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Pakistan Fights to Protect Chinese-Managed Port

Walter Russell Mead

Pakistan’s military has deployed a large, well-equipped force to protect the Chinese-managed port at Gwadar. Reuters:

Securing the planned $46 billion economic corridor of roads, railways and pipelines from northwest China to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast is a huge challenge in a country where Islamist militants and separatist gunmen are a constant menace.

The armed forces and interior ministry have sent hundreds of extra soldiers and police to Gwadar, the southern hub of the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and more are on their way.

“Soon we’ll start hiring 700-800 police to be part of a separate security unit dedicated to Chinese security, and at a later stage a new security division would be formed,” Jafer Khan, regional police officer in Gwadar told Reuters.

This story points to a key of both Pakistani and Chinese strategy: crushing the insurgency in the area so that the new, multibillion-dollar Silk Road can reach the port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean.

For its part, Pakistan needs China. With the U.S. increasingly alienated by Pakistan’s pattern of hosting and supporting some of the worst jihadis in the world, China, which is called Pakistan’s “all-weather friend,” is a critical partner for Islamabad. Pakistan’s armed forces desperately need money to keep up their nuclear and conventional weapons competition with India, and China is the best available financier.

For China, making the land transport system—from Gwadar, up through Pakistan and Afghanistan, and into western China—work is the key to its strategy to secure its energy supplies and establish Chinese supremacy in Central Asia. China is facing naval challenges and hostile powers to its east (made hostile primarily by China’s own aggressive behavior, but that’s another story). In that context, Pakistan is important to China as a friendly neighbor. Moreover, the new Silk Road presents what some Chinese see as an opportunity to break out of the containment wall they believe the U.S. is trying to build around China.

Pakistan’s support for this ambition is worth a lot of money to China, and Pakistan needs money, so this all makes sense to both parties. But the ethnic Baluchis, who inhabit much of the thinly populated territory through which the new Silk Road needs to pass, have been fighting what they see as a brutal, crooked, and ineffective Pakistani government for decades. The Pakistani army has been rather effective nationally of late: According to an independent think tank cited in the Reuters piece, terrorist incidents were down 48 percent last year. But the Baluchi insurgency remains strong, and continues to threaten Pakistani and Chinese assets. These guerrilla nationalist movements are hard to suppress, and there are lots of rumors that India and others with an interest in keeping the Baluchi pot boiling have been helping the insurgents in various ways.

Meanwhile, given that a deeper China-Pakistan relationship brings India’s two foreign policy nightmares into closer alignment, expect New Delhi to respond.

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