Almost 30 heads of state will gather in Beijing this weekend for the “Belt and Road” Forum, the annual conference about the Chinese mega-project to build highways and railroads to the farthest parts of the Eurasian land mass. By some measures, it’s China’s biggest diplomatic event of the year. But the United States and many of its allies will send junior delegations — and India will be conspicuously absent. This reflects caution, if not outright apprehension, about the overall Belt and Road Initiative, and in particular the $50 billion “flagship” portion called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC.
While CPEC reveals China’s model for geopolitical influence, U.S. policymakers need not overreact nor feel compelled to counter it. There are essentially two possible outcomes: success or failure. Either could advance or create opportunities for the United States.
The apprehension turns on worries that CPEC may increase support of Pakistan’s civil nuclear program, help China expand its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and generally undermine south Asian stability by emboldening Islamabad to aggressive behavior or even fostering a “quiet cold war” in India-China relations.
Another concern is that CPEC may provide cover for building up Pakistan’s dual-use seaport of Gwadar to support Chinese naval operations. Yet astute analysts point out that China remains a long way from fulfilling such power-projection ambitions, and that its lines of communication to the Indian Ocean can be held at risk by the U.S. and Indian navies. Moreover, a base at Gwadar would not solve China’s Strait of Malacca dilemma, as it remains vulnerable to a blockade or land chokepoints that could be threatened; facilitate much in the way of anti-access and area-denial efforts; nor allow the stalking of Indian second-strike nuclear submarines.
But if CPEC succeeds — that is, helps Pakistan meet its energy, commerce, and economic growth projections — the resulting prosperity will help Islamabad face challenges such as a youth bulge, climate change, unemployment, radicalization, and the need to upgrade social services. It will also show, for the first time in a country that associates better economic stewardship with military dictatorship, that serious economic growth can happen under civilian leaders. All this would increase Pakistan’s stability, increasing in turn the prospects for a stable region, a core U.S. interest.
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