The Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), also known as the “New Silk Roads”, is a work in progress that raises many questions. Yet in Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway, commissioned in 1979, may provide us with some answers. Parallel to the challenged sovereignty of the country, it could be observed, until these last months, a religio-patriotic discourse with a questionable consistency and an expensive open or latent state of war seeming to assure a form of national cohesion. However, this discourse and the state of war increased Pakistan’s international isolation and strengthened its dependence on China as well as indirectly laid the roots for potential fractures between the north and the south of the territory.
Table of content
- The Karakoram Highway (KHH) is a crucial link for Pakistan’s high-altitude settlements as a promising economic and strategic artery for China.
- China’s attentive and “friendly” support ensures the continuous running of the Karakoram Highway due to the low level of resources Pakistani state can dedicate for it.
- Along the KHH, Islamabad can not manage numerous other public tasks normally carried out by a state. This limited scope of action might weaken the state legitimacy.
- Islamabad retains a certain national unity thanks to an Islamic and/or turned against Israel consensus, as well as thanks to a state of war justified by the fuelled permanence of the Kashmiri conflict.
- These specific and limited tools available for Pakistan’s national cohesion can eventually have consequences contrary to the goal pursued.
- Conclusion: towards a new Central Asian order?
Karakoram Highway (KHH) is a crucial link for Pakistan’s high-altitude settlements as a promising economic and strategic artery for China.
Karakoram Highway (KKH) runs from Islamabad, in Pakistani Punjab, to Kashgar, in Chinese Xinjiang, through spectacular landscapes whose grandeur and sharpness have no equivalents in the world. Following partly the course of the upper Indus River and, then, the Hunza River, it stretches, in the high altitude of young mountains, on particularly unstable slopes often composed of sands, gravels and wandering rock masses, in an area subject to seismic activity.
KKH is therefore exposed to landslides obstructing or even wiping out segments of a vital route linking settlements in northern Pakistan. Some sections must be cleared and repaired regularly. Sometimes, they need to be rebuilt when parts of the road disappeared.
This artery is no less important for China. It connects its western (and continental) territories with the Arabian Sea (Indian Ocean). It also gives China an access to a neighbouring market, which at the moment is not very solvent but has around two hundred million potential customers.
This is a kind of chance for Pakistan in comparison with the situation of M41, the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, especially for its part along the Panj River, a similar natural harsh environment facing the Afghan bank, enduring an endless dereliction while having no actual foreign sponsor since USSR collapse, crossed by the smuggling tracks leading from Afghan Badakhshan’s poppy fields to Russian market.
If the social and economic dimensions of the KKH are frequently mentioned, it is important not to forget its strategic nature. In fact, this route could be a cordon allowing the rapid deployment of the Pakistani army along a zone disputed with India. It would also facilitate a Chinese military intervention. Nevertheless, because of its canyons, its viaducts, its tunnels and the precarious balance of the masses which overhang it, the traffic of the KHH can be cut by a determined action needing reduced means. Therefore it requires a significant level of vigilance.
In the mountains, on arid sediments unstable and subject to erosion, every square meter of valuable agricultural land is gained through a heavy manual terrace building, the elaboration of long irrigation canals and the supply of organic material. The construction of the Karakoram Highway was launched there without, as locally said, people being compensated for the fields taken from them. It is added this issue has not been addressed at its proper level.
China largely participated in the achievement of the KKH endeavour. It is strongly involved in its maintenance.
China’s attentive and friendly support ensures the continuous running of the Karakoram Highway due to the low level of resources Pakistani state can dedicate for it.
Property (this is the term used) of Kashmir as a whole is Pakistan’s most important national claim. It must be remembered, however, that Pakistan, in 1963, in northern Kashmir, had to “voluntarily” abandon to China its sovereignty over the Shaksgam Valley and to recognize the annexation by China of Aksai Chin administered until this time by India. It might have been the price for a commercial agreement, an air traffic agreement and the start of work on the Karakoram Highway which came soon afterward.
In 2010, it was part of a mountain slope that slid dragging the village of Attabad, killing 20 people, leaving thousands of them without their home and land, obstructing the course of the Hunza River, drowning part of the KKH and its close settlements, preventing relief or supplies delivery to locations upstream of disappeared Attabad village. Before crossing over the new natural dam, the river created a lake. In the years following the catastrophe and the irruption of the immense mass of liquid burying 19 km of road in its depths, the vehicles eventually joined, with difficulty, the two emerged ends of the road being transported on roughly assembled wooden boats. Population affected by the cataclysm questioned the Pakistani state for its assistance considering it as not being adequate. China, in the name of “friendship” between the two countries, and under a “well-ordered charity”, caved tunnels into the left bank of the lake in order to allow the continuity of the highway and the resumption of the transport of its goods.
Another more recent example was during the 2018–2019 winter. KKH was blocked due to heavy snowfalls. While Pakistani state was not in a position to react with a relevant solution, China “offered” a snowplough to make sure that its traffic was restored in a proper manner.
History rightly condemns the excesses of past colonization. However, it is often forgotten how this status was gradually implemented following its own internal logic. Taking control of infrastructures and creating interdependent financial situations resulted frequently in a loss of sovereignty due to what is called a debt trap diplomacy. Concerns in that direction are rising in Pakistan. These are part of the challenges Pakistani current government has to face.
Along the KHH, Islamabad cannot manage numerous other public tasks normally carried out by a state. This limited scope of action might weaken the state legitimacy.
The inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan have lower voting rights than other Pakistanis. They do not participate, for example, in some national elections. Unlike other regions, Islamabad is supposed to directly administer Gilgit-Baltistan.
However, the connection people of Gilgit-Baltistan have with each other or with the big cities on the south of the country is provided by China via the KKH. Nevertheless, as one leaves the tape of asphalt, object of Beijing care, the network is mainly the responsibility of the meagre local resources and equipment. For example, the routes to Jhel and to the Shimshal or Chapursan valleys are among the particularly dangerous roads of the world.
Schooling for children is mainly conducted by the Aga Khan Foundation.
Health is usually provided by foreign NGOs including, again, the Aga Khan Foundation. Japan also makes important humanitarian contributions without, apparently, expecting economic compensation.
For its part, in addition to an educated and professional police force, the Pakistani state offers essentially, and a random power supply with frequent load shedding. These are the two main contributions from Islamabad to the daily lives of the people in the north.
Consequently, there is a regular temptation to use religion, strict patriotism and designation of foes, inside or outside the country, to ensure its cohesion.
Islamabad retains a certain national unity thanks to an Islamic and/or turned against Israel consensus, as well as thanks to a state of war justified by the fuelled permanence of the Kashmiri conflict.
Right now, the counterpart to the Chinese friendship is a sort of blackout towards the million Xinjiang Muslims (where, in addition to the Uighurs, there are Pakistanis, Kyrgyz, Wakhis, Tajiks, Kazakhs …) jailed in the Chinese camps, just at the end of the KKH. Shortly before, the counterpart was the silence in response to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas in Burma, a satellite country of China. This could question the ability of Pakistan to show a complete sovereignty when it comes to foreign affairs and advocating Muslims cause.
Mention should also be made of the past benevolence from certain Islamabad services with regard to the Taliban, knowing these terrorists first attack the Prophet’s followers, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the Palestinian tragedy, because of Israel, is widely and legitimately denounced, whereas one might wonder if this denunciation is not a matter of an accepted and unifying anti-Semitism speech instead of an humanitarian commitment. Indeed, the greater number of Palestinian victims in Syria over last years, due to Assad’s regime, does not look like receiving much attention.
As for India, paradoxically useful, it is the core of the Pakistani political discourse. Strong words condemn Indian actions against the co-religionists of Jammu-Kashmir meanwhile legitimizing a national spiritual mobilization in a state of war, latent or open since 1947. The price was the internittent control over the country by militaries, an expensive arms race and the resource consuming acquisition of nuclear weapons. At the same time, 40% of the population lived below the poverty line. The literacy rate was 70% for men and 48% for women, according to Pakistani government. Many tasks normally devolved to the state were not ensured, as was mentioned previously.
Nevertheless, the national message is still working. Although, it is possible to detect emerging fractures within this apparent unanimity.
These specific and limited tools available for Pakistan’s national cohesion can eventually have consequences contrary to the goal pursued.
The patriotism of the citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan is indisputable. The Pakistani flag is widely distributed and showed during social events or, on a daily basis, by individuals. Every morning school students sing the national anthem under the country colours. Yet, the North does not share some of the extremist behaviour that can be found sometimes in more southern regions.
In the Hunza valley it was not possible to hear crowd’s calls for the hanging of Asia Bibi, whose planned death deeply worried the world opinion.
Taliban and their associates are execrated and forbidden to stay between Gilgit and Kunjerab Pass. There, they find none of the supports that were generally necessary for them to carry out their deadly business in Pakistan like Shiias shot dead in Chilas and Babusar Pass or like foreign climbers also shot dead at Nanga Parbat base camp.
In addition to the harm these abuses have caused to the region’s attendance, on which the fate of many families depends, the alternative point of view of Gilgit-Baltistan can, partly, be explained by the different religions. Taliban are Sunni. The inhabitants of the high valleys and mountains of the North are predominantly Ismaili. This is a particularly peaceful branch of Shiism whose leader is the Aga Khan, living in France.
In the region, literacy is higher than that of some Western countries (at least for the youth) and, of course, that of the rest of Pakistan. Women are less visible than in Europe, but they have an important place in society. Their schooling, in mixed classes, is a reality and a widely shared priority. In this, one sees a radically different evolution from what one can learn from Balochistan or Swat Valley, where, under the pressure of fundamentalists, tens of thousands of girls were excluded from schools.
Despite the difficult living conditions, a pretext sometimes used to justify abuses, Islamist radicalism has no place in the northern territories. It is another quiet and discreet Pakistan, whose political and religious vision is taking a distancing path from the one usually understood from abroad as showed on foreign medias.
Conclusion: towards a new Central Asian order?
The Chinese ramping constrains potentially emerging in Pakistan may, tomorrow, affect other countries, partners in the China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan but even less favoured Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (where Chinese army is already present) will find there a welcome benefit, although potentially restrictive in terms of sovereignty.
Afghanistan would not be excluded. Beijing recently started a project to connect itself to Faizabad (capital of Badakhshan) via fibber optics, through the Wakhan corridor. It is reasonable to consider that China will promote stability against actions it deems contrary, including on the part of its Pakistani friend. Gohar Abbas, from Islamabad AFP, reported, in octobre 2018, that Chinese army is already in Afghan Pamir.
As seen above, the para-colonial Chinese enterprises are dynamic while emphasing economic gains, value through growing trade, and financial interdependences. In front of this long term project, the neo-imperialism, expressed by Vladimir Putin focuses on an immediate geopolitical leadership. He tries to impose it by coercion under the term of “Eurasian Economic Union” with weaker if no benefits and much more limited economical means. It will be to rank among the “Dead projects” as written in October 2017, by Mathieu Boulègue on the Diploweb: The Sino-Russian “honeymoon” facing the (incompatible) interaction between the Eurasian Economic Union and the “Belt & Road Initiative” (in French). The old “Great Game” continues with, however, different players. The cards are being redistributed. Great Britain is off. Kremlin is gradually pushed towards the exit. At best, it will be able to try to maintain the role of “trouble feast”, if it can afford to openly oppose Beijing whose support or neutrality is mandatory to keep a worldwide diplomatic level, while Moscow increasingly confronts the Western countries and is growingly considered as a rogue state by them.
Bernard Grua, Nantes, Bretagne, France, January 5, 2020