THE BLOG

The New Silk Road: For the Riches or the Wretches?

06/30/2015 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. -Sun Tzu

When China announced its $46 billion investment to develop a "silk road" through Pakistan, the world looked east with a combination of incredulity and alarm to China's economic prowess. China's investment package is the largest Pakistan has received since 2008--much larger than any largess the US has provided in the past decade.

Through the development of vast transportation and infrastructure networks, the China-Pakistan economic corridor is expected to enhance China's access to oil in the Middle East, and open new trade routes to Europe and Africa, bypassing the Indian Ocean sea lanes. The corridor is also expected to bring fiber optic cables from China to the Middle East, increasing China's grip on the global internet traffic. Further, the investment is projected to reduce Pakistan's chronic deficit in electricity, increase telecommunication lines, and open new trade routes. Not unlike the fabled caravans on the Silk Road, this could bring new riches to China and Pakistan.

However, talk of economic development has occluded any discussion of the regional strategic interests that are driving this deal for both Pakistan and China. These strategic interests have both domestic and international dimensions.

Nowhere is the domestic strategic interest of Pakistan more manifest than in the port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea where the Silk Road on the land joins its maritime counterpart. Gwadar belongs to the restive province of Baluchistan, where a low-level insurgency against the Pakistani central authority has been simmering for decades. Syed Essa Noori is an ethnic Baloch and an elected member of the National Assembly of Pakistan from the district of Gwadar. He sees this megaproject as "a conspiracy against the people of Gwadar" that will bring in settlers from Punjab, and turn the ethnic Baloch into minorities in their own province for the purpose of strengthening grip of the central authority through ethnic control.

At the other end of the proposed Silk Road lies Kashgar in the Xinjiang province of China, where China has been strongly asserting power over its ethnic minorities. In Xinjiang, despite a decades old program of settling ethnic Han Chinese in the province, Uighurs still hold a slight majority with Kashgar at the epicenter of the Uighur population. As a result of the economic corridor, new construction in Kashgar will bring more ethnic Hans from other parts of China, potentially engineering a demographic reversal in Kashgar. There is precedence from similar actions in Urumqi, in the heartland of Xinjiang where Hans are now in the majority. Such actions provide the Chinese central authority the power it covets through ethnic control. It is likely that the people of Kashgar feel similarly to the people of Gwadar - though it is impossible to know for sure without direct media access.

On the international front, China's moves are watched more closely. China's supply of oil depends on an elaborate route that begins in the Middle East, borders the coast of India, and crosses the Strait of Malacca, and ends in coastal port cities in Eastern China. With rising tensions between India and China, Indian interception at any point along that route can have disastrous consequences for Chinese trade and energy import, and by extension, China's economic engine. Neither country has engaged in nuclear talks. In recent years, India has fortified the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Strait of Malacca, leaving the potential for miscalculation and escalation high. To attain energy security, the Gwadar port in Pakistan will allow China to circumvent the Indian Ocean Sea Lanes for direct supply of oil.

Development of the Gwadar port eases the transportation of oil from the Middle East in to China through the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. While the partnership is mutually beneficial to China and Pakistan, it puts India in stalemate by tightening the noose around it with a string of pearls - a series of sea ports that China has built with a military strategy in mind.

Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka--what do all of these places have in common? Complex history with India, and strong ties with China. In fact, so strong that China has established ports in these areas for trade. This strategy of "stringing the pearls" from port to port allows China to strategically operate from different locations across Asia and respond to imminent threats. Further, by forming alliances with India's formidable neighbors, China keeps India bogged down in its neighborhood, thwarting India from mounting effective challenge to China's hegemony in South China Sea and elsewhere. As the string is being stretched wider and wider, the threat of a rip and subsequent spillover is real, and this time, the pearls may not be contained.

However, China is not the only front India has to wage defense against--the neighbor next door is also knocking to be let in. The newest pearl, Gwadar, serves as a gentle Chinese reminder to the Indians to pick up their marbles and go home in the competitive international arena for dominance and polarity.

Throughout India and Pakistan's tumultuous relationship, India has launched numerous naval offenses on naval ports in Pakistan. Historically, in the wake of fallout between India and Pakistan, India has shut down the Karachi port. Now with Gwadar located a mere 120 km from the Iranian border, India's ability to initiate attacks or invoke self-defense is severely limited. Encirclement, with pressure from China in the north, Pakistan in the west, Sri Lanka in the south, and Myanmar and Bangladesh in the east, leaves India a step behind China in the awkward waltz they have been dancing to attract allies and gain security. Moreover, with intelligence sharing between China and Pakistan, the threat of encirclement is heightened.

Traditional international relations theory posits that "if you're not on the table, you're on the menu." India can only hope that it can stay out of the menu.