Karakoram Highway: China’s Treacherous Pakistan Corridor
Image Credit: Adam Hodge

Karakoram Highway: China’s Treacherous Pakistan Corridor

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When a Chinese company took control of Pakistan’s deep-sea Gwadar Port in February, much of the commentary focused on whether or not it heralded a Chinese military vanguard in the region. Though conventional wisdom seemed to be that a militarized Gwadar Port was a fretful prospect, for the moment, Gwadar is just an economic beachhead on China’s “march west”.

But while the port is militarily undeveloped, it is also lacking as a base for trade. As The Diplomat’s James R. Holmes has pointed out, though the port occupies a prime position at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, it harbors other serious geographic disadvantages. Most notably, the neighboring province of Baluchistan is home to an entrenched insurgency and frothing sectarianism, and makes for a perilous place to lay a trade route.

But China has bigger problems in wanting to use Gwadar port as an economic base, problems that ironically lie more than 2,000 kilometers away, high in the cloud-tipped Karakoram mountain range in northern Pakistan. The success of Gwadar as a Chinese trading post hinges on the political and geological stability of the 1,300-kilometer Karakoram Highway (KKH), China’s only overland link to Pakistan. Without the KKH, which cuts an impressive path through rugged, high-altitude terrain, there is no land route to Gwadar. Without a reliable land route to the port, Gwadar’s value decreases dramatically; and the KKH is anything but reliable.

Beijing knows this. On July 5, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and newly re-elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif signed eight memoranda of understanding agreements with an eye toward accelerating economic integration between the countries. Among these was a pact to develop an “economic corridor” from Kashgar, in northwestern China, to Gwadar. It included the establishment of a joint committee to oversee the upgrade and realignment of the KKH, which is desperately in need of improvement

governments-ability-to-hold-on-to-neighboringThe KKH was a largely Pakistani endeavor throughout its initial phases in the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-1970s, however, the Chinese marshaled 10,000 road builders into Pakistan – almost one for every Pakistani worker at the time – to complete the highway. Beijing did so because it hoped to sweeten the relationship between the two countries and augment trade, goals the project has more or less accomplished. The highway has remained sealed in some sections, unsealed in others, with Pakistani and Chinese workers improving the most hazardous bits in piecemeal fashion over the years.

Now, the need for improvement is urgent. The July 5 pact reflects the pressing need for better access via the KKH, calling for Gwadar-Kashgar rail links and a $44 million fiber-optic cable from the Chinese border to Islamabad. China also has its eyes set on pipelines, seeing the Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline as a reliable source of energy. Many of these infrastructure projects are only possible with the expansion and improvement of the current road to the border. And expansion of the KKH is a challenging prospect, even for China’s experienced road builders.

Comments
10
Sahaib
September 14, 2013 at 07:41

That part of Kashmir, India Lost to Chinese in a Militry Defeat 1962.

saifullah
August 14, 2013 at 20:11

KKH is very important for china through KKH china can observe all the movements of India in Kashmir. Even though it will help to reduce their dependence on Malacca straits and find an alternative however, due to cold weather and snow this highway cannot be used more than three months in a year. Another problem is after attacking by the U.S on Afghanistan all the terrorist moved toward Pakistan particularly they settled in Baluchistan and FATA I mean Pakistan tribal areas from where china would like to build the highway.

phong
August 11, 2013 at 10:36

In International Politics and Strategy, nations do not have friends or enemies, only interest. Pakistan needs China more than China needs Pakistan. Aid is only half the story, it does not come for free. China will gather smaller nations to her that have a problem with the West or their other neighbors, and try to re establish the Chinese empire from 1000 years ago before things started going downhill. God Bless China!

Irfan Alam
August 7, 2013 at 15:31

The Chinese no value of every cent they invest, it is for this reason that they have managed to outsmart US/India plan of the 'Malacca Dilemma', when they put up close to 200 million dollars in a far flung place like Gwadar. The Chinese  knew every risk and gain that would be forthcoming from this venture. It is abundantly clearly now, that the Chinese do not doubt for a second, the ability of their strategic partners to turn a Tibet from a Balochistan, that they have chosen to play the Karakoram corridor game. As for the baloch separatists and their pipe dreaming backers at Capitol Hill, or whereever else, have to see the sorry spectacle of not only thier plan being upturned, but Pakistan signing a gas deal with Iran, to add salt to their wounds!. Had the Pakistanis been unsure of their ability of teaching the Baloch a Tibetian lesson, they wouldn't have dared to cock a a snoot at Uncle Sam and get away with it. But since this time the Bangladeshi shoe is well on the Kashniri foot!, so the Baloch separatists will have to eat their hearts while Pakistan connects the hinterland of the Gwadar port with its M-8 Motorway, to make the former a port to be reckoned with.

Irfan Alam
August 7, 2013 at 14:48

Pakistanis seem to have favoured, quite rightly so, of following the Tibetian example of tackling with home grown insurgencies, fanned by doubtful financers abroad. In this venture, they seem to have the luck of the Chinese on their side, as the ethnic Pashtuns, in the so called 'troubled', Balochistan, number as many as the Baloch themselves. so the demographic arithmetic, clearly is on the opposing side of the Baluchi separatists. Since this isn't another Bangladesh where Pakistan would have to cart its military all the way across down the Indian peninsula. Things for driving the boot, up the Balochi throat are all the more 'appealing', for the Pakistanis. It is well reflected in their laid back and calibrated response to upping the ante on its eastern front in insurgency ridden Indian Kashmir. It is well and clear, that the Chinese are no fools to invest in a country like Pakistan, if it was so bankrupt and broke as is being projected by sections of media, or shall one say 'misledia'!.

Rana
August 2, 2013 at 17:43

All very well said nature & terrorism will prove to be the biggest hurdle. But don’t discount other complexities that will be set-in motion should China try to turn this dream into reality.

 

Then such diversion of Iranian oil and gas away from India will create complications and fissures for the regional economics of energy in South Asia and the middle-east. China wants to bypass the big oil majors, money bags and the feared military-industrial complex of the West. Baluchistan ultimately holds the key to future Chinese dreams, as an exclusive naval cum trading -transportation hub adjacent to the Gulf states does not bode well for the carefully crafted American geopolitical applecart.   Indian and American security establishments will never appreciate the logic of Gwadar as a gateway for China's western territories and as a conduit of oil and gas pipelines merging into the existing ones from Kazakhstan heading for China proper.

 

The west will not allow a single drop of Iranian oil to flow up-country via the KKH into China in the next 20 years. Once Baluchistan becomes an autonomous entity devoid of any Pakistani influence, then maybe Gwadar can become a feasible option for India’s teaming millions.

All very well said nature & terrorism will prove to be the biggest hurdle. But don’t discount other complexities that will be set-in motion should China try to turn this dream into reality.

 

Then such diversion of Iranian oil and gas away from India will create complications and fissures for the regional economics of energy in South Asia and the middle-east. China wants to bypass the big oil majors, money bags and the feared military-industrial complex of the West. Baluchistan ultimately holds the key to future Chinese dreams, as an exclusive naval cum trading -transportation hub adjacent to the Gulf states does not bode well for the carefully crafted American geopolitical applecart.   Indian and American security establishments will never appreciate the logic of Gwadar as a gateway for China's western territories and as a conduit of oil and gas pipelines merging into the existing ones from Kazakhstan heading for China proper.

 

The west will not allow a single drop of Iranian oil to flow up-country via the KKH into China in the next 20 years. Once Baluchistan becomes an autonomous entity devoid of any Pakistani influence, then maybe Gwadar can become a feasible option for India’s teaming millions.

BLOCKED
July 31, 2013 at 13:25

lol dont fool yourselves, Chinese and Indians are not friends….to anyone.

Anand
July 31, 2013 at 09:30

Part of the Karakoram Highway was built in Chinese occupied Kashmir.

Baloch Guo
July 31, 2013 at 01:53

Pakistan prime minister and Chian Li Keqiang China Priminister held each other hands and sang together during the last meeting : " Our relationship is higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey” .“the tree of China-Pakistan friendship is now exuberant with abundant fruits"

Both the primisters gasp for air as their excitement reached higher than Himalaya or deeper than oceans.

For all the sweet talk, China hasn’t proved willing to play sugar daddy. Since 2005, China invested approximately $3.2 billion into Pakistan. Trade is also value a $10 billion in 2010.

Indeed,for a self-proclaimed biger brother, China had seemed odly unconcerned about Pakistan. In 2010, as Pakistan battled with the worst floods in living memory, our intimacy Chinese brother promised $1.5 million for relief – less even to the $4.4 million it gace to earthquake ravage Haiti and in a stark contrast to the $55 million the "SATAN" United States commited.

Bill888
February 28, 2014 at 02:03

Just google the relief effort from China for the 2010, one can see you just lied to the world without same. China had provided more relief than any country in the world.

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