To Beijing, Pakistan looks a lot like a corridor from the high plateau of China’s western reaches to the blue water ports of the Arabian Sea and thus access to shipping routes to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The distance is relatively short, less than 1,500 kilometers as the crow flies, but at the northern end the terrain is difficult, the weather harsh, borders unsettled and security uncertain. Road and rail links are patchy, particularly north of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. Nor is there yet a motorway connecting the capital to the southern port city of Karachi, let alone to Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman close to the border with Iran and where China is developing a deep-water port and naval base. That is why additional Chinese investment in Pakistan’s N-35 highway, the Karakoram Highway, may prove to be the most significant of the deals announced during Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to the country.
The highway (left) links Hasan Abdal, on the Peshwar-Rawlpindi motorway in the northern Punjab some 40 kilometers west of Islamabad, to Kashgar in Xinjiang via the Khunjerab Pass. Started in 1959 and not completed until 1986, the road snakes for 1,300 kilometers (two-thirds of it in Pakistan) over some of the highest paved road in the world. It makes for a stunningly beautiful trip across the Karakoram mountains along one of the branches of the Old Silk Road, but it is less splendid as a commercial artery. It is mainly two lanes and impassable for parts of the year because of either winter snows or summer monsoon; the border crossing is closed for a third of the year.
The two countries agreed in 2006 to to triple its width and upgrade it so it can take heavy trucks in all weathers. The long-term plans call for the Karakoram Highway to be linked to Gwadar by rail; Chinese investment is funding a rail connection from the port to Rawalpindi. Separately, a feasibility study is underway for the rail link to go all the way through to Kashgar, following the Karakoram Highway from Havelian, a town on the N-35 at the northern edge of Pakistan’s existing rail network. At Kashgar, it would connect to the Chinese rail network at its most westerly point.
There are also plans to run a parallel oil pipeline from Gwadar into Xinjiang. Before then trucks carrying natural gas bound for western China may be rumbling up the roads of the Indus valley, the first part of their journey being on the $200 million coastal highway between Gwadar and Karachi that Beijing is paying to build. Gwadar will also be a terminal for the proposed natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, intended originally to give Central Asian states access to European markets without going through Russia, but now seemingly another of the web of links connecting Central Asia’s natural resources with western China.
There are geo-political reasons beyond the purely commercial for Beijing’s relationship with Islamabad, reflected in the other deals struck during Wen’s visit and in the delicate dance China is engaged in with India. It also gives Pakistan an alternative to its uneasy relationship with the U.S. and thus Beijing another front to its own complicated relationship with Washington. But if Pakistan is to be an energy pipeline for China, it also underlines Beijing’s obsession about separatistism in its western reaches.