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Karakoram Highway: China’s Treacherous Pakistan Corridor

China’s use of Pakistan’s Gwadar port depends on the rugged, unreliable Karakorum Highway.

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

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.

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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.

wash-out-bridges-stranding-freightBut the continued existence of the KKH remains tenuous. On January 4, 2010, an earthquake shook loose a mountainside next to the highway, which tumbled onto the road and dammed the Hunza River, 100 kilometers from the Chinese border. Half a year later the newly formed, 100-meter deep Attabad Lake had inundated 27 kilometers of highway, cutting off 30,000 Pakistanis in remote villages leading up to China and all but halting the transport of goods in either direction. Cargo transport was bottlenecked at either side of the lake for months, with massive trucks forced on to rickety barges for the protracted crossing. During wintertime, the Khunjerab Pass to China closes due to heavy snow. Ice flows on the lake provide a new natural impediment to transportation.

In late 2010, a Chinese company was chosen to restore this section of the highway in a contract worth US$275 million. The Pakistani National Highways Administration estimated the repairs would be completed in two years. When former Prime Minister Pervez Ashraf finally broke ground on the project almost two years later, new estimates predicted a road link bypassing the lake would be complete by the end of 2014.

The big worry for China is that the earthquake and subsequent landslide that created Attabad Lake is not an isolated incident. The KKH winds through a tangle of high peaks where the three highest mountain chains in the world – the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas – meet. The region is webbed with fault lines, making seismic activity a frequent and deadily reality. The epicenter of the 1974 Hunza earthquake that killed over 5,000 people was located less than 10 kilometers from the highway. In 2005, the Kashmir earthquake killed over 100,000 people; its epicenter was only a few dozen kilometers from the highway. These earthquakes demolished infrastructure and blocked parts of the highway for weeks at a time.

Landslides are also common occurrence even without the precipitating effect of earthquake tremors, and the road is regularly obstructed by boulders and rubble. Since much of the KKH is narrow, even a small landslide will immobilize traffic in both directions until the debris can be cleared.

Floods are another natural hazard plaguing the highway. Glacial runoff during the summer will wash out bridges, stranding freight and passenger traffic occasionally for more than a month at a time.

Other infrastructure is destroyed by coursing runoff as well: floods in 2010 severely damaged Chinese-built hydroelectric facilities and swept away transmission towers and power lines. Access to power in the northern regions is now tenuous in the best of times. In the winter, grid electricity may be unavailable for days to weeks on end as crippled hydroelectric facilities struggle to cope with lower rivers and heating demands. Often, electricity is rationed to the largest cities for a couple of hours in the evening.

The perceived lack of response to these frequent disasters has resulted in protest blockades by unhappy local residents. Protesting via roadblock remains the most expedient way for locals to have their demands heard. In June, a town blockaded the highway after their water supply was shut off by striking workers. These protests are often backed by local jirgas, assemblies of elders who command significant respect in the community. Any heavy-handed move to sweep human blockades aside is asking for trouble. Demonstrations are not limited to disgruntled residents. In May, the district governments of Gilgit and Diamer blocked the highway to protest a change in national governance structure they felt would hurt the government’s ability to hold on to neighboring Kashmir.

F0WjXo8In other words, Chinese project managers will not only have to grapple with natural disasters but also with the fallout of inept local response.

However, local irascibility is largely benign when compared with escalating sectarian violence in the region. Gilgit-Baltistan, the last Pakistani administrative district on the way to China, is the only region in the country that hosts a Shia majority. For decades now Pakistani Shias, facing persecution, have fled to remote mountainous areas of the country. These areas were rendered accessible when the KKH was completed in 1979. That same year, the Iranian Revolution ignited sectarian violence across Pakistan, and Shias in Pakistan’s northern mountains have been under attack ever since. In two separate incidents in 2012, militants forced 47 Shia Muslims off buses and executed them on the side of the Karakoram Highway.

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Chinese projects in the mountains are well-guarded. They even have their own security detail: the Karakoram Security Force, which was incorporated into the regular police force  earlier this year. Project officials are escorted around by a phalanx of armed guards and photos are forbidden. Still, China enjoys remarkable popularity throughout Pakistan: 90% of Pakistanis view the country favorably by some measures – and this popularity is even more pronounced in the north where so much infrastructure is Chinese-built. Ask most people in the north about China and you will get an enthusiastic “China zindabad!’ in response.

Recent developments have caused concern, however. On June 23, a faction of the Taliban stormed into the Nanga Parbat base camp and shot dead 10 foreign climbers. The KKH runs alongside the mountain, the ninth highest in the world. This was the first such attack on foreigners in an area of the country popular with tourists and widely considered safe to travel. Beijing was clearly perturbed that three of the climbers killed were Chinese, and called on Pakistan to safeguard Chinese citizens in the country.

F0WjXo8Realistically, with an approval rating as high as it is already, China can do little more to ingratiate itself with Pakistanis. Building badly needed infrastructure in the north is sure to keep residents happy and the highway blockade-free. And if Pakistan does its part to reign in random acts of violence, sectarian or otherwise, Chinese engineers need only to manage the implacable crush of nature, something they certainly have experience with.

But these are big “ifs”. Deep in a rugged knot of the highest mountains in the world, nature is volatile and the same can be said for militants operating in the region.

Any grand Chinese plan for Gwadar Port will undoubtedly play out in the long term. As a short-term trading post, though, the key to its success lies among the formidable and unpredictable tangle of mountains on the other side of the country.