The signing of civil nuclear deal between the United States and India in 2008 ushered in a period of intimate relations between the two countries. The period witnessed consolidation of Indo-US ties in the political, economic as well as strategic realms. This had far-reaching implications for the strategic and political landscape of South Asia in two ways. First, in a move to check the burgeoning clout of China through building the capacity of India, the US moved away from Pakistan—which was previously deemed its principal non-NATO ally in the post-9/11 period. Second, as a direct corollary of receiving political and strategic support from the US, the Indian government was emboldened with regard to its power ambitions in the region as well as foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. It was against this backdrop that Pakistan and China were spurred to augment their relationship in a bid to balance or counter the development of a perilous nexus between the US and India in the region.

The new phase of Sino-Pakistan partnership culminated with the signing of the agreement to build the all-important China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015. The CPEC initiative primarily entails development of mega infrastructure, transport, industrial, and energy projects inside Pakistan through Chinese investments totally close to $60 billion over the next 10 to 15 years. It also promises deeper cooperation between the neighbouring countries—which are termed all-weather friends—in the socio-cultural domain. Nevertheless, the main objective of the project was to furnish China with access to the Indian Ocean through a network of links between Chinese city of Kashgar with the strategically momentous Gwadar Port. This would fundamentally mitigate Chinese reliance on the Strait of Malacca. While the project offers strategic dividends to China, it also betokens widespread economic development in Pakistan by virtue of augmented road and railway links, power generation, industrial growth, employment generation, and so on and so forth. These improvements are expected to induce the process of modernisation and, by the same token, bring about greater political stability in Pakistan—which has been marred by terrorism emanating from within as well as outside its territory during the last decade.

Pakistan can get further mileage from the CPEC project if it is effectively implemented and, more importantly, integrated into a prudent policy framework at the national level. To start with, the project can be utilised to reduce the country’s reliance on Washington—particularly in the strategic and economic domains. As alluded to in the earlier part of this article, this is important in the context of the developing strategic alliance between the US and India in order to counter China as well as the increasingly converging interests of Washington and India in Afghanistan. The US has already de-hyphenated its relations with the two main South Asian powers—Pakistan and India. This has intrinsically allowed the US to view India as its strategic partner in the region while relegating Pakistan’s role to the war against terrorism, especially with regard to Afghanistan. The recent shift in US foreign policy towards Pakistan in order to exert increased pressure on Islamabad to reinvigorate its anti-terrorism regime amidst ebbing military and economic support from the superpower ought to be seen in this context. It is important to mention here that the relationship between US and Pakistan has historically been highly fragile in nature; this further lends credence to the proposition that CPEC should be employed as an opportunity to not only consolidate a long-term relationship with China but also delicately lessen dependence on Washington.

The CPEC initiative is also important for Pakistan in surmounting India’s hegemonic designs in the region. New Delhi has been pursuing a coherent policy in this direction in the recent period through a variety of strategies. First, the country has massively invested in military technology and projected itself as a major power besides developing defence agreements with countries like the US, Russia and Israel. Second, it has utilised its sustained growth in conjunction with alliance with powerful global players—particularly the US—to maintain preponderance in South Asia and browbeat smaller players in the region into accepting its hegemony. Second, the country has expeditiously developed political and economic relations with Afghanistan and Iran in order to, inter alia, undermine Pakistan’s regional influence. In this context, Pakistan’s policy should be directed to achieve the following goals through implementation of CPEC:

- Utilise strengthening of relations with China to undermine Indian propaganda against Pakistan at the international level

- Pump bulk of Chinese capital into the industrial sector and power generation in order to ensure that Pakistan comes on a par with regional powers in the economic realm

- Utilise consolidated relations with China to spur growth in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence

- Project Pakistan as a major power in the making on the international front

- Explore further avenues of long-term cooperation with China—particularly in the politico-strategic and economic domains

- Attract further foreign investment in the country through institutionalised incentives

While Pakistan’s policy must be aimed at ensuring that CPEC is utilised as a political and strategic tool with respect to external realities, it is important to understand that this might remain a mere dream sans the project creating greater internal stability and cohesion in the country.

The project should thus not induce or become a source of political or inter-regional discord within Pakistan. In this context, it is paramount that the economic dividends of the CPEC project are equally distributed in a manner that it contributes towards mitigating any pre-existing centre-periphery axis in the country.

It is thus recommended that not only the infrastructure projects but also industrial zones as part of the project are geographically dispersed and established in the developed and underdeveloped regions of the country in tandem. Furthermore, CPEC should be made part of a framework for long-term development devised through political consensus at the national level.

This would ensure that the project contributes towards eliminating—instead of amplifying— existing political fault lines within the country that might potentially be exploited by foreign actors.

-The writer is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies