3 February 2017

India’s Opposition to China–Pakistan Economic Corridor Is Flawed

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Atul Bhardwaj

​Atul Bhardwaj (atul.beret@gmail.com) is Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

China is opening up its land borders in Xinjiang to interact more freely with Central Asia and Europe. China and Pakistan are jointly building the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India views this as a violation of its sovereignty. Geopolitics rather than geoeconomics predominates India’s thinking on possibilities offered by the revival of the old Silk Road by the Chinese.

The 3,000 km-long China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) consis­ting of highways, railways, and pipelines is the latest irritant in the India–China relationship. The corridor connects China’s landlocked western province of Xinjiang to Gwadar port in south Pakistan. 

India feels that the corridor infringes on its sovereignty because it passes through Gilgit–Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Pakistan and China have invited India to be a part of the CPEC, but India has declined the offer. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, addressing the second Raisina Dialogue, an international conference held in New Delhi, in mid-January 2017, said that China remained oblivious to the impact that the CPEC project would have on India’s sovereignty. India is also concerned over the China–Pakistan naval cooperation in Gwadar port, the entry point to the CPEC. In January 2017, China handed over two ships to the Pakistan Navy for the security of Gwadar port.

India’s outright opposition to the CPEC and its indifference towards the Chinese One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative are difficult to comprehend. Connectivity with Central Asia and Europe through its northern frontiers would be economically more beneficial for India than continued reliance on the shipping lanes. The problem is that the Indian strategic psyche is fixated on seeing control of oceans as the only means to acquire greatness. It is for this reason that it demands freedom of navigation on the oceans, but opposes smooth trade flows across soft borders on land. If trade has the right to move freely on sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), then land-based trade should also be allowed to move with relative ease. Border disputes should not be allowed to interfere with land lanes of communication (LLOCs). In fact, India should welcome the revival of the old Silk Road as it gives India more choices and reduces its dependence on trade routes controlled by the United States (US).

India’s foreign policy approach in respect of the CPEC is worrisome. It is demanding respect for India’s sovereign rights in PoK from China; something that it has been unable to extract from Pakistan in the past 70-odd years. India has never raised any concerns about US involvement in PoK. No cognisance is paid to the funding of education projects by United States Agency for International Development in PoK. Unfortunately, India continues to see China through the Cold War lens. It sees the emerging Chinese empire, but remains oblivious to the well-entrenched US empire. It sees ­Chinese ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean, but fails to see the US aircraft carriers reign supreme in every nook and corner of the ocean. The fact is that US proximity to the Pakistani ruling elite as well as its military failed to dissuade it from conducting nuclear tests in 1998 and foment a protracted proxy war against India. Yet, it is intriguing that India is willing to put all its eggs in the US basket.

History of Connectivity

Xinjiang, the northwest province of China, is the pivot of Eurasia. The province borders Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is coming up as the hub for China–Europe freight trains. More than 328 cargo trains have been launched from Urumqi since 2014. In November 2016, a daily cargo train was launched from Urumqi to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan.

The importance of Xinjiang was well-understood by the American scholar Owen Lattimore in 1950. His book—Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang and the Inner Asian Frontiers of China and Russia—owes its origin to a seminar held at Johns Hopkins University. It was an attempt to understand the geopolitical importance of the Chinese province and the role it could play in engineering the Sino–Soviet split. The book also looked at how India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan could assist the US strategy in the region. This was the time when Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin agreed to put a lid on their nationalists’ urges to dominate Sinkiang and build rail bridges. However, after Stalin’s death and the arrival of Nikita Khrushchev on the scene, the pace of the proposed rail links from Xinjiang to Central Asia slowed down.

Before partition, India had two openings into Xinjiang. The first was the 600-mile-long Ladakh route extended from Kashgar to Yarkand and then over Karakoram pass to Leh. 

The second was the 460-mile-long caravan route from Kashgar to Gilgit. Besides for commerce, the routes were used by Hajj pilgrims from Xinjiang. The Hajis, who entered India through Gilgit, reached Karachi for their onward journey. Those who entered India via Leh went to Bombay for further journey by ship.

Post partition, the British ensured that Gilgit remained a part of PoK. This cut off the Ladakhi links with Central Asia. In the wake of the communist takeover of Xinjiang, the Indian government decided to scrutinise people entering Leh from the Chinese side. This put severe restrictions on trade between the two countries. The British also ensured that the Gilgit connectivity with Kashgar was snapped. The net result was that India had no option but to use the oceans to trade with Central Asia. In fact, after the consolidation of the Soviet empire in Central Asia, Britain discouraged India–Central Asia trade. The years 1920–21 are considered the best for India–Central Asia trade. During that period, the total trade stood at ₹93 lakh with exports valued at ₹47 lakh and imports at ₹46 lakh (National Archives of India 1949).

Interestingly, Britain, which was instrumental in locking the borders in the subcontinent and ensuring that international commercial transaction used SLOCs, is now keen to be a part of the CPEC. Last year, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson termed the CPEC a wonder project in which he expected United Kingdom firms to grab big contracts (Hasnain 2016). Even Russia is keen to partake in opportunities offered by the CPEC. In early 1942, when the Chinese government had approached the Soviet and the British governments with a proposal to transport 4,000 tonnes of war supplies to China via Iran, the Caspian Sea, the railroad leading therefrom to Tashkent, and thence overland via the Urumchi route, the Russians refused to open access to the Soviet Union. That was a time when the Russians were wary of the Americans, British, Japanese, and Germans (Office of the Historian 1942).

The harsh reality is that the Anglo–American shadow continues to loom large over the India–China relationship. In 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party took control of Xinjiang, the US consul in Kashgar, S Paxton fled to India via the Leh route. This event was published in the Indian media in 1949 and public opinion was built up against the Chinese communists. Douglas Mackiernan, Paxton’s junior in the US consulate did not accompany his boss to India. Instead, he took a route from Xinjiang towards Tibet where he was shot at by a Tibetan. The Chinese blame him for fomenting rebellion in Xinjiang. It was later revealed by Thomas Laird, in his book Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa, that Mackiernan did work for the Central Intelligence Agency and was one of their first spies engaged in gathering intelligence on Soviet nuclear developments.

Pakistan on CPEC

Much like in India, there are many in Pakistan opposed to the concept of the CPEC. The domination of the Punjabi elite in Pakistan in deciding the routes and special economic zones along the corridor has led to a growing perception that the CPEC stands for the “China Punjab Economic Corridor” (Quint 2016).

Several rebel and separatist organisations in Balochistan are opposed to the CPEC on the grounds that it is inimical to the interests of their state. Residents of Balochistan fear that new roads will bring in outsiders, which will alter the demo­graphy of the state and cause greater ethnic tension. Many residents of Gilgit–Baltistan also fear the encroachment and exploitation of their land and its resources by unscrupulous outsiders. Some extremist outfits in Pakistan have begun to target Chinese workers engaged in the construction of mega projects there. Besides, environmentalists are equally unhappy with the adverse impact that rapid and massive development will have on the fragile ecosystem in the mountainous region. It is assessed that mega projects, which include the Karachi–Lahore rail link, coal-based power plants, and other infrastructure projects, are likely to quicken the pace of climate change in the region.

But, such concerns are brushed aside by the supporters of the CPEC who see it as a “game changer.” The CPEC brings in Chinese investments to the tune of $46 billion and a promise to infuse fresh energy into Pakistan’s economy. Many also see the CPEC as an opportunity to break the umbilical cord that has kept Pakistan tied to the West. For the past six decades, the Pakistani military establishment has actively engaged in helping the US achieve its strategic aims. Affluent China is seen as a potential counterweight to the US. Perhaps, the Pakistani elite want to play Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment game and be the proverbial clever calf that “sucks two cows” (Baru 2017).

The neutrality game in international politics is not as simplistic as foreign policy experts and economists would have us believe. It is naïve to assume that non-aligned “calves” were clever and the two Cold War “cows” stupid. India as a non-aligned buffer state was as much a Cold War strategic imperative as it was Nehru’s dream. While the US offered India economic aid in the 1950s, it also extracted its pound of flesh; not simply in terms of cheap manganese for its steel industry, but also by stirring up the hornets’ nest in Tibet. Nehru professed neutrality and simultaneously aided US military operations in Tibet. At the same time, trouble in Tibet was not antithetical to Soviet interests; just as the Suez crisis was not anti-US. A tamed China was essential for the Soviets to maintain their hold over the socialist bloc. It was equally crucial for the US to kick out the English and French colonialists to shape the post-war world order on its own terms.

Therefore, it is premature to assume that the Pakistan–China nexus is well entrenched and the US has walked out of the relationship like a loser. It is unthinkable that the US will let go of its ­Pakistani collaborators and allow its hegemony to be destroyed so easily. It is in this context that one needs to locate the linkages in the US strategy that permits Pakistan to get closer to China. The popularisation of the perception that the “China–Pakistan nexus” was out to devour India ensures that Indian public opinion continues to view China as an enemy and the US as its saviour; just as the coming closer of India and the Soviet Union had created a perception in China that Soviet friendship could not be trusted. Such divisive politics benefits the US since it causes fissures in the camp that has some potential to oppose it.

The possibility of an India–China–Russia triangular relationship haunted the US in the initial years of the Cold War. Despite similarities, the current inter­national political game is fundamentally different from the post-war scenario. In 1945, both the declining as well as the ascending nations were maritime powers and military allies. The US, when it replaced the British empire, did not disturb the maritime trade routes and regimes that Britain had assiduously built over two centuries. In the present situation, China, a continental power, is rising and challenging the existing maritime order. China is palpably relying on land-based trade routes rather than oceanic commercial lanes. It is creating alternative channels for trade movement across continents. The US wants maximum international trade to flow on the oceans that it commands. Trade flows across the Silk Route will draw a huge proportion of commerce away from the oceans, thus eroding the ability of the US to control and extract rent from international trade flows.


Baru, Sanjay (2017): India and the World: Essays on Geoeconomics and Foreign Policy, New Delhi: Academic Foundation.

Hasnain, Khalid (2016): “Boris Wants UK Firms to Be Part of CPEC,” Dawn, 26 November, viewed on 14 January 2017, http://www.dawn.com/news/1298747.

National Archives of India (1949): “Revival of Trade with Central Asia Unlikely,” Statesman, 4 Nov­ember, MEA/F/303/CJK.

Office of the Historian (1942): “Efforts to Establish a Supply Route to China via Iran, the Soviet Union, and Sinkiang, 893.24/1314: Telegram, The Ambassador in Soviet Union (Standley) to the Secretary of State,” 10 April, Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1942, China, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State, viewed on 23 Jan­uary 2017, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1942China/pg_591.

Quint (2016): “CPEC: Pakistan’s Newest Holy Cow Could Also Become Its Millstone,” 20 December, viewed on 25 December 2016, https://www.thequint.com/world/2016/12/20/cpec-pakistans-newest-holy-cow-could-also-be­co­m­e-its-millstone-china.


- See more at: http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/4/strategic-affairs/indias-opposition-china%E2%80%93pakistan-economic-corridor-flawed.html#sthash.fM0KtP1E.dpuf

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