Written by Alessandro Arduino.

The Beijing Belt and Road Summit witnessed the participation of 29 heads of state to discuss the evolution of the Chinese initiative. After Beijing’s soft power exercises, several additional agreements to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been inked. Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif headed a high-ranking delegation where Pakistan and China signed bilateral agreements to increase the already stunning budget of US$56 billion devoted to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC aims to connect China’s northwest Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to Pakistan’s Gwadar’s deep-water port in the southwest via an interconnected network of roads, railway and energy projects. While finance and infrastructure connectivity dominated the summit narrative, security issues are still segregated in the fringe of the BRI win-win narrative. In order to achieve President Xi vision for a “big family of harmonious co-existence” a wide range of security cooperation mechanisms need to be established and activated.

Though the CPEC message is about an “all-weather friendship,” cooperation is not based on common cultural or ideological values, but instead upon pragmatic economic and security necessities.

Pakistan views CPEC as the primary mechanism to boost to its own dwindling economy by expanding communication infrastructures and commercial port capacity.  While the development of new commercial routes and macro projects with China are going to benefit the Pakistani economy overall, local job opportunities in needier areas such as Balochistan are yet to materialise.

Separatist insurgency and extremist threats are a present internal menace to Pakistan’s stability, while terrorism from Afghanistan’s porous borders cast a dark shadow over the Sino-Pakistani friendship. Beside the internal frictions over CPEC, external suspicion and conflicting dynamics are on the rise.  Indian and Saudi distrust over perceived Sino-Pakistani hidden agendas cast doubts on the exclusive economic nature of the BRI. The new energy trade routes that will link the Persian Gulf directly to China are set to generate new power dynamics. From the Indian standpoint, increasing capabilities at Gwadar are a threat to Mumbai’s support to develop the Iranian port of Chambhar. From the Saudi point of view, the efficiency of the new trade route will increase Iran’s growing regional power ambitions. The failed Chinese attempt to develop Hambantota port in Sri Lanka reflects how political turmoil and local grievances could hamper long-term development projects.

In the past decade, political violence has further constrained the development of Gwadar, including attacks in 2016 on Chinese workers in Balochistan, clashing with the Chinese BRI propaganda of seeking win-win cooperation. In May 2017, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 25 bystanders in Balochistan during a failed assassination attempt; a few days later armed attackers presumably from the Baloch Liberation Army decimated local construction workers along a road to Gwadar. On May 24, two Chinese teachers in the remote, but presumed safe, area of Quetta were abducted and reportedly killed.  Also, according to James Dorsey, ethnic and sectarian proxy wars could embroil rivals China and India in the Saudi-Iranian dispute.

Though the CPEC message is about an “all-weather friendship,” cooperation is not based on common cultural or ideological values, but instead upon pragmatic economic and security necessities.  Considering the risks posed to the BRI in certain unstable regions of Pakistan, as well as the potential scope of the BRI’s economic and security footprint in the area, reflections on medium- and long-term investments is urgent.

Pakistani security challenges could be mitigated through several components, starting with the financial vehicles that will support the macro projects. The Chinese foreign currency reserve is still capable of sustaining the initial thrust of the BRI, but further financial support must be found in the market via debt funding and in equity — Beijing is not going to pay all the bills indefinitely.  International stakeholders already present in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) could provide new financial vehicles, but investment sustainability is related to predicted value creation. Unfortunately, incidents, delays, terrorist attacks and/or local political unwillingness to cooperate with the Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) tend to discourage private participation. Like financial complications, security measures also need to be viewed from the long-term. Beijing is in a hurry to deploy basic security measures and begin construction, whereas competing Pakistani ministries are still in the process of deciding respective leadership roles and interests. While Beijing attaches great importance to cooperation with neighbouring states, the “all-weather friendship” with Islamabad is not going to guarantee the same relationships at the provincial level.

One sign of impatience from the Chinese side is the rush to include the Pakistani military in the security design of the overall investment proposal. Several problems arise from the fact that the army is also interested in the leadership of the overall corridor projects. Throughout Pakistan’s history, civilian-military relations have always been fragile and in constant flux. The Pakistani government is also facing pressure from different ministries competing for oversight over Chinese projects. At the same time the Pakistani army bid is not totally unreasonable, as the army already possesses in-house capabilities to provide engineers and infrastructural project expertise.

In terms of Chinese private security involvement, several Chinese private security contractors (PSCs) that support SOEs in international ‘hot areas’ are already targeting Pakistan as the next most profitable market. Local and international PSCs in Pakistan offer a wide array of domestic solutions from Islamabad to Karachi.  Several international companies, such as G4S, and local ones, including Haris Enterprise Security, Phoenix Security, Zims Security, Security Group 2000 and Wackenhut Pakistan Pvt Ltd, are spread all over the country. A first timid step taken by Chinese PSCs in the area is cooperation with local PSCs, with Chinese personnel acting as security managers inside Chinese workers’ compounds, while the Pakistani army and foreign PSCs work on the outside. The severity of the threats to Chinese nationals, and the complexity of the risk map across Pakistan will be a difficult benchmark for all the Chinese private companies tasked with guaranteeing the security of BRI projects.

The increase in violence has accelerated the deployment of the promised 15,000 Pakistani soldiers to protect Chinese investments, of which 9,000 are being deployed in Balochistan. At the same time the Pakistan Navy is deploying a dedicated task force to protect the port activities in Gwadar and Karachi.

During the BRI Summit, Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the Chinese Central Bank announced that China is seeking financial cooperation with other nations along the Belt & Road. But even as China seeks additional fiscal support for BRI projects, the time has come to rigorously pursue the creation of a wider network of security cooperation.

Dr Alessandro Arduino is Visiting Senior Fellow, China Programme at the Institute for Strategic and Defence Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Co-Director of the Security & Crisis Management Program Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences–UNITO. Image credit: CC by Kevin Hale/Flickr.

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