Karakorum Highway: China spends billions of dollars to make business with Pak
Khunjerab Pass (Pakistan):
Up here on what is often referred to as the world’s highest paved border
crossing, there still are not many signs that billions of dollars in investment
- and goodwill - could soon flow across these peaks in the Karakorum Mountains.
At an elevation of more
than 15,000 feet, yaks far outnumber cargo trucks crossing over Pakistan’s
border with China. And just one border agent stands guard on the Pakistan side,
when he hasn’t ducked into a steel shelter to avoid wind-whipped snow.
A few miles down the
mountain into Pakistan, where the air is a bit thicker and the summer sun melts
the snow, Mohammad Noor fulfills a generations-old family tradition: escorting
more than 1,000 goats and sheep to summer pasture. This year, however, he keeps
his footing by walking on a new section of Karakorum Highway, recently built by
China. And with each step, Noor says, he feels as though he’s heading into the
“The young people now
are more educated and don’t want to look after sheep and goats,” said Noor, 44.
“The future is Pakistan and China.”
Noor was standing on
China’s new gateway to the far-distant Arabian Sea, the spine of an ambitious
project by Beijing in a country that has a history of frustrating the
well-intentioned plans of others. Americans, disillusioned by decades of
unfruitful involvement in Pakistan, are skeptical that China will have any more
But Chinese President
Xi Jinping is intent on extending China’s influence in Asia, confident that his
country can avoid the old pitfalls and achieve a new economic and political
predominance in the region.
Here, trucks carrying
Chinese goods could soon begin a 1,700-mile descent through Pakistan, to a
saltwater port where the freight will be put on ships bound for markets in
Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
The journey will embody
China’s efforts to re-create the old Silk Route that for centuries linked Asia
to the Middle East, and brought wealth to both. And along the way, China will
try to use its “Belt and Road” economic development strategy to lift Pakistan
toward prosperity. It plans to spend $46 billion here on an array of projects.
“An old strategic
partnership is graduating into an economic partnership,” said Ahsan Iqbal,
Pakistan’s minister for planning and development. “China has a vision... and Pakistan can be the corridor for a new
regional bloc, comprising the engines of world growth where 3 billion people
If China can ship more
of its merchandise along this route instead of by way of the South China Sea,
it will reduce transport times to some of the world’s fastest-growing markets.
China also will be able to shift more of its manufacturing base to its rural,
western provinces, with an eye toward weakening political unrest there while
curbing pollution in its eastern cities.
In the process, China
hopes to accomplish something the United States has largely been unable to do
over the past decade: give Pakistan an ironclad, long-lasting incentive to keep
cracking down on terrorist groups.
The new Pakistan-China
Economic Corridor will move from here in the mountains down the Karakorum
Highway into central Pakistan. From there, even more highways will be built to
provide access to Gwadar Port in Baluchistan.
The initial outlines of
that corridor already are visible here in northern Pakistan, where the highway
snakes past mountains, glaciers and rocky gorges. At times, motorists can see
the donkey trails from the original Silk Route, which traders travelled for
more than 600 years before the 15th century.
China is spending
hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the highway, one of the world’s most
dangerous thoroughfares. To make it safer, Chinese engineers are smashing
through mountains to build dozens of miles of tunnels, some of which are
inscribed with the phrase “Pak-China Friendship Tunnel.” They are adding
bridges, guardrails and concrete overhangs to funnel landslides and avalanches
away from travel lanes.
“The Chinese can do
anything,” Ramazan Ali, 32, said from a boat while travelling across Attabad
Lake, created in 2010 when a landslide damned the Hunza River, flooding the
Karakorum Highway and surrounding villages. China has just built four large
tunnels on the south end of the 13-mile lake to reopen the highway. “Everything
they develop benefits the people.”
But for many residents
here in Gilgit-Baltistan, also referred to as Pakistan’s “northern areas,” the
alliance also is generating fear. Living in sight of some of the world’s most
stunning scenery, including five of the world’s 14 tallest mountains, residents
worry about traffic and pollution.
“There will be a lot of
environmental issues in the near future,” said Sahib Noor, a farmer in
Karimabad, a scenic town in the Hunza Valley. “And if we don’t get anything out
of it, our kids will just be collecting the garbage and rubbish from the trucks.”
For Pakistan, however,
analysts say the Chinese investment represents a major opportunity to
jump-start an economy thought to be primed for growth.
With an estimated
population of more than 180 million, two-thirds of whom are younger than 30,
Pakistan could one day become a top consumer of electronic goods and other
costly products, many of them made in China.
To fully reach its
economic potential, however, the country must overcome the continued threat of
Islamist militancy as well as a severe electricity shortage that significantly
increases the cost and difficulty of doing business here.
To address that
problem, China is promising Pakistan 18 new energy projects, including nine
coal-fired power plants, five wind farms, three hydroelectric dams and one
solar park. When completed, the projects will add 16,600 megawatts to
Pakistan’s national grid, more than offsetting the electricity shortage, even
with a projected annual growth rate of 7 per cent by 2018, said Iqbal, the
minister for planning and development.
economists disagree as to whether their country can fully take advantage of the
opportunity. Some note that it is unclear whether the agreement will help
Pakistan overcome a 50 per cent trade imbalance with China. Pakistanis are eager
to ship more medicinal herbs, textiles, gemstones and yak meat to China.
“A long highway passing
just through vast land connecting one strategically important point with
another, thousands of miles away, will not be an economic corridor,” said Sakib
Sherani, a prominent Pakistani economist. “But if it also links Pakistani
businessmen and traders to markets in China, that would be huge.”
Since becoming China’s
president, Xi has been increasingly worried about the domestic threat posed by
the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Muslim separatist group trying to
create an independent state in the western part of the country. The group had
found havens in Pakistan’s tribal belt and is blamed by China for fomenting
violence in the province of Xinjiang.
Ma Jiali, executive
deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the China Reform Forum
in Beijing, said Pakistani transport routes will allow China to expand its
economy in Xinjiang, where violent attacks by ethnic Uighurs have risen sharply
in recent years. Such investment could lead to a job boom in that region,
spawning a more diverse population that China hopes could make it more
difficult for groups such as ETIM to thrive.
Western analysts also
see the potential for China to become the dominant influence in keeping
Pakistan focused on its struggle against terrorist groups.
“For a very long time,
people were asking why don’t the Chinese get more engaged with Pakistan” to try
to guarantee security, said Vali R Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced
International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “Well, now they have a
reason to be. They are putting $46 billion on the table, and they will be
looking to protect that $46 billion.”
In that way, China is
stepping into a void left by the United States when it declined to heavily
invest in Pakistan, despite the strategic alliance between the two countries
during the Cold War as well as after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,
Over the past 13 years,
the United States has given Pakistan about $10.5 billion in economic assistance
and $7.6 billion in security-related aid. The US military also reimbursed
Pakistan $13 billion in counterterrorism support related to the war in
Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The United States “was
just not interested in building dams, electrical power plants, railways, roads
and bridges and ports” in Pakistan, Nasr said.
China, by comparison,
views its relationship with allies through a prism that is “geopolitical,
geo-strategic” but also “geoeconomic,” Ma said. “According to Chinese
philosophy, if you want to achieve some goal, you have to take a comprehensive
approach, political, economic, military and social.”
Robert Hathaway, former
director of the Asia Programme at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, said
that US officials appear content to let China become the dominant influence
over Pakistan. But Hathaway said US policymakers were skeptical that China’s
$46 billion aid package would ever fully materialise.
A major terrorist
attack or Pakistani political crisis, common in a country that has witnessed
three successful military coups since its founding in 1947, could quickly cause
the Chinese to reassess their relationship, he said.
“Much of the skepticism
reflects the rather dismal American experience in Pakistan over the years,”
Hathaway said. “You almost never get results commensurate with the effort or
money you put into it.”
The doubts here in
Gilgit-Baltistan also are rooted in history. For too long, some residents say,
the region’s vast mineral deposits and lucrative timber fields have been looted
by Pakistani businessmen and politicians from the southern part of the country.
“We will not get
anything,” said Ghulam Hassan, 32, who digs gemstones out of the mountains.
“They will just load the gems up in containers and go down to the Arabian Sea,
or go take them to China where they will polish, finish them there.”
Muhammad Ali, 39, a
customs clearing agent in Sost, the northernmost Pakistani city before the
Karakorum Highway begins a 35-mile, 7,000-foot ascent to Khunjerab Pass, said
foreign investors are the only ones likely to benefit from the project.
But Ali and other
residents of the area don’t have to travel far to see some of what China can
Within 100 miles of the
border, for example, cellphone coverage is sparse. But when motorists reach the
top of Khunjerab Pass, 3G service from a Chinese cellular provider bleeds
across the frontier.
That’s the sort of
modern convenience that Ameer Ullah Baig, a 60-year-old yak farmer who sleeps
outside with his herds in the summer, is looking forward to.
Before the original
Karakorum Highway opened in the 1970s, Baig said, his family relied on ponies
and mules to get around and had to make wool overcoats to stay warm. Now,
however, he rides a motorcycle to round up his herd and sleeps in a sub-zero,
synthetic sleeping bag that he thinks was made in China.
“The highway was a
blessing in disguise,” he said. “And I expect the same thing from the economic
corridor.” (Courtesy: The Washington Post)