The Pakistan-China friendship has really been heralded as what is being called “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey, and firmer than steel.” In the past, Pakistan and China have pursued, successfully, a variety of difficult projects that were thought impossible due to the constraints involved yet managed to achieve success. The Karakorum Highway stands as a testament to the fact. Utilizing firm political resolve, revolutionary insight and unyielding fortitude, both nations once again are surmounting the challenges, and transforming the CPEC from dream to reality in a short span of time.

If connectivity is becoming the basis of a new geopolitics, CPEC should be rated most potent symbol of this 21st century version of the Great Game in recent times. A Great Game whose outwards manifestations are multi-lane highways, pipelines and container traffic. The $46 billion CPEC is the flagship project within the even more ambitious Belt-Road programme of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, a transcontinental infrastructure project that would effectively convert the Middle Kingdom into the logistics hub of Eurasia and, potentially, the centre of the global economy.

Security concerns remain the most primary challenge to the CPEC as yet. An arc of militancy stretches from Xinjiang to Gwadar consisting of the groups like East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Daesh (ISIS), Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and militant wings of political parties. Most of these groups may not have an enmity with China itself but rather intend to use attacks on the Chinese interests like CPEC as a means to deal with the Pakistani state. There are also indicators of foreign intelligence agencies engaged in espionage against the CPEC. In fact, reports of the formation of a specific desk to deal with the CPEC at the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) headquarters have been widely circulated.

As an economic enterprise, for CPEC, the greatest challenge comes from the competitors. The most significant is the Iranian port of Chabahar. India intends to invest significantly ($85 million) in the development of Chabahar, which lies a few miles away from Gwadar and is part of its efforts for access to the landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia while bypassing rival Pakistan. The Indian involvement in Chabahar is linked to Pakistan’s refusal to allow India access for transit to and from Afghanistan, so India sees Iran as the next-best option. In recent years India has been particularly active in engaging the Central Asian states for sake of pursuing energy deals.

India also considers the CPEC as a strategic threat to its military and economic interests and pervasive influence in the region. India vehemently objects to CPEC, given the matrix of intense geostrategic competition it gives Pakistan a strategically profitable position along the Arabian Sea. Authentic evidence exists about a special cell within RAW funded solely for acting against the CPEC. One of our very close friends, the UAE, sees Gwadar a challenge to its virtual monopoly over trade in the Gulf and or the Asian Continent. Rather strange since India is assiduously promoting the "Chabahar Port" initiative in Iran close to Gwadar to provide Europe and Central Asia as an alternative, having more of an effect on the UAE than Gwadar.

Under the given circumstances, providing security for the CPEC is a huge challenge that the military has accepted and is in line with what has already been raised — a division-size force called Special Security Division (SSD) that directly reports to the GHQ. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan formally announced the raising of SSD the other day. Affirming Islamabad’s resort to forestall CPEC, the Pakistan government pledged to provide 17,000 troops, including 5,000 trained specifically in counterterrorism. Twenty-two additional wings of Civil Armed Forces, units of the Special Services Group, Rangers containing a serving major general as a head and police deployment as well, to supplement this security division.

The military will obviously have to deploy such a large force given the vast geographical space on which these multiple administrative projects are coming up and which it is committed to defend it. But it’s not guarding the physical space of the economic corridor that concerns the military — given the resources, it does not lack the ability and the capability to perform this task. Protecting the CPEC requires a number of defensive initiatives, primarily to preempt and forestall militant attacks. To do this intelligence work will be very important for the achievement of the mission.

Apart from the dedicated protection forces in the designated areas, the military has considered to establish some parallel designation of intelligence units. The military is to build up human intelligence networks and also deploying reconnaissance as well as armed drones to act not only as its eyes and ears but also as the quickest means of offensive response to a developing threat. Planning and constructing mutually coordinating drone bases to constantly monitor and guard strategically important areas, is likely to limit and mitigate any threat.

To provide protection to the workers along the CPEC, instead of a three-layer security plan that was envisioned earlier, Pakistan and China have agreed on a four-layer security plan. An estimated 32,000 security personnel have been trained to guard over 14,321 Chinese workers engaged in nearly 210 small and mega projects in Pakistan. The current plan of providing security to Chinese nationals also includes over 500 Chinese security personnel for capacity building of the newly-raised SSD as well as local police to better guard the precise routes surrounding the port.

According to the plan, Balochistan will be getting more security, as six wings (5,700 personnel) of the Frontier Corps, 3,000 police officers, and 1,000 Levies personnel would guard all the roads. It is also assumed that the Pakistan Marines and the border security forces would also defend the port and its adjacent roads. More than 3,500 police officers, 900 Rangers, 4,100 private security guards, and 740 Askari Guards would protect several projects linked to the economic corridor in Punjab.

In a joint corroboration with Pakistan Navy, the Pakistan military has taken several notable initiatives to ensure onshore and afloat security of the CPEC and Gwadar Port. Pakistan Navy is also enhancing its Maritime Domain Awareness and engaging in Collaborative Maritime Security which as the name suggests is in association with regional and extra regional navies. The Navy has also created a separate force consisting of Pakistan Marines for the protection of Gwadar Port and Chinese personnel. The name of the force is Task Force 88. Apart from the conventional threats, Pakistan Navy is also preparing its defences regarding any asymmetric threats to Pakistani ports and coast. China is also helping Pakistan in producing plutonium at the Chinese built Kyushu reactor and will also sell 8 submarines worth $5 billion, which will give a quantum jump to Pakistan Navy’s sea defence capability.

Constant surveillance and monitoring of maritime area of interest is being done by Pakistan Navy at all times and for this purpose, the Navy has deployed state-of-the-art radar networks, electro-optic sensors and pickets. This not only helps to fill any gaps that might be left in conventional means of protection but also generate timely and well-coordinated response if any threats are mitigated by non-state actors. Pakistan Navy, to strengthen maritime and coastal security setup has also established Coastal Watch Stations and Joint Maritime Information Coordination Centre (JMICC). This not only helps the navy to gather and compile valuable information, but also enables it to synergize coordinated operations by different security agencies in maritime domain.

The Pakistan-China friendship has really been heralded as what is being called “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey, and firmer than steel.” A combination of Diplomacy, Intelligence networks, Economic measures and Military tools are being improvised to counter foreign designs and secure the Pakistan-China friendship.

(The authors are security analysts based in Islamabad)