Interview: Peter Frankopan

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Interview: Peter Frankopan

The Oxford historian on China-Pakistan relations, the Silk Road, and implications for India.

Interview: Peter Frankopan

Dr. Peter Frankopan is a prominent historian at Oxford University and author of the book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. In December 2015, The Silk Roads was named The Daily Telegraph’s History Book of the Year 2015. Dr. Frankopan has also written frequently for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian.

He recently spoke with The Diplomat’s Muhammad Akbar Notezai about the nature of China’s relations with Pakistan and India, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Gwadar port project.

The Diplomat: What is your opinion on the state of China-Pakistan relations today?

Dr. Frankopan: This is a period where relations between China and Pakistan are extremely positive. There are many areas of mutual interest to both countries, and clear evidence of ways in which China and Pakistan have proved willing to co-operate and work together – including energy provision, national security, and of course, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)

Why are the Chinese so interested in heavily investing in Pakistan?

It is important to underline that China is not only interested in investing heavily in Pakistan: the proposed investments are part of a much wider picture and part of a large plan to upgrade infrastructure across the whole of the Silk Roads – part of what China calls the One Belt, One Road initiative. This promises to see roads, high-speed trainlines, 3G and 4G mobile networks as well as power plants, schools, and airports mushroom up across a large part of Asia.

The investment into Pakistan has three purposes. First, to boost the social and economic development of Pakistan, which will be good for the country and make Pakistan a good, stable neighbor for the long-term; second, to win support within Pakistan for China and its own ambitions for the future – a future where it is important to have deep friendships with other nations and with key decision makers; and third, to help China’s own progression and growth. Although it is this third issue which is the most important, all three are significant motivations.

What are the challenges of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor?

There are lots of answers to that question. One is about who will actually benefit from the Corridor – and how. Like with all ideas and like with all business deals, getting the details right is crucial. Working out what the benefits and what the real costs will be is vital. Most attention is focused on the costs and the process of building the infrastructure that has been proposed – roads, train lines and so on. But one very obvious simple example is to ask about the environmental costs that will inevitably come if Chinese goods start moving across Pakistan in large volume. How does one project what the rise in emissions will be – and what impact will they have on local communities, as well as more broadly? What costs will there be, financial, social, and moral, to the emergence of long-distance trunk roads – where we can see the impact these have had in South America and Africa?

But then there are much bigger and more complex questions too. First, of course, is how does Pakistan handle a powerful neighbor who has invested lots of money, has its own interests to protect, and will inevitably have its own views and preferences about what decisions are made in Islamabad? But to my mind, there are two issues that are even more important. As all cricketers are taught, you must keep your eye on the ball. In the case of CPEC, it is certain that this will have significant implications for Pakistan’s relations with India, and that it will potentially destabilize the situation in Kashmir. Those need to be thought through very carefully at the outset.

Can the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor improve Pakistan’s economy and restore stability?

Yes. Whatever our religious convictions, whatever our political views, and whatever our favorite issues are, we all recognize that arguments won through elegant argument are better than those won by force: tolerance is the best way to gain respect – to have the grace to recognize the merits of other people’s views without agreeing with them, and the self-confidence not to be threatened by differing opinions. Tolerance of course goes hand in hand with peace, and peace is in turn the key ingredient for prosperity. Those who seek to destabilize do so in the knowledge that their own positions will become untenable and that they thrive when people fear the worst, rather than hope for the best. If people in Pakistan can see that things are getting better, that their children will grow up in a world that is becoming more fair and more open, that those who work hard and do well reach the top, then Pakistan will have much to look forward to.

What do you think are the Chinese planning for the Gwadar port project?

It is clear that China has very ambitious plans indeed for Gwadar. If all goes according to plan, this will be China’s Shanghai in the west – a trade emporium par excellence that connects the country with markets in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. It will be interesting to see how things develop, because a long-term lease has been granted; at some point China will either need to renew this lease, or will walk away and start degrading its facilities and expenditure and perhaps looking elsewhere for options – to India, for example, or Iran. So Pakistan needs to play its cards right and to anticipate this question, rather than have to react to it.

In your opinion, how concerned is China about the security situation in Balochistan Province where the Gwadar port is situated?

No one likes to have their engineers attacked or kidnapped. It reflects poorly on the home country that security is so lax. The Chinese have taken great pride for millennia in ensuring that roads in their country are safe – texts written two thousand years ago attest to steps being taken to ensure travel for all, foreigner and local alike, was easy and reliable. These are difficult times in Pakistan because lawlessness and anarchy spread like cancer – it does not take much for today’s problems in Balochistan (and other regions too) to spill into ‘safe’ provinces and towns. Maintaining order is not just vital for China; it is vital for Pakistan too.

What are Iran’s and India’s concerns over the development of the Gwadar port project?

These are still early days and what happens with Gwadar is still very much up in the air. But there is no surprise, I think, that Iran and India are watching with interest. On the one hand, Gwadar presents a threat to both; on the other, it also presents a model that might also work for each – or both. There is everything to play for.

What are the likely implications of India-China relations on the China-Pakistan relationship? For China, is it possible to maintain a balance between India and Pakistan and not tilt toward the later, given the history of India-China relations?

The triangle is complex. It should be in everyone’s interests to work and develop together. Economic growth in China, Pakistan, and India is of course ideal for all concerned. Likewise, the improvement in tolerances across all countries is something not only positive within each country, but for the whole region.

Unfortunately, however, things are complicated by rivalries, animosities – and by history. The key problem revolves around Kashmir. Although it might not seem so in either India or Pakistan, there is a stalemate in Kashmir that almost works for everyone: a situation where no one can win, but everyone can complain.

That balance might well now change because of China’s more extensive involvement – both direct and indirect. Although there are many signs that India and China have a much more constructive relationship than they have had in the past, the default position is to eye each other up with some suspicion. Working together does not come naturally to either, but considerable efforts have gone in on both sides to try to make relations work.

But if China invests as heavily in the CPEC as it promises to do, then many balances may change – between Pakistan and India, but also between India and China. As a historian, I am not fond of volatility as I know that such periods can encourage politicians to make bad decisions.