Written By: S. M. Hali

It is heartening that the Armed Forces of Pakistan have pledged to not only support CPEC but safeguard it with their resources so that the mega project achieves fruition.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship project of President Xi Jinping’s visionary One Belt, One Road (OBOR) mega development venture. CPEC commences from the deep sea port of Gwadar and terminates at Kashgar in the Xinjiang province of China, from where it merges into OBOR and fans out to the Central Asian States to the north and through mainland China to the east. OBOR is also known as the New Silk Road (NSR) and its essential component is the Maritime Silk Road.


armedforcessup.jpgThe CPEC holds hope for the people of Pakistan but has also given rise to controversies based on fallacies created by few objectors. The current government, which is the prime mover for the project in Pakistan, has tried to allay doubts regarding the mega project. It has also explained its various dimensions, which somehow have been overlooked by a few fickle minded people. Finally, broad consensus appears to have been reached and the project is gradually moving forward.

It is imperative to realize the OBOR or the NSR project, of which the CPEC is but one part since it promises prosperity and development not only for China and Pakistan but also for many countries located on the ancient Silk Road, particularly the landlocked Central Asia. This project has pinned hopes for progress, prosperity, growth and development on an infrastructure akin to the historic Silk Road. The zeal is cognisable because developing industries demand new markets; technological innovations facilitate international cooperation; better transportation and logistics increase trade efficiency; and growing energy demands require international cooperation. The advent of New Silk Road projects will act as a catalyst towards generating regional cooperation, building political flexibility, enhancing economic growth, offering trade diversifications, investing in transportation, mining and energy sectors.


armedforcessup1.jpgCentral Asian Republics bounded by the closed economy of the erstwhile USSR and limited by their geographical location, offering inadequate connectivity, are now being presented with an epoch making opportunity to play their destined roles in world economy. Their enthusiasm knows no bounds because suddenly they are being proffered the unique opportunity to become part of not one but a wide array of infrastructures, circumnavigating the entire globe. Traditionally, it was envisaged that media had shrunk the world to a global village and now it is the Silk Road concept which is bringing nations, races, continents and people closer in a tight-knit community sharing their resources of production, services, energy, information and understanding.

The CPEC is a comprehensive 15 year development project between Pakistan and China spanning 2015-2030 that entails the linking of Gwadar Port to China’s north-western region of Xinjiang through highways, railways, oil and gas pipelines, and an optical fiber link. Strategic energy cooperation between the two countries had been implemented before the proposal of the conception of the corridor. During the former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Pakistan in December 2010, the National Energy Administration (NEA) of China and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources of Pakistan issued a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the establishment of energy working-group mechanism. The first meeting of this group was held in August 2011, during which both sides had a thorough exchange of views on the development of electricity, coal, oil, gas and new energy industries. A cooperative program was generated to help Pakistan alleviate energy shortages at the second meeting in Pakistan in May 2012. The group was absorbed in the framework of the CPEC in 2013. At the third meeting in January 2014, both the countries reached consensus on nuclear power, electricity, coal and renewable energy, and agreed to set up a research team to promote energy cooperation for the construction of the CPEC, mainly including coal exploitation, oil and gas extraction, mining and transportation, and electric wire net arrangement, etc.

It is worth mentioning that Pakistan Army had already explored the possibilities of an inter-linked road network in 1997.¹ President Xi Jinping envisaged the project in 2013; subsequently, it was floated in Pakistan during the visit of China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang in May 2013. Although Pakistan had just undergone General Elections in 2013, Premier Li met Pakistan’s Caretaker Prime Minister, President Zardari and Prime Minister designate Nawaz Sharif to reach important consensus on planning and constructing the CPEC. In February 2014, Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain visited China to discuss the plans for an economic corridor in Pakistan. During Prime Minister Sharif’s visit to China in July 2013, the construction of the CPEC was reiterated. April 2015 was a historic month for Sino-Pakistan relations when Chinese President Xi and Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif signed an agreement worth USD 46 billion for the CPEC.

A discussion on the technical, financial and logistical dimensions of CPEC is beyond the scope of this article but it is imperative to note that the mega project faces a number of challenges. Major threat to the CPEC is from the risks to Pakistan’s security and stability. Militants in the tribal areas, insurgency in Balochistan, violence in Karachi, and growing religious extremism are believed to be serious causes of concern.

India has strong reservations regarding the CPEC – prior to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Beijing in September 2014 – it formally registered a strong protest against the construction of CPEC. According to Indian media, Chinese Ambassador to New Delhi was summoned by the External Affairs’ Ministry and informed that since the project was also being routed through Kashmir over which India staked claims, it had serious reservations.² President Xi had dismissed the objections, describing the economic corridor as a “commercial project.”³

Reportedly, in addition to opposing the CPEC, Indians have unleashed their spy agency RAW to sabotage the project. Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior officials have stated that their Chinese counterparts in a special briefing have expressed these fears. The arrest of Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, a senior RAW operative from Balochistan proved Pakistan’s allegations correct. Commander Jadhav sang like a canary and divulged that he is a serving Indian Navy officer, who had been recruited to operate from Chabahar in Iran and establish a terror network in Balochistan, to enlist Baloch youth, train them for the use of deadly weapons, arm and incite them to wreak havoc to sabotage CPEC. Commander Jadhav’s incarceration, trial and sentencing may have impeded Indian machinations but reportedly, contingency plans have been put in place and RAW is working overtime to disrupt CPEC.

Besides India, there are other detractors of CPEC and OBOR. According to the ‘String of Pearls’ theory, coined in 2005 by the U.S. consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, China will try to expand its naval presence by building civilian maritime infrastructure along the Indian Ocean periphery.⁴ This corridor is one of the many mega-projects planned by China in Central, South and South-East Asia for expanding its political and economic influence to counter the relatively better established U.S. sphere of influence in the region. The U.S. has a similar agenda in the form of ‘Pivot to Asia’, which is aimed at countering China’s economic and military expansion in Asia-Pacific. According to a report published in 2013 by the London-based policy think tank Chatham House, ‘The increasing complexity of the Asia-Pacific region demands U.S. attention, and the United States remains well-positioned to play a pivotal role in the region through the 21st century.’ Resultantly, the U.S. has partnered itself with key players in the region such as India, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore to prevent China from spreading its influence.

The big power game has placed Pakistan in a unique position. It can potentially balance the major power rivalries and promote trade cooperation in the region as it enjoys good relations with both the West and China. Historically, there is precedence when a similar initiative had been taken by General Yahya Khan’s regime in 1970 that brought the two great powers China and the U.S. on the diplomatic table and, in current scenario a trade-oriented diplomacy by Pakistan can help reduce the complexities of this rivalry.

The U.S. opposition to CPEC and OBOR has now come out in the open with Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis’ briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. opposes the OBOR project since it runs through disputed territory. $56 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an important element of OBOR passes through Pakistan’s northern areas, which India claims is part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir territory.

Paradoxically, the OBOR and CPEC are development projects and aim to bring economic prosperity to the region including the residents of Jammu and Kashmir. Contrast this with the Muslim population of Indian Occupied Kashmir, who are facing a reign of terror since 1947 and are currently being targeted with pellet guns for raising slogans of freedom. According to international and independent human rights organizations, the incessant use of pellet guns has martyred more than 200 Kashmiris and blinded over 3,600 youth. Instead of taking cognizance of the brutality faced by Kashmiris under Indian subjugation, the U.S. begrudges the development of Jammu and Kashmir.

It is heartening that the Armed Forces of Pakistan have pledged to not only support CPEC but safeguard it with their resources so that the mega project achieves fruition.

Pakistan Army has deployed the Special Security Division (SSD), a newly raised division of Pakistan Army tasked with providing security to the under construction CPEC and the workforce employed on the project. Operating under the command of a Major General, the 15,000 men force will guard CPEC and provide aerial support and state-of-the-art surveillance and monitoring systems to pre-empt terror attacks. The unit comprises 9 army composite battalions (9,000 personnel) and six civil armed forces (CAFs) wings (6,000 personnel). The security force consists of highly trained Special Forces potent enough to counter any threat emerging to the mega project of CPEC. The first convoy of goods shipped from Kashgar was guarded during transit by units of the Pakistan Army all the way to Gwadar, from where the containers were put on board different merchant vessels bound for various destinations.

Contrast this with the Muslim population of Indian Occupied Kashmir, who are facing a reign of terror since 1947 and are currently being targeted with pellet guns for raising slogans of freedom. According to international and independent human rights organizations, the incessant use of pellet guns has martyred more than 200 Kashmiris and blinded over 3,600 youth. Instead of taking cognizance of the brutality faced by Kashmiris under Indian subjugation, the U.S. begrudges the development of Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistan Navy has also taken up the cudgel to secure the CPEC from maritime threats. To meet the challenge, PNS Akram, established at Gwadar, serves as a surveillance station and is considered the eyes and ears of Pakistan Navy, from where it monitors activities at the Gwadar Port as well as in the North Arabian Sea.

For the protection of Gwadar, there is also PNS Siddiq in Turbat, which is the primary airbase for fixed wing aircraft. The unit also provides facility to anchor to foreign naval units. Additionally, there is PNS Makran at Pasni, which is the secondary airbase for naval aviation and is used for both rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft. The naval base at Jiwani is another surveillance station coordinating with the maritime headquarters in Karachi. The 3rd and 4th battalions have been raised to protect the Gwadar Port and provide harbour defence.

Besides ensuring the maritime security of Gwadar Port, Pakistan Navy has been entrusted with the defence of the fish harbour, the entire hammerhead-shaped peninsula, including Koh-i-Batil, and the Chinese nationals residing in Gwadar. To safeguard the Gwadar Port, the navy has also raised the maritime security Task Force-88 on December 13, 2016. The area of responsibility of Task Force-88 starts from Gwadar Bay to Basol, extending seaward up to six nautical miles from the baseline of Pakistan. This includes the approaches to Gwadar Port as well.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is fully committed to provide impregnable security to CPEC project, which is of great strategic significance in synergy with sister services and other law enforcement agencies. PAF has a comprehensive security plan catering to Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability, which is essential for smooth completion of CPEC projects. The same was amply demonstrated in Operation Zarb-e-Azb. PAF has full capability to effectively undertake specialized roles of medical evacuation, search and rescue operations, area scanning and kinetic operations on CPEC.

Recently, Air Headquarters hosted a one-day symposium on “CPEC vis-à-vis Opportunities for Aviation Industry and Way Forward”. It was concluded that in effect, aviation is destined to play a principal role in generation of sustenance of economic dynamics. The unexplored aerial dimension of CPEC will be the real game changer for Pakistan. This dimension will exponentially expand the reach of CPEC and would be a key element in making Pakistan the next business hub of Asia. Air Silk Route and plans to meet the future aviation requirements will necessitate the establishment of New Aviation Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) setups, trained manpower, new airlines, joint ventures and rightly placed infrastructure to handle the need of future economic hub of South Asia. The formation of a working group under the Joint Cooperation Committee of Pakistan Air Force and Aviation Division can lead the integration of aviation dimension in CPEC.

While the government and the nation are geared to reap the benefits accruing from CPEC, the Armed Forces of Pakistan have picked up the gauntlet to ensure the security requisite for the successful completion of this mega project.


The writer is a former Group Captain from Pakistan Air Force who also served as Air and Naval Attaché at Riyadh (KSA).

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1. When an internal research paper was prepared for the GHQ Rawalpindi called “The Army’s Role in Nation Building” by Brigadier Riaz Ahmed Toor. This paper highlighted the need to develop a strong transportation network across all provinces by linking Gwadar and Karachi with the rest of the country for both peacetime and wartime periods. The CPEC’s road network project can be considered as the true practical face of this research paper published some 20 years ago. Hassan Khan, ‘Is China-Pakistan Economic Corridor really a game changer?’, Pakistan Today (Lahore), June, 13, 2015
2. NDTV report, “Before PM Narendra Modi's Trip, India Objects to China’s $46 Billion Economic Corridor with Pakistan”, May 12, 2015. http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/before-pms-trip-india-objects-to-chinas-46-billion-economic-corridor-with-pak-762533
3. “India raises objections over China Pakistan Economic Corridor”, The Express Tribune (Karachi), May 12, 2015.
4. Virginia Marantidou, “Revisiting China's 'String of Pearls' Strategy’, Issues & Insights, vol. 14, no. 7. Washington: D.C. Centre for Strategic & International Studies (Washington DC), June 24, 2014.

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