Pak-China road via PoK part of string of pearls strategy?

New Delhi


Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, during his visit to China, inked a slew of agreements aimed at boosting his country's sagging economy, including two major ones - a 2,000 km transport link to connect Kashgar in northwestern China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar and an 820 km-fibre optic link from the Chinese border in Xinjiang to Rawalpindi -- both of which could have strategic implications for India.

Sharif, whose maiden trip abroad after his swearing-in coincided with that of Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony to Beijing, has described Pakistan-China ties in effusive terms - as "higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the deepest sea in the world and sweeter than honey".

The $18 billion China-Pakistan economic corridor, which Sharif has described as a "game changer for Pakistan", would also involve a 200 km-long tunnel through Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Both countries are to set up a task force to ensure the project is completed on a fast-track basis in the next five years, Sharif has said.

A state-run Chinese company was in February given control of the strategic Gwadar port, providing it access to the Arabian Sea and also the Strait of Hormuz through which a third of the world's oil is transported.

The road and rail network from Kashgar to Gwadar port will route Chinese goods destined for the Middle East and other global destinations from Urumqi through Gwadar. It is also touted as a short cut for Chinese imports of Middle Eastern oil.

Chinese firm Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd is to build the fibre-optic link to Rawalpindi over the next three years. Of the $44 million cost, 85 percent is to come from Beijing and the rest from Islamabad. It will take three years to complete.

The fact that the transport corridor passes through Pakistani Kashmir has its own inference - that "Beijing has road-rolled India's claim to PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), a de facto acceptance of the Pakistan position on the region", strategic analyst Commodore (Retd) C. Uday Bhaskar told IANS.

"And furthermore - when operational, this will make China an Indian Ocean power, which has huge maritime implications...China effectively trumps geography," Bhaskar, distinguished fellow at the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), said.

On the fibre optic link, he said the move was "again, potentially very significant for China's overall cyber capability. It can now place India in a cyber-pincer".

"And all this when Antony is in Beijing... Is it part of China's strategic chutzpah?" Bhaskar wondered.

According to an article in The Express Tribune of Pakistan, the transport corridor is "part of China's 'Strings of Pearl' strategic initiative, under which the economic giant wants to secure maritime centres in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Somalia. The plan highlights China's growing influence on the region's ports and airfields".

Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony's visit was marred by provocative comments by a top Chinese military commander who cautioned India not to "provoke new problems and increase military deployments at the border area and stir up new trouble". India had taken up the comments by Major General Luo, the deputy-director general of the World Military Research department at a PLA academy, with Beijing and was told it was "not reflective" of the official view. - IANS