x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Pakistan needs a place on the modern day Silk Route

The Urumqi to Gwadar route could eventually change Pakistan's socioeconomic fortunes.

Pakistan and its neighbours have always been at the crossroads of the world. That is because commerce to the Middle East from Central Asia and China has long traveled through the region that is now Pakistan.

These geographic compulsions never change. What was once an ancient silk route of carpets and fabric is now a corridor for far more precious materials, including energy resources and minerals.

The magnitude of these modern day treasures is massive. We now have confirmation, thanks to the US Geological Survey, of the enormous mineral resources in Afghanistan, and we are also aware of the oil and gas riches in the republics of Central Asia.

The world's largest economies have also taken notice. China has been able to construct an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan terminating at Urumqi in Xinjiang province; the US has has supported an oil pipeline from Georgia through Turkey; and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline is moving ahead, if slowly.

In short, these are the ambitions of the modern day Silk Route. Unlike past iterations, however, Pakistan's place on the road to riches remains uncertain.

Consider the case in Urumqi, where China has constructed an oil refinery. A cursory look at the map shows that, from Urumqi to the eastern ports of China, is a distance of well over 3,000 kilometres. From there, access to the Far East and the Americas is easy.

To reach the rest of the world, however, Chinese ships need to cover more than 7,000km via the Strait of Malacca to reach the Gulf of Aden, and over 8,000km to the Arabian Gulf.

The most economically logical alternative is to transport cargo through Iran; since instability in Afghanistan is likely to make it a dangerous route for the foreseeable future, a strong argument could be made that Iranian transport hubs are the next best option. This approach may be unacceptable to the United States and its allies, which are pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear programme. But that does not make Iran any less appealing for those looking to safely move resources through the region.

But there is another, more direct route, which is less politically fraught than Iran. Urumqi to the port of Gwadar, in southwest Pakistan, is under 3,000km by land. From Gwadar, near the mouth of the Arabian Gulf, it is just over 1,600km to the Gulf of Aden.

This route presents obvious problems, which explains why it has so far not been fully developed. Given that large swaths of Afghanistan and Pakistan are unstable and crawling with militants, the transport of critical energy supplies through this part of the world remains tricky.

Despite this, what makes the Urumqi to Gwadar route so attractive is that the US is not likely to raise much of a fuss. This strategic commercial corridor, or SCC as it is known, could eventually change Pakistan's socioeconomic fortunes. For China too, there is significant strategic and economic benefit to this route. And finally, reliance on a transport system charting a course through Pakistan would help Islamabad become an equal partner with Beijing in what has hitherto been an unequal partnership.

The only hitch is the unrest in Balochistan, which is why some unfriendly neighbours are stoking unrest in this already troubled province. Admittedly, our own leadership, totally submissive to the US, also seems oblivious to the significance of a peaceful Balochistan.

While Indian interference is now an accepted fact, it seems also that the Indian leadership is oblivious to the fact that it is cutting off its own nose to spite its face. While the Indian economy continues to grow at an impressive 7 per cent, in the long term, it is energy starved. For instance, India's attempt to obtain oil from Myanmar was pre-empted by China. The cheapest method of transporting energy remains through overland pipelines and, for India to get cheap energy, whether from Central Asia or Iran and the Middle East, it has to come through Pakistan.

In the end, a peaceful Balochistan is in everyone's interests, from New Delhi to Islamabad and beyond.

There is reason to believe that the US may not agree. Washington has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan, and a strategic corridor through Balochistan would not only deprive it of the economic fruits of invading Afghanistan, it would assist China in increasing its economic and strategic influence in the world, something Washington appears to oppose.

The United States' dilemma is this: if it succeeds in bringing peace in Afghanistan, it desperately needs a peaceful Pakistan to travel through. On the other hand, if it fails, and wants to partially deny the fruits of its defeat to China, it can only do so by denying it the strategic commercial corridor through Pakistan.

Islamabad is therefore caught between a US policy which is not sure whether it wants a stable Pakistan or an unstable Pakistan. According to Bob Woodward's recent book, Obama's Wars, even Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, though apparently ignorant of the strategic significance, is reported to have said as much to the US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad.

That's unfortunate. Pakistan needs to assume its rightful place on the modern day Silk Route. Stability in Balochistan may be the best way to achieve this.


Brig Gen Shaukat Qadir is a former Pakistani infantry officer