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China-Pak Shadow Over Silk Road Revival

Updated: October 13, 2011 10:38 am

A revival of Asia’s old Silk Road with Afghanistan as its hub is the new buzzword in diplomatic circles. With an eye to stabilising Afghanistan and coaxing Pakistan into seeing the benefits of such a trade route not only to central Asia but also to link up with India, the US is actively behind the drive for the ‘New Silk Route’. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who promoted the idea while speaking in Chennai a few months ago has followed it up with a recent meeting in New York, with Bonn as the next venue for a further push.

The romance of the old Silk Road has cast an hypnotic spell on generations of adventurers, traders, travellers, historians and people in general the world over. The road, part of which probably began in the 4th century BC with Alexander’s route march from Greece to India’s Punjab and later to other parts of Asia, has acquired its modern significance for military reasons and exploitation of natural resources like oil, gas and mineral deposits spread over a vast expanse covering several countries.

India’s interest in any new openings or developments is evidently both strategic and commercial. Pakistan may have agreed to allow the passage of Afghan exports through its territory to India under the SAARC auspices but has so far not followed it up with implementation. Allowing Indian goods to pass to Afghanistan through Pakistan remains out of the question, even consideration, for now. On the other hand, there is a great concern in India over Pak-China talk of further strengthening the Karakoram Highway which runs from Xinjiang or East Turkestan to Pakistan via Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan has even been making noises about a possible rail link along a semi-parallel route. While Pakistan has reservations about India on Silk Road revival, China is wary of Uyghur (Islamic) unrest along the Xinjiang route.

Commenting on the geo-political importance of the Chinese-built Karakoram Highway, a London-based China expert believes China is not likely to spend more money on a parallel new rail link to further strengthen Sino-Pak ties. Developing sea routes is much more cost effective, says Professor Athar Hussain from the Asia Research Centre of the London School of Economics.

He even suggests that the Chinese support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue has undergone a sort of subtle change in recent years. From full support for the Pakistani demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir, the Chinese have begun to view Kashmir as a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India. Perhaps China would not like to put its burgeoning trade with India at risk.

Professor Hussain, who hails from Pakistan, was speaking at an LSE seminar on Gilgit-Baltistan in the wider context of the old Silk Road. He wondered whether the route’s revival could bring back its former significance in the modern context of China’s desire for westward expansion. He agreed that trade was a vital issue and drew comparisons between China/Taiwan and Indo-Pak relationships, showing how China and Taiwan had forged close economic ties despite a fraught political situation—ties made difficult for India and Pakistan to forge due to the Kashmir question. He said that the water resources of the region would become more significant strategically in days to come. On Kashmir more flexibility was needed on the Pakistani side, he suggested, though the internal situation in the country would make this problematic. He said that the Pakistan military, which held a very powerful geopolitical card, held real power in the country.

The Kashmir issue would take a long time to get resolved and it was unlikely that the relations between the two countries would change radically soon. However, he was realistically optimistic about a limited agreement between the two nations. India and Pakistan had fought several wars, but neither of them had breached international boundaries—even during war. Conflict remained, but there was recognition too (of reality), despite the extreme positions.

China and Pakistan have had good relations for a long time but some shadows had developed in this relationship because of Taliban, Uyghur and other factors. Yet they were very minor differences to affect a long-term relationship. At the same time, China did not consider Pakistan an equal. “China is a superpower and it can conduct its foreign policy independently.”

On the Indian side, there is a misconception that China would always support Pakistan. However, the truth is that China supports Pakistan up to a certain point and is not likely to fight wars for Pakistan. China has its own interests, says Professor Hussain.

By Subhash Chopra from London

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