SCS for South China Sea Aren’t the Scariest Letters in the World … They’re CPEC

CPEC, as in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is a PRC economic/energy/security gambit of dubious value but definite danger.

I, for one, am a skeptic concerning the economic and strategic value of the CPEC, a project to build robust links between Gwadar port in Pakistan to Kashgar in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, maybe with pipelines and rail lines paralleling the Karakorum Highway, with a stated price tag of $46 billion.

It might yield modest benefits not in proportion to its massive costs.

Naturally, Pakistan is all-in. The country is beset with social, political, economic, and security problems and there aren’t many entities ready to bet $46 billion on its future. The Nawaz Sharif government hopes the CPEC will be a game-changer, providing a shot of economic growth that will switch the discourse from the never-ending nightmare of the US war on terror in Afghanistan and western Pakistan to regional growth, prosperity, and profit.

The PRC might hope that the region might regards a massive PRC investment in Pakistan as a good thing in the stabilization and prosperity line, but such feelings are not unanimous.

Regional strategic anxieties, opportunism, and adventurism are layered over the CPEC.

Baloch tinderbox

Gwadar is located in Pakistan’s province of Balochistan. Balochistan is home to a vigorous independence movement and an exceedingly brutal and apparently none too effectual counterinsurgency operation by Pakistan security forces. If Pakistan has its way, the CPEC would provide the economic and demographic juice to either integrate or subjugate Balochistan, depending on your preferred terms of reference for the impoverished and underpopulated region, in a manner familiar to students of similar PRC tactics in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Unsurprisingly, the Baloch liberations movements have declared their undying opposition to the CPEC and have promised to attack its infrastructure and the people who work on it; equally unsurprisingly the Pakistan central government has apparently has taken the Baloch declaration as a rallying cry to intensify its bloody suppression of the independence movement that threatens the CPEC payday.

The Baloch independence movement is not the only actor that wants to see the CPEC fail, and is in a position to do something about it.

Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service is having a well-publicized case of hysterics concerning alleged connivance both by India’s notorious Research and Intelligence Wing (RAW), and by India’s allies in the Afghan intelligence services to encourage and assist Baloch violence against the CPEC.

I’m inclined to give these reports credence, given the suspicion and hostility of India’s mil/sec practitioners to all things PRC/Pakistani.

India’s Prime Minister Modi apparently prefers to preserve India’s de facto non-aligned status and keep his PRC trade/security options open despite the over-the-top blandishments of the United States.

However, that position becomes more difficult as military and security personnel suspicious of the PRC point out that, with CPEC, the PRC is messing around in India’s South Asian back yard.

India’s China hawks have sounded the alarm bell that Pakistan, emboldened and enriched by the PRC alliance, might use the port at Gwadar to interdict Indian energy shipments from the Middle East even as the PRC might neutralize the Malacca chokepoint by pumping oil and gas over the Himalayas.

I, for one, do not take the tanker war strategizing very seriously (but never say never! As we say in pundit-land). However, I would say there appears to be a strong interest inside India in at the very least denying Pakistan and PRC an easy geopolitical win through the CPEC that might make life more difficult for India.

A major complicating factor is that, up near the PRC end, the CPEC runs through what India calls Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or PoK which, as the name implies, is territory India regards as wrongfully seized by Pakistan.

Reconciling India to the CPEC, therefore, must rank as one of the more sensitive and difficult issues in world diplomacy.

It’s not a done deal. Recently India’s Minister for External Affairs stated:

“There are problems with the project (CPEC). It is through a territory which belongs to India.”

Certainly, there are political and economic interests in India that welcome economic integration with China and don’t want to see it blocked by nationalistic posturing over some windswept and underpopulated Himalayan real estate.

But there are also plenty of people in India for whom nationalistic posturing is political and institutional oxygen, and mil/sec types who focus on the strategic threat to India from the CPEC.

The previous National Security Adviser for the Indian government (and previously head of the Intelligence Bureau, the spook service that handles the domestic angle), M.K. Narayanan, declared:

“CPEC must be viewed as a major threat. Both countries (China and Pakistan) have a common intention to undermine India’s position in the region.”

This framing of the PRC threat embodied by the CPEC is significant because it justifies a fresh look at the existing calculus of deterrence and accommodation in India-PRC affairs.

India tilting against China

The old equation was always, India doesn’t mess with Tibet, PRC doesn’t mess with Kashmir. But if CPEC is a fresh, destabilizing Chinese threat delivered into Pakistan via PoK, the mil/sec response is to raise a counter-threat, perhaps by raising the specter of India abandoning its traditional policy of discouraging “anti-China activities.”


The four day conference of a host of anti-Beijing international Chinese action groups in Dharamsala from April 28 marks a monumental moment in the history of India-China relations. Contrary to India’s established policy of playing the underdog, New Delhi appears to be shifting to the combat mode in its dealings with Beijing.

This is first time such a big conglomeration of leaders representing various anti-Beijing Chinese action groups belonging to Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and, of course, pro-democracy Chinese dissidents and leaders of oppressed religious minorities of China like Christians, Muslims and Falun Gong will be meeting together in India.

They are scheduled to exchange notes and probe common strategies on democratizing China and getting justice for China’s colonized nationalities like Tibet, East Turkistan and Inner Mongolia. Invited leaders include Yang Jianli, the star of 1989 Tiananmen Square democratic uprising of Chinese students.

A leading NGO, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), will host the conference jointly with US-based group Citizen Power for China (CFC) and Initiatives For China (IFC), also US-based.

The delegates will be addressed by Tibet’s exiled ruler and supreme spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. This is first time that India is allowing almost all such groups to sit together, each of whom has its own compelling reasons, and capacity, to hit their Communist tormentors’ regime at its soft belly from within.

As can be seen from the event’s roster, jabbing the CCP’s soft underbelly via India is no longer just a matter for Tibetans.

Uyghur wild card

Uyghur activism is a bigger wild card for PRC than Tibet, thanks to the demographic distribution of Uyghurs across the border in Kazakhstan, the burbling problem of recruitment of Uyghurs into ISIS and other Islamist military outfits, and the fact that one of those outfits, the Pakistan Taliban, bears a deep and abiding hatred for the PRC for its role in the storming of the Lal Masjid Mosque in 2007.

It seems that India, despite Prime Minister Modhi’s shortcomings in Muslim outreach exemplified by the Gujarat pogrom, thinks the Uyghur wild card might be worth playing, especially given the fact that the CPEC terminates in the Uyghur heartland of Kashgar.

The geostrategic value of the Uyghur invite received an endorsement from another ex-National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon:

“I see it as necessary, possibly useful, but also setting us on a new course with China …We must play with the levers and cards we are dealt by fate and the Chinese.”

PRC objections provoked the cancellation of the visa of Dolkun Ilsa, chairman of the World Uyghur Congress’s executive committee. However, several other Uyghur activists attended, and India is seen as a potential resource in the struggle.

The PRC was also undoubtedly unhappy to learn that the conference was also attended by Katrina Lantos Swett, daughter of the late human rights champion Senator Tom Lantos and, in her own right one of the nine commissioners of the entirely US federal government funded bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

US strategic interest in undercutting the PRC and Pakistan by exploiting their ethnic vulnerabilities long predates the announcement of the CPEC. This interest is probably growing stronger as US resentment against Pakistan — exemplified by the recent Congressional resolution to deny Pakistan funding for its purchase of F-16 fighters — plays out and the Pentagon’s over-the-top wooing of India as an anti-PRC security partner continues.

So there you have it.

On one hand you have the PRC and Pakistan trying to sell a win-win story with the CPEC, despite its rather boondoggley economic elements.

On the other hand, you have diehard separatists in Balochistan, PoK, Xinjiang, and Tibet eager to make it fail. You’ve got a pool of resentful Islamist extremists near the route of the CPEC in Pakistan, Xinjiang, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. You have China hawks in India and the United States who would be happy to see the CPEC turn into quagmire for the PRC. And you have leaders in both countries who are cautiously willing to give the China hawks some rein, in order to create some much needed leverage against the PRC.

And to deal with these myriad challenges, the PRC has to lean on Pakistan. As the dismal precedent of the US experience illustrates, bad things happen when a great power relies on the Pakistan military/ISI for restrained, intelligent, responsible, and effective execution of a complicated security and political program.

As I see it, the CPEC has only a narrow, winding path to success. If it works, it will be a miracle of disciplined diplomacy overcoming massive institutional, popular, and external resistance.

There are a thousand roads to failure, failure that might come by design, or by accident as uncontrollable forces are released.

Don’t make the mistake of regarding the CPEC as another South China Sea, an opportunity for a budget-fattening play date for the US and PRC and other regional militaries, one carefully constrained and choreographed between several high-capacity partners within a relatively stable political and security matrix…

… think of Pakistan as another Syria, a nation with its national polity sliding into dysfunction and insurrection, immersed in a hostile environment of strategic enemies and failing states, a potential regional black hole of violence and chaos …

… except it has 180 million people, has nuclear weapons, and shares borders with two anxious world powers.

As I said at the outset, the biggest global threat doesn’t come from “SCS”…

This piece first appeared at Asia Times.

Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.