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The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Security Risks of Infrastructural Expansion

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

September 18, 2018

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Security Risks of Infrastructural Expansion

China’s draconian approach to the Uighur Muslim minority in its far-western province of Xinjiang is currently – and rightly – receiving a substantial amount of media attention. Less discussed are the vast infrastructural changes also underway in the region, particularly in Xinjiang’s southern city of Kashgar, an economically deprived, religiously conservative and hitherto deeply isolated area, in which approximately 90% of the population are Uighurs. The centrepiece of this construction frenzy is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). With a total financial outlay of around US$51 billion, CPEC is expected to be completed by 2030, and will connect China’s far-western Xinjiang Province with Pakistan’s Gwadar port via a network of highways, railways and trading hubs, providing China with important trading access to the Middle East and Africa.[1] While the expansion of infrastructural networks will doubtlessly bring significant economic benefits to the region, the possibility of connecting militant and terrorist networks in the two regions presents a substantial security risk for the two states and the wider region.

The level and pace of infrastructural development underway in southern Xinjiang is unprecedented. A railway extending from Kashgar, passing through Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to connect with railways in Iran, is currently in the first phase of construction. A second railway project linking Kashgar with the Uzbekistani city of Pap in the Ferghana Valley is also under construction. Highway projects connecting Andijan (Uzbekistan) with Osh (Kyrgyzstan) and Kashgar are also underway. Xinjiang already boasts the most airports of any Chinese province, and their number is expected to expand from 17 to 28 by 2020.[2]  However, the most significant projects in this sphere are part of CPEC: the Karakoram Highway, which links Kashgar with Hassan Abdal in Pakistan and was originally constructed in the 1970s, is being upgraded with parts to be expanded into a 4-lane motorway and extensions to the Khunjerab railway that will also link the Pakistani rail network to China’s Kashgar-Hotan railway, allowing rail links from the Gwadar Port into Xinjiang.  In the next few years, Kashgar will become a major transit hub for mainland China, with rail and road infrastructure connecting it directly with Pakistan and Central Asia. This will have far-reaching consequences for the local way of life, which has remained virtually unchanged for centuries.

Perhaps the most significant security threat concerns the expansion of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the primary terrorist organization driving the Uighur separatist cause, across the region. After al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), ETIM has become the third largest foreign militant group located on the porous Pakistan-Afghan border region, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). ETIM is in alliance with local and international militant terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and the Taliban, not only sharing their ideology, but also operating with their assistance.  ETIM’s primary aims are the liberation of Xinjiang from Chinese rule and the implementation of sharia’ in the region, goals which are increasingly shared by the other militant groups in the region. As such, China has become an important target for militant groups, not only for ETIM, but also for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Following the July 2009 riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, al Qaeda leader Abu Yahiya al Libi released a video threatening China. Pakistani security officials believe that in the aftermath of the riots, hundreds of Uighurs joined ETIM in FATA. In 2013, ETIM released a video showing Uighur children being trained in militant camps somewhere in FATA. The following year, the IMU’s Mufti al Burmi released a video entitled ‘Let’s disturb China’, in which he directed all militant groups affiliated to the Taliban and al Qaeda to target Chinese interests in Pakistan. Thus, close and expanding connections between Uighur and non-Uighur militants is driving the latter to take up the cause of the former, and growing trade and infrastructural connections between Xinjiang and Pakistan will doubtlessly facilitate militant connections between these groups. Beijing’s current project to transform Xinjiang into what has been termed by Western media reports as a ‘surveillance state’ constitutes its illiberal response to this threat.

Islamic radical organizations are deeply rooted in Pakistani society and militant activities are threatening longstanding Pakistan-China relations. Following pressure from the Chinese leadership to take action against ETIM, in 2014 the Pakistan Army launched a military operation codenamed Zarb-i-Azb. However, although this massive military offensive destroyed militants’ command and control systems in FATA, numerous splinter groups have formed a new command system across the border in Eastern Afghanistan. The battle to eradicate these militant groups is therefore far from over.

Despite popular concern about the growing levels of Chinese activities in Pakistan, with some Pakistani senators comparing CPEC to the East India Company, formal China-Pakistan relations have never been better. Both Pakistani and Chinese leaders have repeatedly referred to their relationship as ‘sweeter than honey’ and ‘stronger than steel’.[3] And the two big Pakistani religio-political parties, Jamiat Ulama i Islam (JUI) and Jamat i Islami (JI) have signed agreements with China. The Pakistani government has even defended Chinese policy towards Muslims in Xinjiang in the Organization for Islamic Co-operation.

Such allegiance by Pakistan to its Communist neighbour is driven primarily by economics: the Pakistani economy is highly dependent on Chinese trade and investment. According to the 2017 edition of the annual government-authored Pakistan Economic Survey, the volume of trade between Pakistan and China, which was approximately US$4 billion between 2006 and 2007, reached an all-time high at US$13.77 billion in 2015-16. Pakistan’s exports to China have increased by almost 200 percent since the implementation of the FTA, from US$575 million in 2007 to 1690 million in 2016, making China the second largest importer of Pakistani goods after the United States.[4] It is highly unlikely that Pakistan will reduce its co-operation with China.

The Chinese authorities are, of course, well aware of the threats posed by this cross-border infrastructural expansion – and the on-going repression of Muslims in Xinjiang must be seen in this context. In Pakistan, the threat against Chinese activity has become so severe that the Pakistani Army has created a special division whose sole purpose is to protect CPEC and its Chinese workers, and comprises nine army battalions, six civil wings and nearly 13,700 personnel.[5] It therefore seems likely that as CPEC gains momentum, so will the crackdowns on those deemed to pose security risks to the high stakes project. And this of course includes the entirety of Xinjiang’s Uighur population. As crackdowns against practicing Muslims in Xinjiang increase, however, the growing infrastructural connections between Pakistan and China will not only facilitate the transfer of goods, but also the transfer of militant and anti-Chinese ideology.

Note:  The essay was written by two academics who wish to remain anonymous.

[1] Andrew Small (2017) ‘First Movement: Pakistan and the Belt and Road Initiative’, Asia Policy, 24: 80-87.

[2] Cui Jia (2016) ‘Work to start on rail link with Iran’, China Daily, 15 January 2016. Available at: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-01/15/content_23096031.htm

[3] See Times of India (2017) ‘Our friendship is sweeter than honey: Chinese vice premier to Pakistan’, Times of India, 14 August 2017. Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/china/our-friendship-is-sweeter-than-honey-chinese-vice-premier-to-pakistan/articleshow/60057468.cms; Tribune (2014) ‘“Pak-China friendship is ‘sweeter than the sweetest honey”: Nawaz’, Tribune, 21 April 2014. Available at: https://tribune.com.pk/story/698409/pak-china-friendship-is-sweeter-than-the-sweetest-honey-nawaz/.

[4] Pakistan Economic Survey 2016-17, May 2017. Available at: http://www.finance.gov.pk/survey_1617.html.

[5] Xinhua (2017) ‘Pakistan army chief vows to protect China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’, Xinhua, 11 March 2017. Available at: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-03/11/c_136121332.htm.

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