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Why India is wary of others joining China-Pakistan project

Dharvi Vaid New Delhi
August 8, 2022

Despite New Delhi's criticism, both Beijing and Islamabad seem set to push ahead with their CPEC expansion plans and include countries like Afghanistan.

Gwadar port in Baluchistan province, Pakistan
Beijing is developing a deep-water port in Gwadar city as part of the China-Pakistan Economic CorridorImage: Ghani Kakar

China and Pakistan last month invited other countries to join projects related to their mammoth, multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative, drawing a stern rebuke from India, which slammed the move as "illegal" and "unacceptable."

New Delhi has long opposed the infrastructure and connectivity corridor as it passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which New Delhi sees as a part of its territory "illegally occupied" by Islamabad.

"We have seen reports on encouraging a proposed participation of third countries in so-called CPEC projects. Any such actions by any party directly infringe on India's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs, said in a statement.

Despite India's criticism, both Beijing and Islamabad appear to want to push ahead with their CPEC expansion plans. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently expressed his support for the extension of the project to Afghanistan.

Managing the CPEC image?

Analysts in New Delhi see the latest developments as an effort by China and Pakistan to show that the  CPEC has been a success and it is being expanded to create larger regional stability and prosperity.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Center for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation, said that Beijing and Islamabad were trying to create an "image perception" that the initiative is a success story despite a lot of problems plaguing it.

Among the issues, she pointed out, are concerns related to the economic viability of the projects as well as growing worries about security, particularly in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

The CPEC, a $65 billion-plus (€63.75 billion) investment in infrastructure in Pakistan, is part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative to seek road and sea trade routes to connect with the rest of the world.

Since its launch in 2013, China has pumped billions of dollars into transport, energy and infrastructure schemes in the South Asian country.

Beijing and Islamabad view each other as "all-weather" friends and China has been one of Pakistan's major financial backers in recent years.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Pakistan has over $18 billion in outstanding debt to China.

Opposition remains strong

Nevertheless, opposition to CPEC remains strong among sections of Pakistani society.

Islamabad, for instance, has been struggling to rein in separatist militants from Baluchistan, who are targeting Chinese nationals and interests.

Baluchistan is home to a deep-water port in Gwadar city, which Beijing is developing under the initiative.

Baluch separatist groups say they've been fighting for decades for a greater share of the region's mining and mineral resources.

They attack gas plants, infrastructure, security forces and Chinese interests, which they say amount to the occupation of their land and resources in the name of development.

In April, a female suicide bomber killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in the city of Karachi. These incidents show that "there is a lot of pushback, there is a lot of anger and dissatisfaction," Rajagopalan said.

The attacks against Chinese nationals have increased since the fall of the Afghan capital to the Islamist Taliban in August last year.

The Taliban deny Pakistan's accusations that the insurgents use Afghan soil to train the militants and plan the attacks.

Islamabad also blames archrival neighboring India for backing the insurgents, a charge New Delhi denies.

What China and Pakistan hope to gain

Rajagopalan said that by extending CPEC to Afghanistan, Beijing hopes to gain greater influence in the war-devastated country.

"Getting a greater footprint in Afghanistan remains one the biggest goals for China," she noted.

For Pakistan, the expert said, it is just a careful political and strategic calculation.

"With the Taliban in Afghanistan, it's a government that is pro-Pakistan but beyond that I don't think there is going to be any material significance for Pakistan. However, given the social, political and economic crises that Pakistan goes through from time to time, it is in its interest to keep China on its side," Rajagopalan underlined.

China's Afghanistan ambitions

This is not the first time that China and Pakistan have tried to invite other countries to join CPEC, said Sarral Sharma, a PhD scholar at the Special Center for National Security Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"It is nothing new. Pakistan has invited Saudi Arabia and the UAE before," he pointed out.

"In 2019, when the Saudi crown prince visited Pakistan, he said that he would invest $10 billion in oil refineries in Baluchistan, which would be a part of CPEC but nothing worked out. Even the UAE's investment in CPEC, we don't really see that it happened."

CPEC legitimacy and ties with India

Even though past attempts to involve other countries have seemingly failed, Beijing now seems more inclined to bring in other players into the initiative than it was in the past, said Sharma.

In the past, he pointed out, Beijing was "slightly reluctant" when Islamabad proposed third-party investments. "But seeing Pakistan's economic situation and also the debt situation, China is now willing to invite third parties."

Furthermore, any involvement of third parties would bolster the initiative's legitimacy, even though participation would jeopardize their ties with India, the expert stressed.

"India's position is very clear that it's an illegitimate project because it is passing through the occupied territory of India," he said.

"New Delhi has been raising the issue that if third countries invest in any project in the occupied territory, it will actually impact India's bilateral relations with that country. That is the principal position and India will continue to raise it."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru