forces of paramount importance. Likewise, China must also protect energy supply lines connecting the populated eastern coast to Central Asia. China’s primary conduit for shaping regional security dialogue and coordination is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Pakistan joined, along with India, in June 2017. Many analysts have observed that China’s investment and influence are beginning to crowd Russian interests out of the five post-Soviet republics, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with which China shares a border.

Within the SCO itself, China is leveraging on deepening relationships with member states like Pakistan to chart a new direction for the organization. These rhetorical and agenda-shaping efforts include Xi Jinping’s frequent references to the “Shanghai spirit” of the SCO’s creation – a reference to its establishment in China in 1996 as the Shanghai Five grouping. His words draw attention to China’s role and recent suggestion that the SCO should build on its success in anti-terrorism cooperation to evolve into a free trade zone linked to the One Belt, One Road framework. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have already agreed to “join” their respective One Belt, One Road and Eurasian Economic Union geoeconomic projects. Through the SCO, however, China appears to be pursuing more complex coordination efforts, as evidenced by the NGO-focused Shanghai Cooperation Organization People’s Forum, first held in Xi’an in April 2018, and bilateral and multilateral meetings held on the sidelines of the annual SCO summit.

Notably, the SCO and Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) have been proposed by quasi-official sources as platforms for the implementation of Xi Jinping’s ‘new security concept’ for Asia. The fundamental tenets of the concept are that it is regional – that it fits the needs and interests of countries that China views as belonging to the Asian region – and that it rejects the concept of ‘alliance’ associated with the United States and allies in favour of a China-centered network of partnerships. China will likely need Russian’s support if the new security initiative is to succeed.

A first-ever China-Russia joint strategic bomber patrol over Northeast Asia in July 2019 seemed calculated to indicate that cooperation already agreed by the two countries will now become a regular feature of the already tense security environment. The release of a new white paper, China’s National Defense in the New Era, positions China as an independent, cooperative power committed to global peace and stability and strong national defence.

The paper also highlights China’s international responsibilities and commitments to providing ‘public security goods to the international community’, with special mention of border safety and security mechanisms with neighbouring countries across three levels: national defence ministries, theatre commands, and border troops. The paper further elaborates on the extent to which the People’s Liberation Army is responsible for protecting overseas interests and Chinese citizens abroad.

Directly related to these measures, there is scattered evidence that China’s military presence in Central Asia is increasing beyond visits, meetings, joint patrols, and joint exercises. China is reported to have offered in September 2016 to build checkpoints and a new military base along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border; more recent accounts assert the posting of hundreds of China’s troops in Tajikistan, adjacent to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor.

Informally, China has created a counterterrorism quadrilateral arrangement with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. China has also signed another trilateral agreement with Pakistan and Afghanistan to enhance counterterrorism security cooperation while seeking to engage the Taliban as a diplomatic partner to protect its regional interests. The list of China’s meetings and entanglements with other local stakeholders is becoming increasingly extensive, with a new defence cooperation plan with Uzbekistan signed in April 2019, and further bilateral cooperation between China and Tajikistan on law enforcement and security.

What’s next

China’s changing security relations with Pakistan and Central Asia indicate that, at a minimum, there is an increasing likelihood of establishing a new military base in the region. This would complement existing locations in Djibouti and, allegedly, Cambodia – though both Chinese and Cambodian governments have strenuously denied the evidence. China also seeks to become a broker in the Afghanistan peace process, as evidenced by recent multilateral meetings with Russia, the United States, and Pakistan. Geopolitically, the China-Pakistan’ all-weather’ partnership has the potential to draw other states into its orbit through the outward diffusion of China’s investment, infrastructure, and influence, with the result that Eurasia further loses coherence as a region.

The muted existence of Russia’s Common Security Treaty Organization and the Greater Eurasia integration project nonetheless serves as a reminder that the U.S. alliances in Asia may not be the only frameworks at risk of disruption by China’s new security concept and ‘march West’. At the same time, the revival Kazakhstan provides another scenario – that of the emergence of a new pan-Turkic pole in the region.

Close relations with Pakistan also represents a logistical stepping stone toward Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and the Balkans. China is currently building a network of Internet deep-sea cables and Beidou satellite technology to connect beyond Pakistan to Djibouti and eastern Africa. This network represents a further extension of the so-called ‘digital silk road’ and ‘space silk road’. Introduced in the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi, the first Beidou base station of the Space Silk Road became operational in 2017.

Spreading across Southeast Asia, Beidou is progressing rapidly now, and 30 BRI countries are linked up. Striving for better accuracy, Beidou aims to replace the American GPS satellite network that has dominated the field for decades’. Extending outward into other ‘Belt and Road’ signatory countries, the Beidou system also incorporates South Asia, Central Asia, the Arab League, and Africa.

Such a fast-growing overseas presence makes China a target, as evidenced by numerous attacks on CPEC projects and personnel by the Balochistan Liberation Organization. However, other states such as Turkey have been keen to enhance strategic cooperation in return for investment as the One Belt, One Road plan extends further afield. Focusing on trade, finance, and closer political ties with all stakeholders has, for the time being, seemingly allowed China to remain uninvolved in deep-seated rivalries between Pakistan and India, Iran and Israel, and Iran and Saudia Arabia.

At some point, the damage that such contentions, if pushed to conflict, may do to China’s perceived interests will need assessment. Beijing will require firmer decision-making and ‘leaning’ – as the Communist Party termed its early Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union against the United States – to prevent neutrality from becoming a liability.

Categories: China, Special Reports

About Author

Matthew Johnson

Matthew D. Johnson is founder and principal at AltaSilva LLC and associate fellow at the Global Diplomatic Forum. A research consultant and advisor with experience spanning the corporate, government, and non-profit sectors, his main practice areas include China's changing policy landscape, China's global strategy, and competitive dynamics in international higher education. His previous experience includes academic appointments at the University of Oxford and membership on the board of the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange. He is fluent in Mandarin, a former Fulbrighter, and member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. LinkedIn: Twitter: @ChinaStratPol