The Karakoram Highway was built to link Pakistan and China through trade. But now the route is becoming a main artery of terrorism as well.
Terror threatens development of western China
Once billed as symbol of Sino-Pakistan friendship, the Karakoram Highway, which connects China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region with nothern Pakistan, is now developing into a source of trouble between the two countries.
The highway, a vital trade route, is turning into a terror link for Islamist movements in western China. Beijing has accused terrorist training camps based in Pakistan of sponsoring attacks and supporting separatist Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The construction of the 800-mile highway was the outcome of a trade deal signed between Pakistan and China in1963. Its construction took 12 years (1966 to 1978) and was of immense geopolitical, economic and military importance. The route passes through the rough terrain of Pakistan's northern areas, known as Gilgit-Baltistan, connecting it to the ancient silk route, which runs approximately 1,300 km from Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang province, to Havelian in the Abbottabad district of Pakistan. The silk route links China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.
China's policy of developing Xinjiang offered enormous opportunities for economic collaboration between the two regions. But the policy may also result in the increased movement of Islamist extremists toward western China, a development that could be ominous for the country's internal security and also to the proposed greater development plan for Xinjiang.
Islamist extremists are presently operating in Xinjiang under different names: East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Turkestan Islamic Movement (TIM) and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). ETIM is a separatist group fighting for the independence of East Turkistan and conversion of all Chinese to Islam. It has claimed responsibility for over 200 terrorist attacks between 1990 and 2001 that left at least 162 people dead and 440 injured. In July 2008, TIP claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in several Chinese cities, including deadly bus explosions in Shanghai and Kunming.
Geographically, Xinjiang can serve as a new Eurasia bridge and trade corridor between Asia and Europe. China has declared Kashgar in Xinjiang to be a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in a move that coincides with its plan to build new railway lines connecting Pakistan and China for access to Central Asia. In December 2010, Pakistan and China launched an Islamabad-Kashgar air cargo service, which is expected to promote trade in the region.
The Chinese have already built a railroad to Tibet and its extension to Pakistan will lead to a faster movement of cargo between the two countries. China has also prepared a feasibility report on laying a railway track in the difficult terrain of Karakoram linking both states through Khunjarab Pass.
But if the Karakoram highway is already facilitating the flow of arms, Islamist militants and extremist ideology from Pakistan, China fears that more connectivity through road and rail projects could make the situation worse.
Terrorist activities could grow at tremendous levels in Xinjiang after the completion of the road and rail projects currently in the planning stage. Kashgar - an important transit point on the ancient Silk Route and a gateway between China and Pakistan - may also develop into "special extremist zone" for Uighur extremists receiving arms from the Islamists based in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
China's plans for gaining access to resource-rich Central Asia could only be realised through an economically developed, politically stable and militarily secure Gilgit-Baltistan. Geographically, Gilgit-Baltistan borders the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan to the northwest, China's Xinjiang to the northeast, the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast, the Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir to the southeast and the strife-torn Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan to the west.
As a part of its counterterrorism strategy, China has increased its stake in Gilgit Baltistan. China is expanding the existing Karakoram highway. In 2010, it agreed to build the 165km Jaglot-Skardu road and the 135km Thakot-Sazin road in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Chinese are also involved in building major hydropower projects there.
The ETIM, which is said to be allied with the Taliban, has been a source of diplomatic confrontation between Beijing and Islamabad. Founded by Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking ethnic majority in Xinjiang, the ETIM has emerged as a threat not only to China but to the central Asian region as a whole. The Kashgar local government blamed ETIM terrorists trained in Pakistan for an outbreak of deadly violence in July last year that killed 19 people. Chinese authorities said the attackers had been trained in Pakistan before entering Xinjiang.
China has repeatedly called on Islamabad to take effective action against the extremists and their sanctuaries in the country's lawless border areas. China even offered to set up military bases in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas.
China is likely to be more vulnerable to terrorism if regional separatist movements gain ground in Xinjiang. Whereas its policy of developing its western region will open Xinjiang to foreign investment, tourism and trade, it may allow terrorists to strengthen their bases and reorganise their activities. The revival and development a Pakistan-China trade corridor depends on security measures that can keep terrorism at bay.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider (www.syedfazlehaider.com), a development analyst in Pakistan, has written many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan