Historian Daniel Headrick made the crucial connection between means and ends in the projection of global influence. For instance, Headrick argued that the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, acted a tool of empire for the great powers of the nineteenth century. The building of a canal through the Sinai Peninsula not only made trade and empire in Asia faster by avoiding the Cape of Good Hope, but more economical too. This was particularly the case for the world’s superpower, Great Britain. For Britain, the Suez was an important strategic consideration in its imperial outlook, making the transport of goods, officials and soldiers to Bombay and other key colonial hubs easier and affordable. At the same time, the canal aided the wider globalization process of the nineteenth century, which opened Asia up to the advent of Western adventure capitalists with exploitation and domination never far from the surface. The Suez Canal acted as a “tool of empire,” as Headrick put it, and in a small but important way, the world became that much more global—all to the benefit of those Western nations that could harness of the power of the sea.
Headrick’s argument turns on a profound if easily overlooked point: those with easy access to the sea-lanes of the world invariably have the tools for global power and trade. Even today, the laws of economic scale dictate that air and rail, while important in their own right, will always be poor cousins to the efficiency and capacity of container ships and waterborne trade.
Despite the fact that the free trade zone port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan has been an unprofitable enterprise with operational control now in Chinese hands, its potential remains. If anything, the development of the deep ocean port and an associated international airport, as well as the creation of a transport corridor connecting Gwadar to China’s easternmost province of Xinjiang, is a game changer for the Central Asian region. In Beijing this February, President Mamnoon Hussain and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a series of agreements designed to breathe life to the corridor project. In the coming years, the once sleepy fishing enclave of Gwadar will become a staging ground for the geopolitical reorganization of the region.
With the development of the corridor, Central Asia, traditionally an economically closed region owing to its geography and lack of infrastructure, will have greater access to the sea and to the global trade network. For Afghanistan and Tajikistan, both of which have signed transit agreements with Pakistan, it will provide a more economical means of transporting goods, making their export products more competitive globally. For China, meanwhile, the corridor will provide it with direct access to the Indian Ocean, enabling China to project itself strategically into the mineral and oil rich regions of Western Asia and Africa (and beyond). And for Pakistan, the project provides the country not only a third deep-sea port but also a better connected gateway into China’s backyard, giving Pakistan the potential to make good on its free trade agreement with the dragon economy.
In purely realist terms, the project makes Pakistan a complicit satellite in China’s attempt to break the U.S. encirclement of Asia. Commentators link Gwadar to China’s numerous other port facilities and corridors developed in partnership with other nations. This “String of Pearls” looks much like a noose around Southeastern Asia as far as India and the United States are concerned. India in particular has looked on with continued unease at the Pakistan-China corridor and port in terms of its effect on the maritime balance of power in the Indian Ocean. Ideally, if regional relations were better, the corridor would be a circuit linking the three economic powerhouses of the region, China, Pakistan, and India (as well as Iran for that matter), integrating the economic systems of South Asia and Central Asia.
Nevertheless, the corridor will play a crucial role in advancing Pakistan’s economic power. Exporting, transiting, and transporting goods into and out of Central Asia and carrying them away on the current of the world’s sea lanes, the Pakistan-China corridor will be a vital factor in Pakistan’s economic future. The corridor is best thought of as a comprehensive infrastructure package encompassing a wide range of spinoffs, including gas and oil pipelines, railways, an expressway from Karachi to Lahore, fiber-optic cabling, metro bus and underground services for key Pakistani cities. One could even link China’s financial assistance in the development of nuclear power plants in Pakistan to the wider picture.
However, it is the same circular argument. The security situation must improve and reform, both economic and social, is required if the future economic prosperity of Pakistan is to be guaranteed. Whether Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) have the technocratic and entrepreneurial acumen to develop a bold economic strategy out of the corridor is unclear. For Sharif, the PML-N, and many of Pakistan’s ruling elites for that matter, there is a tendency to think purely in terms of developing heavy industries, of state owned enterprises, and of “guns over butter” (case in point: Pakistan has nuclear weapons but has still to achieve a reliable source of power). This populist approach to the political economy is based on a desire to maintain a military-industrial complex capable of competing against India, the chief rival in the region.
In reality, agriculture, chemicals, textiles, and various other manufactured items are the stuff of Pakistan’s true productivity—items that are tradable on the global market and capable of boosting national income. Pakistan has always been well placed to export given its access to the Indian Ocean and proximity to key markets in the West and East, to say nothing of its international reach through the Pakistani diaspora and the fact that it has the third largest English-speaking population in the world. Despite government absenteeism—that reoccurring failure within the political sphere to respond to the Taliban and to the reactionaries that routinely thwart Pakistan’s potential—as well as rampant inflation and a serious lack of currency reserves, Pakistan’s private sector has proven resilient, capable of going in for global trade with the right encouragement. The cue is now for the Pakistani government and the business community to formulate a more global economic policy.
As it stands, the failure to fully capitalize on the free trade agreement between China and Pakistan demonstrates the need for a major policy effort to make the most of the corridor. For one, the Pakistani government needs to place greater emphasis on trade relations in its overall foreign policy as well as foster the exporting aspirations of small and midsize companies. Expansive economic policy, continued liberal reform, and, above all, an improved security situation are the formula needed to make full use of the tools of globalization which Pakistan will soon have at its disposal.
Christopher Ernest Barber is a doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland, specializing in the history of international arbitration and the development of globalization, commerce, and trade.