President Xi Jinping of China showed up in Pakistan in the third week of April 2015 with one of his government’s most powerful weapons — money, and lots of it. He signed agreements worth more than $28 billion as part of a total promised investment of some $46 billion in a new “Silk Road,” an ambitious land-and-sea-based economic corridor connecting China to Europe and the Middle East through Pakistan, Central Asia and Russia.
The corridor is intended to shorten the route for China’s energy imports from the Middle East by bypassing the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia, which could be blocked in war. Pakistan and its neighbors would unquestionably also benefit from this project if it can be completed.
Pakistani officials said that about $10 billion would be invested in infrastructure projects, including a deepwater port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, with rails and roads leading from the port across Baluchistan Province into western China. The route from Gwadar to Xinjiang Province in China would be a shortcut for trade between Europe and China. Up to $37 billion is earmarked for coal-based power plants, hydropower plants and solar parks to fill Pakistan’s huge energy needs.
For China, the investment also addresses issues of national security. China fears that Muslim separatists in Xinjiang, one of China’s most restive regions, are being influenced by militants in Pakistan, which has been battling an insurgency for more than a decade.
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia have missed out on Asia’s economic boom, leaving them vulnerable to unrest. Ideally, China’s project would promote growth in Pakistan, weaken the extremists, encourage the Pakistani Army to support peace efforts in Afghanistan and begin to knit together a fragmented region with new development and trade.
There’s reason to be skeptical. The United States pursued many of the same goals when it poured $31 billion into Pakistan between 2002 and 2014, yet achieved little. One problem was that most of the American money was military aid. Congress was finally persuaded to authorize $7.5 billion in development aid in 2009, but by then the United States was in economic distress and fed up with the duplicity of Pakistani Army leaders who took counterterrorism aid from Washington while also working with militant groups against American interests.
China’s government is flush with money and has considered Pakistan among its closest allies since the 1970s. It may have learned from America’s mistakes by going big on development and targeting assistance to specific needs. But it will face the problems of Pakistani corruption and incompetence that the Americans experienced, as well as safety issues. Much of the construction would occur in Baluchistan, in southwest Pakistan, where a separatist movement has been fighting for independence from the central government for decades and could threaten Chinese workers.
Some suggest the project will further enhance China’s standing in Asia at America’s expense. But that is perhaps too narrow a view. Both the United States and China share an interest in a stable Pakistan. If China can advance that goal through development programs, the whole region would benefit.