China’s proposed $58 billion railway project aimed at connecting Pakistan’s port of Gwadar to Kashgar in Western China is set to revolutionize trade and geopolitics in the region and beyond. The project is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has been welcomed by both countries for its potential to strengthen their bilateral relations and wider impact.
A Chinese government-commissioned feasibility study has determined that despite the project’s massive price tag, the investment is “worth it” and “should proceed because of its strategic significance.” Analysts from the state-owned China Railway First Survey and Design Institute Group Co Ltd who were involved in the feasibility study of the project have said that the plan has the potential to open up a new chapter in regional economic integration. “The government and financial institutions [in China] should provide strong support, increase coordination and collaboration among relevant domestic departments, strive for the injection of support funds and provide strong policy support and guarantees for the construction of this project,” the Chinese team of analysts said.
China’s western regions would be connected to the Arabian Sea via the 3,000-km Pakistan-China railway, bypassing the Strait of Malacca and relieving its South China Sea dependency. Moreover, “connections with other transport networks i.e., in Iran and Turkey, would also provide a more direct route to Europe for Chinese goods, while Pakistan is forecast to get a much-needed boost from the improved infrastructure and easier trade with China,” said the report.
It is too early to say when this project might begin, but the fact that it is being discussed shows China’s trust in Pakistan. Moreover, it is a clear indication of the strong ties between the two countries and negates any view that China may not be interested in making more investments in Pakistan due to political and security concerns.
The relationship between China and Pakistan is set to be taken to a new level with the proposed rail project, which will have a major effect on Balochistan’s development and stability. This is a visibly important milestone for both countries as it marks a new chapter in their diplomatic and economic ties.
Policymakers in Islamabad are thrilled over the prospect of ties with Beijing being revolutionized. According to a government official who requested anonymity, Pakistan has long felt that China’s economic rise holds great potential for it to benefit further. “The news about the $58-billion rail project should make Pakistani policymakers happy,” the official said, adding that the plan “is exactly what Pakistan seeks from its partnership with China to boost its economy as well as transform its strategic partnership with Beijing.”
A massive project that could open up more direct trade routes between Pakistan and its neighbors comes amid reports that Islamabad is looking to deepen bilateral relations with China. The Washington Post recently published a set of memos that shed light on the policy choices of different countries over war in Ukraine. The published documents also purportedly contained a memo from Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar in which she argued that Islamabad can “no longer try to maintain a middle ground between China and the United States.” The memo, titled “Pakistan’s Difficult Choices,” warns Islamabad against appearing to appease the West. According to the memo, Pakistan’s instinct to preserve its relationship with the United States could ultimately result in the sacrifice of its “real strategic” partnership with China.
Besides highlighting the impact of the rail project, the study raised some concerns about Pakistan’s ability to contribute effectively to its implementation. “Due to energy shortages, poor investment environment, and fiscal deficits, Pakistan’s economic growth rate has come under pressure,” the study noted.
“In terms of railway investment and construction, Pakistan is unable to provide sufficient financial and material support and mainly relies on Chinese enterprises for investment and construction,” it said. Moreover, the project also needs supporting infrastructure such as ports and logistics facilities, “that might not be immediately available in Pakistan,” the study noted.
The feasibility study conducted by the Chinese government indicates that the project could certainly lead to increased economic, political and security cooperation, as well as greater access to resources and markets for both countries. To reap the full benefits of the project, Islamabad urgently needs to improve its troubled economy, political situation, and deteriorating infrastructure.
The onus is on Pakistan to do enough to generate Chinese interest further to make the project a reality.