The Chinese investments in the corridor linking China with Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port are part of the next phase of military expansion. It is well known that China has been extremely wary of the US influence and presence in the region and has been wooing Pakistan with greater amount of financial and military hardware, not to speak of nuclear technology, and diplomatic support…writes Syed Shihabudeen
There is growing fear that China could use the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to surreptitiously create a trans-national military presence across the Indian sub-continent. There is a strong belief that China could even set up military bases in the guises of security installations presumably to protect the $46 billion transit corridor between Kashgar in China to Gwadar in Pakistan. If true, China’s intrusive plans in the Indian sub-continent could only further aggravate an already-tenuous security situation with two nuclear adversaries at loggerheads. The entry of a third nuclear power in the region has the potential of making it the staging ground for next nuclear confrontation.
This fear is not unfounded. China has been aggressively pursuing its foreign policy objectives, often rejecting dialogue for military confrontation to settle the issue. In South China Sea, for instance, China has been flexing its naval muscle, along with its diplomatic prowess, to browbeat smaller nations whose sovereignty is threatened by China’s bullying tactics to usurp territories which are disputed. The issue of these disputed territories are a matter of dialogue between contending parties or international arbitration and not by military bullying tactics as China has been doing so, in flagrant violations of international norms and conventions.
Likewise, China has been expanding its military footprint across the region through civil and military infrastructure projects. In Myanmar, it has had a naval base for long, to keep an eye on the Indian activities in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. In Nepal, a chain of study centres allow the Chinese a greater say in the internal affairs of the Himalayan kingdom. In Bangladesh, China has been trying to find a stronger foothold by offering lucrative economic packages to successive governments. In Maldives, the Chinese investments in civil infrastructure have given it a strong heft in the country and the region. In Sri Lanka, the Chinese have invested in a port and related infrastructure besides persuading the successive governments to let them park and refuel Chinese submarines and naval vessels, a clear show of how the Chinese use the pretext of trade to expand its military footprint.
The Chinese investments in the corridor linking China with Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port are part of the next phase of military expansion. It is well known that China has been extremely wary of the US influence and presence in the region and has been wooing Pakistan with greater amount of financial and military hardware, not to speak of nuclear technology, and diplomatic support. The CPEC is the ultimate `carrot` to get Pakistan on its side, if not exactly away from the US sphere of influence but at least creating a viable option to the US in minds of Pakistan, especially so for the Generals.
The Generals of Pakistan Army are of course enamoured of the Chinese; it means a new source of gifts as the US and its allies are increasingly wary of Pakistan’s duplicity and treachery. When the Chinese came calling, they were quick to corner the big pie—that of protecting the corridor and the Chinese personnel and infrastructure. The Chinese were no less delighted—with Pakistan Army on their side, at least dependent for money, it would be easier for them to find a secure military toehold in the region which gives them access to a wider world across the continent, towards the west, and to the most critical Indian Ocean.
The blueprint of this military expansion of China under the guise of CPEC is in the making. The first real inkling can be gauged from the official Pakistani statement on security for the corridor. Last August, the Parliamentary Committee on CPEC was informed by the government (read Pakistan Army) about the plan to raise a new Special Security Division (SSD) with 12000 soldiers (nine battalions) under a serving Major General and 6000 para-military personnel. In short, a new Division-strong military presence along the corridor to protect the Chinese interests. What the Ministry of Defence did not tell so clearly but in passing was that “ apart from security on land, the government has also taken relevant initiative through the maritime security agency to protect the coast as well as through the Pakistan Air Force.” In other words, there is no public knowledge of the naval and air force elements added to this security framework.
Even then, these figures are far from the real picture. An indication of this could, however, be drawn from the estimates made by provincial security forces—In Balochistan alone, for instance, six new wings of Frontier Corps (5700 men) have been raised for the purpose; they will be assisted by over 3000 police officers and 1000 Levies personnel. In addition, there would be elements from Pakistan Marines and border security forces to protect the port and its surrounding areas. In Punjab, over 3,500 police officers, 900 Rangers, 4,100 private security guards, and 740 Askari Guards would form part of the security division; the army personnel in these divisions are not known.
The security plan thus remains a closely guarded secret, with not many outside the tight circles of Pakistan Army and Chinese authorities know. 3000-km long corridor. The only way to get a glimpse of the real plan is to piece together diverse news articles on the subject. For instance, it was reported that the earlier Pakistan plan was a three-tier security one which was changed, at the Chinese insistence, to a four-tier plan. The Chinese wanted 500 of their soldiers deployed on site, ostensibly to train the Pak personnel.
Another teaser that lets a public gaze into the secretive project is the Task Force 88 raised by Pakistan Army which, according to an official press release, “is aimed at ensuring security of Gwadar port, its seaward approaches, as well as CPEC-related and other maritime projects.”The marine force would comprise “warships, (attack) helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), duly supported by shore-based sensors”, according to Pakistan Navy.
There was another revealing news article which pointed out the possibility of the expansion of the SSD in 2017. This would inevitably mean the further expansion of military infrastructure including the SSD HQ in Gilgit Baltistan region. In turn, this would entail further increase in the strength of Chinese military personnel in an area which is in principle a disputed territory.
With the scheduled completion of the project sometime after 2020, the Chinese would have managed to increase their present toe-hold to a strong military foothold in the region, an indication of the trajectory of instability and conflict the people inhabiting the area could witness in the coming years.