Nothing typifies China’s new found strength and confidence better than the One Belt, One Road plan. It is a massive exercise in connecting the Eurasian landmass with land and sea links spreading out from China to all parts of Asia and Europe. If it works, the network will be the world’s economic engine. To understand the scale of the venture, consider that the Belt and Road Forum, which concluded on May 15, had 130 countries in attendance in Beijing – that is two-thirds of all nations on earth buying into China’s economic leadership.

There was one noticeable absentee, though – China’s giant neighbour India. The Indian government skipped the Belt and Road Forum, angry that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a part of the One Belt, One Road plan, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, territory that India claims is legally part of its state of Jammu and Kashmir.

India’s boycott went mostly unnoticed globally but did cause some consternation within the country. With every other country in South Asia part of the initiative, there were fears that India would get left behind. Yet, India is not the only country getting anxious about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Ironically, some quarters within Pakistan itself are wary of the mega project and the massive power it would give to China over Pakistan’s internal affairs.

One Belt, One Road is a mega project to network the Eurasian landmass with land and sea links. Image credit: Chatham House
One Belt, One Road is a mega project to network the Eurasian landmass with land and sea links. Image credit: Chatham House

Not just money and material

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a massive project by Pakistani standards. Worth $54 billion, it envisages a vast network of roads, rail lines, and oil and gas pipes running down from China’s Xinjiang province to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. In this, the Pakistani port of Gwadar is a crucial node, connecting the land network of One Belt, One Road with its sea component.

There are plans for upgrading Gwadar with generous, interest-free loans from China. The port is already run by a Chinese firm, the China Overseas Port Holding Company. As part of the economic corridor, a 1,100-km highway will be laid between Karachi and Lahore, and the highway from Rawalpindi to the Chinese border will be overhauled. The project also includes plans for an Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and for connecting Pakistan’s rail network with China’s. It will see $33 billion worth of energy infrastructure built in Pakistan – manna from heaven for a country with debilitating power shortages.

Of course, while the infrastructure is welcome, it might not be a free lunch. With the amount of money China is lending to Pakistan, it would want some control over its investment, which, in turn, would mean having some control over Pakistan itself.

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper has accessed the original Chinese document on the project which makes clear what it will mean in terms of Chinese influence. It is not only an infrastructure project, the document explains. Large tracts of agricultural land will be leased to Chinese companies. A monitoring and surveillance system will be built in major Pakistani cities to enable 24X7 video recording at major points. There is also soft power involved: a new fibre-optic network will not only improve Pakistan’s internet speeds but also distribute television channels that will help in the “dissemination of Chinese culture”.

The economic corridor has been sold as an infrastructure project, but its involvement in other sectors of Pakistan’s economy is staggering. “The main thrust of the plan actually lies in agriculture, contrary to the image of CPEC as a massive industrial and transport undertaking, involving power plants and highways,” reports Dawn. The plan talks of building fertiliser plants, buying cheap textiles from Pakistan, introducing scientific techniques in livestock breeding and even developing “coastal tourism” such as yachting and spas.

China will also use the economic corridor to tap Pakistan for minerals. The report accessed by Dawn lays out how the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa could potentially be mined for chrome, gold, diamonds, marble and granite. China also plans to move into the financial markets, and has recently acquired the Pakistan Stock Exchange.

‘Another East India Company’

Amid all this hectic economic activity, Pakistan plays the role of little more than a provider of raw material, land and labour. Chinese companies will run the show entirely.

Of course, such an unequal relationship will have consequences. Already, it envisages visa-free entry for Chinese nationals while Pakistanis will still have to get one if they want to fly to China.

The scale of Chinese activity is causing consternation within Pakistan. In 2016, a Pakistani federal legislator characterised the economic corridor as “another East India Company”, referring to the British trading company which, in the 18th century, colonised what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Other commentators have expressed alarm at the implications of the nine Special Economic Zones the corridor plans for. Will these end up being Chinese enclaves within Pakistan? Will Chinese forces secure them?

The Pakistani government is only muddying the matters by making little information public. For example, the federal government did not share full details of the corridor with the provincial governments of Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunwa, sparking fears that the project will result in further oppression of non-Punjabi Pakistanis.

After Independence in 1947, one of the first foreign policy decisions of Pakistan was to align with the Western bloc in the Cold War. While this suited Pakistan’s elites in staving off democracy, its long-term effects were disastrous for the country, giving rise to Islamic militants who felt powerful enough to challenge the state itself. Pakistan is still so subservient to Western power that it allows unchecked American military activity within its borders – an infringement of sovereignty few other nations would tolerate. Now, even as Pakistan’s relationship with the United States cools, the economic corridor means the country is just exchanging one quasi-colonial master for another.