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Beijing's 'Marshall Plan' for Pakistan

April 24, 2015

China is investing billions in Pakistan. As well as benefiting Beijing, that's also a great opportunity for crisis-hit Pakistan, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Chinesischer Präsident Xi Jinping in Pakistan
Image: picture-alliance/Zumapress/Pang Xinglei

I once drove along the Karakoram Highway, and I'll never forget the difference between the Pakistani and the Chinese side of the border.

On the Chinese side we drove up the 4,700-meter-high Khunjerab Pass from Kashgar - which was like driving through the Black Forest to Lake Titisee. At the border station the road ended abruptly, cut off like a piece of cake, before continuing a good meter lower down. The comfortable, tarred road suddenly became a dangerous, rough, rubble-strewn one. Since then it's been closed, after a landslide in 2010, and is still being repaired - with Chinese help. It's due to reopen in the fall.

Anyone who's seen that knows what investments to the tune of $46 billion (43 billion euros) mean for Pakistan. It's far more than the Americans have invested since 2001. It's like winning the lottery. The money is earmarked for the construction of waterworks, nuclear and wind power stations. By the beginning of next decade, the country's electrical power supply is set to double. Roads, tracks, pipelines and industrial parks are to be built along a 3,000-kilometer-long corridor. It runs from Gwadar, a port the Chinese have already finished building on the Arabian Sea near the Iranian border, heads northeast parallel to the Indian border, and ends at the border with China. The corridor is a central part of the "New Silk Road."

The skeptical West

The West is skeptical. It's talking about colonialism, even conquistadors, but this kind of wording distorts the pact. In the 16th century, the conquistadors' goal was not building and creating, but the brutal subordination of the indigenous population. The Spaniards demanded that the local people capitulate unconditionally to the Spanish crown. Anyone who refused was killed. "Colonialism" also doesn't adequately describe China's new initiative in Pakistan: the people who were colonized didn't have the choice to end projects or cooperate with other partners. Pakistan can choose to do so at any time.

China Xi Jinping Rede im pakistanischen Parlament
Xi spoke in the Pakistani parliamentImage: Reuters/Pakistan National Assembly

Even the accusation that China is not adhering to civil and social standards is not true across the board. The largest project in the Beijing package is the 720-megawatt Karot dam that China is building for $1.65 billion. The World Bank is co-financing the project with $125 million. For this, the bank had get a social and environmental sustainability report done on the project. The conclusion, reached at the start of this year, was: "No objections." China's approach in the region is certainly more civilized than that of the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Commodities, not weapons. That, in any case, is how the Pakistanis see it. Last year, the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 78 percent of the population wants closer ties with China, while only 14 percent wants closer relations with the US.

Political interests

So the first question is: why hasn't the West made an effort along these lines long ago? Why is an economy that's only half as big as that of the US and not even half as big as that of the EU taking the initiative?

The answer is obvious: China has a greater political interest in Pakistan than the West. Pakistan is a direct neighbor; a neighbor that has, to date, stood for great insecurity. In addition, Pakistan is a competitor of India, even its enemy. And China is greatly interested in keeping the scope of this competitor as narrow as possible. At the same time, President Xi Jinping is taking care not to overstep the mark. Unlike Barack Obama, who in January became the first US president to attend India's Republic Day military parade in Delhi, Xi declined the Pakistani government's request to attend its parade in March.

The primary importance of Pakistan for Beijing is the fact that the corridor through Pakistan gives China direct access to the Arabian Sea. This enables the transport of goods overland to China. For this, Beijing is prepared to bear great political and financial costs. And it certainly needs to be able to do so, because Pakistan is not a straightforward country. The Pakistani government has been fighting rebels for years in the province of Baluchistan, where the new port is to be built. Twenty Pakistani construction workers were shot there just two weeks ago. The risk factor in this Marshall Plan is not China, but Pakistan.

Political influence from Beijing

Beijing is, of course, trying to exert political influence over Islamabad: its investment has to pay off. It remains to be seen whether this will result in dependency. The events of the past few days in Yemen have demonstrated just how far Beijing's influence goes at present. Despite Chinese attempts to persuade him, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif refused to provide fighter jets, warships and ground troops to support the Saudi-American coalition in Yemen. They were wanted to fight the Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran. Pakistan said it preferred to remain neutral and mediate.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China
Frank Sieren lives in BeijingImage: Frank Sieren

That's China's position. Beijing maintains almost equally good relations with Shia-dominated Iran and with the predominantly Sunni Saudis. For Pakistan, on the other hand, this is new ground. Islamabad has had very close relations with Riyadh since the 1950s, whereas its relations with Iran have tended to be difficult. In an emergency, the Saudis might even have recourse to Pakistani nuclear missiles, which they co-financed. When Nawaz Sharif fell victim to a military coup 16 years ago, after the second of what are now three periods in office, the Saudis took him in. Now the Saudi media are talking about betrayal.

Political differences with the West

It didn't take long, though, for Beijing to explain to the Pakistani government that Islamabad wasn't being called on to wreck its relations with Tehran completely. The two countries share a 900-kilometer border. If Western sanctions were to be imposed on Iran, a gas pipeline between the two countries would become a more likely prospect. Beijing too has an interest in this.

Berlin, incidentally, would not have advised Islamabad to act much differently. The conflicts in Yemen cannot be resolved by violent means, either from within or from without, said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently. A gratifying intersection of interests, then, in our favor. This time. It's highly likely that the Pakistani-Chinese alliance will also come up with political ideas that don't suit us. But insisting that for this reason Pakistan should remain poor and unstable is no solution either.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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